R.F. Kuang’s Babel (2022) tells the story of Robin Swift, a Cantonese child who is spirited off to England at age 11 by Professor Lovell, who gives him a rigorous education in classical Greek and Latin and sends him off to Oxford to study translation. Robin makes friends with his classmates: Ramy, from Calcutta; Victoire, from Haiti; and Letty, from England. All four of them face discrimination: the boys and Victoire for their skin tone, and the girls for their gender. The story is about colonialism and empire, and its set dressing is linguistics. The translation institute at Oxford is colloquially known as Babel, and it’s in a literal tower.
The bulk of the novel is set in the 1830s, while Robin is at Oxford. The British Empire, already the dominant imperial power of the 19th century, is expanding its reach, growing poppies in Bengal and trying to force China to buy their opium. Comparative philology is a shiny new field, thanks to Sir William Jones’ realization that you can draw equivalences between Sanskrit and classical Greek and Latin, and philologists have begun reconstructing Proto-Indo-European. There are some who want to reconstruct the Adamic language, claiming that it’s God’s perfect language and all other languages are fallen from grace; some want English to be the Adamic language. All of this is in the book, and all of it is real linguistic history.