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    Babel, or the Beauty of Multilingualism

    Emerald Ace-Acquah reflects on the complexities of language, colonisation, and power, as explored in R. F. Kuang's new novel.

    My mum speaks Ga, Twi, Fante, Dangbe, French, Spanish and English. 

    My dad speaks Twi, Fante, Ga, Ewe and English.

    I speak English and Spanish (getting worse by the day).*

    My name is Emerald Ace-Acquah, and I am a walking inferiority complex.

    This feeling is amplified by ten in regards to the languages of my heritage—being unable to speak them feels like a connection to my identity has been severed. I often think about whether my kids will feel equally untethered and whether there’s anything I can do to prevent it.  

    Somehow, Babel captured this feeling, and highlighted it but didn’t berate me for it. Babel unashamedly expresses the beauty and intricacy of language, the impossibility of translation and yet the honour of its pursuit. 

    R.F. Kuang gives a multitude of examples of how translation brings to light different insights in other languages, particularly in Chinese** and I found this fascinating and enriching. (I urge anyone with Chinese heritage to read it—I would be honoured to be represented like this in such a wonderful book). But I will provide an example from

    Twi touched my heart and made me realise how much I had underestimated my own culture.

    In Twi, the phrase ‘odo yewu’ is an endearment that people use similarly to ‘my love’ or ‘my dear’. I heard it in lots of songs but could never quite figure out what it meant. When I asked my mum, she told me that ‘odo yewu’ means ‘love is death’. The fact that my Twi*** ancestors appreciated the depth and strength of love enough to acknowledge it and use it as a term of endearment is equivalent to some of Shakespeare’s best turns of phrase to me. 

    I never saw Twi as romantic and I never gave it the credit it deserved. Just knowing the translation of that one phrase gave me a window into my own language and culture that I had been missing my whole life. But the resounding message, to me, is that there is so much more that I’m missing.

    In Babel, multilingualism is a magical ability that gives you a portal into another world. However, it doesn’t work with just head knowledge. You have to understand the language in your heart, or maybe feel it in your soul. The language has to come alive to you. Babel juxtaposes two Chinese boys: one who left China when he was too young for Cantonese to fully come alive, and one who ‘lived’ in Cantonese before he lived in English. Throughout the book, the yearning and anguish of the former brother—who had been deprived of magic—resonated sharply with me. 

    In fact, I hadn’t realised how bereft I felt until I read this book. Babel brought to light truths about myself that I was never fully comfortable admitting. 

    Given that I’m a linguistics student, maybe this feeling is more severe for me than for the average person who thinks of language as just a form of conversation. But honestly, part of the reason I even chose to do a whole degree in languages was to unravel this insecurity inside me. I thought I could appease my inferiority complex about not knowing my own languages, by learning more about all of them—it didn’t work.

    Now, I don’t want to sell Babel short—it’s about much more than these things. It tackles colonialism and the horrors that the British empire perpetuated In China, it tackles the class divide in Britain in the nineteenth century and its ramifications. It even discusses the wonder and delight of being in Oxford underpinned by the struggle of never really fitting in as a person of colour (and as a woman in the nineteenth century). It tackles white fragility. It tackles the cognitive dissonance that is necessary to perpetuate horrors and violence across the world without remorse. It tackles the tension of being a ‘model minority’ and knowing the rest of your people suffer a much different fate. It spans a multitude of genres and sophisticatedly manoeuvres between humourous, informative, action-packed and sorrowful passages. 

    Without giving criminal spoilers or writing a full-on 10-thousand-word thesis, this article is my attempt to transmit to you why Babel had such an impression on me. I hope it worked. 

    Babel is a masterpiece and I would encourage almost everyone to read it.

    *Full disclosure: I used to be able to speak conversational-ish French and I can understand Ga and sort of understand Twi, but realistically I couldn’t get by in any of these languages. 

    ** I actually don’t have Twi ancestors, but I have Fante ancestors which is close enough. They are very similar languages and the tribes probably originated from the same parent tribe.  

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