Babel (Part 2): The Necessity of Violence

“Part of what the author has documented scholarly throughout this entire fantasy, historical alternative reading of history is the potential that is unleashed or released when terms from different languages are uttered into a space or are inscribed, and sometimes it’s written, inscribed into a space, presented somehow in space and really importantly in time, more or less simultaneously.”

—Stephanie Jo Kent

Transcript of the Reading
Transcript of the Conversation
Show Notes

TW: (Spoilers)

Transcript of the Reading

Then there was nothing to do but wait for the end.

How did one make peace with one’s own death? According to the accounts of the Crito, the Phaedo, and the Apology, Socrates went to his death without distress, with such preternatural calm that he refused multiple entreaties to escape. In fact, he’d been so cheerfully blasé, so convinced that dying was the just thing to do, that he beat his friends over their heads with his reasoning, in that insufferably righteous way of his, even as they burst into tears. Robin had been so struck, upon his first foray into the Greek texts, by Socrates’ utter indifference to his end.

And surely it was better, easier to die with such good cheer; no doubts, no fears, one’s heart at rest. He could, in theory, believe it. Often, he had thought of death as a reprieve. He had not stopped dreaming of it since the day Letty shot Ramy. He entertained himself with ideas of heaven as paradise, of green hills and brilliant skies where he and Ramy could sit and talk and watch an eternal sunset. But such fantasies did not comfort him so much as the idea that all death meant was nothingness, that everything would just stop: the pain, the anguish, the awful, suffocating grief. If nothing else, surely, death meant peace.

Still, facing the moment, he was terrified.

They wound up sitting on the floor in the lobby, taking comfort in the silence of the group, listening to each other breathe. Professor Craft tried, haltingly, to comfort them, surveying her memory for ancient words on this most human of dilemmas. She spoke to them of Seneca’s Troades, of Lucan’s Vulteius, of the martyrdom of Cato and Socrates. She quoted to them Cicero, Fiorace, and Pliny the Elder. Death is nature’s greatest good.

Death is a better state. Death frees the immortal soul. Death is transcendence.

Death is an act of bravery, a glorious act of defiance.

—Rebecca Kuang, Babel: An Arcane History (2022).

Transcript of the Conversation

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Glynis Jones is both a professional and hobbyist language learner, a linguist translator, and teacher by trade. She’s proficient in English, Chinese, and Russian. Glynis, welcome back to the Structures of Interaction podcast.

Glynis Jones:                        Thank you for having me.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           You bet. How are you doing?

Glynis Jones:                        I’m doing all right. A little tired, but mostly good.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Good. Do you want to brag a little bit about the program that you’re accepted into this summer that you’re getting ready to go to?

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. On July 4th, of all days, I’m heading up to my first summer and a four-summer master’s degree program for a Middlebury Language School in Russian. So I already have a master’s degree in Chinese. Figured I should get a master’s degree in my second second language. Yeah, I’m probably going to end up going to some of the career panels up there, which are mostly titled things like Foreign Language Opportunities in the Intelligence Community, —

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Awesome.

Glynis Jones:                        — which for me is going to be anthropology.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           [brief laughter] Someday I want to have a conversation with various folk about what I termed to myself guerilla research. I think officially they call it studying up.

Glynis Jones:                        Mm-hmm.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Anyway, so that’s very exciting for you, congratulations. I hope that it leads to all the great things that you wish.

Glynis Jones:                        Thank you.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           You bet. This is Part 2 of a reading from Babel, and we left off in Part 1 with the first command to translate, which we didn’t identify you as the reader of the Mandarin text there. But then that comes up again several times in this second series, second part in this two-part series. What do you think is happening in that moment? Or maybe we should back up and like set the context a little bit, just an overview. Where are we? What’s going on in this part of the story?

Glynis Jones:                        The important context is probably that I have only read this ending, I have not read the whole story. But from what I understand at the ending, all of our heroes are gathered at this tower, this perhaps Tower of Babel, and are faced with a decision to destroy it in order to protect it. So we’re watching the psychology of what’s happening for them as they’re realizing the reality of that choice.

So it seems like when they are saying the word in Mandarin — fanyi, which means translate, which the author notes has an etymology that literally means to turn over — something is being released from these silver capsules, some incredible force that is contributing to the destruction of the tower.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Right. These silver capsules, I can’t remember the exact term they used for them, they’re like columns or bars that are made from some kind of silver, which might be the regular metallic silver that we think of. But the idea that translation — and it’s paired, so it’s the Mandarin term and the English term together and something about the combination of a meaning being uttered in two languages that have some amount of distance between them.

Sometimes it’s a lot of distance, sometimes it’s not so much. Part of what the author has documented scholarly throughout this entire fantasy, historical alternative reading of history is the potential that is unleashed or released when terms from different languages are uttered into a space or are inscribed, and sometimes it’s written, inscribed into a space, presented somehow in space and really importantly in time, more or less simultaneously.

I love this imagery of turning over, that the release is both, something goes out into the world but also something is given up, it’s let go of. So there’s some power in what’s happening there in terms of language and humans, our communication with each other when we’re using language and languages. And then the symbolism of how she’s written this story, that these — all of them being translators have made this decision. I love the phrase you said, “To destroy the Tower of Babel in order to protect it”.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. Again, not having read the entire book, I don’t have the full context for why they’re needing to protect this. But we get this sense that there’s this impending opposing force that they’re watching for on the horizon; that they do not want this force, meaning perhaps an army of some kind, to get to this tower. To me, what you were talking about with the original word and the translation of the word being like there’s some disconnect between them.

Of course, there’s always going to be an imperfection. The power of the way that that’s harnessed in this fantasy world is almost like nuclear fission. It’s a splitting of a term into its original form and its translated form, which creates this problem, this explosive reaction, which is true in translation.

So that’s something that they as translators are guardians of, stewards of. But it’s a power that can obviously can be destructive. They’re using it to destruct in order to protect. What they’re protecting is not letting that power get into the wrong hands is what it feels like.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Yeah. I love that. I love the atomic level breakdown. I’ve been more and more thinking of it as organic. That, yeah, there is the destructive part, which is when we technologize it, when we try to make it into a systemic structure that’s rigid and locks dynamics in place, and taking that apart has to happen with some destructive force.

But the everyday act of translation, the everyday act of words coming into the world and of us talking with each other, and communicating with each other, and me using a term and you using a term, even if we’re both in English, but just playing back and forth, what does that mean?

“Are you using it the same way I’m using it?” “Oh, no, I was going over here and you’re going over there.” And how do we come to the middle? And then to bring that kind of extra onus of another language in and what its subtle differences are, to me, that’s cellular; that’s at the nuclear level of here are these molecules generating proteins, generating actual life. Life doesn’t come about because of the mixing of things that are exactly the same, life comes about and continues because of the mixing of things that are fundamentally, inherently, essentially different.

So this process of translation is actually so alive. It’s the aliveness that tries to get captured by technology and locked in to a certain pattern. So, yeah, I’m just really taken with how this author has so masterfully collected so many examples of words that are very close but not quite, and played with the potential of those differences in thinking about, wow, if we could just really understand the organic nature.

That’s where I emphasize more interpreting, when we’re actually in time together, going back and forth, as opposed to translating when we’re trying to fix something onto a page or into a certain text. So one of the questions I wanted to ask you relates to the tai chi practice that you and I are both part of.

We’re in a lineage of tai chi that practices the 37-posture simplified form introduced by Cheng Man-Ching to an American audience and the Confucian and Lao Tzu philosophy, I guess, of this balance and this need to maintain equilibrium between the yin and the yang. Is there a way that you see that playing out in this conclusion to this book?

Glynis Jones:                        It’s an interesting question, and especially in light of the discussion we just had about my interpretation of the explosive quality of these columns being like nuclear fission, and then your discussion of the organic quality of life happens because of different things coming together. I was thinking about actually the coming together is almost the magic of nuclear fusion, it’s like the infinite energy.

When it comes to an understanding of yin and yang, yin and yang come originally from the I Ching, from the Lao Tzu. The Lao Tzu talks about Heaven and Earth are the things that control yin and yang. Those are things that are not humane, they’re not benevolent. They have no connection to humanity. They’re not something that begins and ends, or they don’t have birth and death.

So in some sense, from the Taoist point of view, Heaven and Earth are not organic. I mean, they’re not synthetic, they’re not manmade, but they’re separate from life. They are an overarching power that we just have to align ourselves with rather than struggle against. So thinking about that in terms of the context of this ending, it is just how things play out for these heroes, that they just have to align themselves with the Tao.

We hear, I think it’s — I forget exactly which character, maybe Abraham says, like, “I don’t want to die,” and they’re all like, “Yeah, no, we don’t want to die either, but we have to do this.” That is like, “I just have to align myself with the not so benevolent, not so humane pattern of the universe, which doesn’t take my own personal desires into account, that’s just how things go. So that’s the first thing it makes me think of.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           I think I was being even a little more literal in my own — when it occurred to me to make this comparison. But I love the background and the contextualization because you definitely know more about this than I do. I was thinking just of the choice of a nonviolent response by these translators in the face of a physically violent force. I mean, they’re active. It’s not like they’re doing nothing, but it’s a quiet kind of action.

They’ve holed up in this tower and they’ve figured out a way to destroy the tower, which will take them out with it, but which denies the enemy the ability to access and use it, but doesn’t enact physical violence against that enemy, it just removes this tool from their repertoire.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. That way it’s very much like the push hands practice of it, is the yielding, ironically without collapsing, even though they are collapsing the tower. But it is not just giving up and like, “Fine, take it.” It is yielding of like, “Okay. If we can’t protect this, nobody can have it.” That is the yin with the dot of yang.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Yeah. Of course, taking it down there doesn’t mean translation goes out of the world and no longer exists. It just returns it to its decentralized, dispersed, everyday use rather than its centralized use by a particular power.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           I don’t know when it clicked for me, but the cover of the book — I have the hardcover edition — it says “Babel: An Arcane History”. The word arcane is signaling to us that this is a work of not just fiction, but a little bit of fantasy. There’s going to be magic in the telling. The internal cover page, the title page says “Babel: or the Necessity of Violence”. And then it has this whole extended subtitle ” An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.”

So the author has situated the Tower of Babel on the Oxford University campus, which is right in the heart of the British Empire. Those are themes that play out. The historicity of the text is incredible. I mean, it’s very situated in exactly the flows of how history has played out with just this emphasis on the role of translation and an exaggerated bit to reveal its power. But what I really started thinking about is that’s what it comes down to.

I wonder if you would agree, but I’m like, we have two choices — humanity as a society, especially given the times that we’re living in now, and understanding the threat of global warming, and seeing the wreckage begin to come ever and ever closer to our own lives. The smoke from the Canadian wildfires affected New York City and the East Coast. It wasn’t just over there on the West Coast where we don’t live.

Of course, now these things are happening in the United States, not just in South America and the third world, and over there where all those other people live that we don’t invest ourselves with care for their condition. But does it come down to as simple as the Babel, we have to live with the plurality of differences, with the languages, the cultures, all of that, or there will be violence. Is it just that simple? It’s not quite that simple.

But wow, I was like, this is it. She’s encapsulated in the title what, to me, is the essential social dynamic of our time.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. That living in a true, ideal life concept of world peace is not going to be because everybody speaks English and nothing else, that is not going to lead to happy campers. People are going to be very resentful of that, if that is our future. I will be one of them.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Yeah. Then to me, there’s something about the yin and yang in that as well.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. I think if the yang is the active force, sometimes if it’s too much yang, it’s aggressive, it’s violent. If it’s too much yin, it’s just collapsing and giving up. In the world where one language has become dominant and there is no need for translation anymore, then that language and that culture that has taken over is way too yang and it creates a necessity for balance to be restored.

Perhaps the only way for that balance to be restored is a return of excessive yang from “the other side”, the rest of us.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Yeah. But not the equal and opposite kind of reaction. I understand the physics of that, but it’s more like equal and sideways.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah. Well, I think we see the yin and yang symbol as this static two-dimensional object, but I’ve seen people animate it to be like a revolving three-dimensional object. Our Tai teacher, Wolfe, talks about that, of the gyroscope effect in the push hands practice of, it can be any direction.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           One of the directions I want to go soon with the podcast is in this area of activism called Emergent Strategy, which just popped to mind. I heard a phrase in one of their podcasts for the first time yesterday, I had not heard this phrase before. It might be in the book and I don’t remember it, but the phrase was “the six-way tie”. I just understood it as “our interactions in the dynamics we’re woven up in are playing out in these temporal ways as well as these spatial ways.”

And they have that infinite loop that’s always in motion, but there’s places where they connect, and you could call that — they’re tied together at those places where they intersect. Maybe that’s one of the places where interpreting and translation has its most capacity for either harm or for good.

Glynis Jones:                        Yes.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Great. Well, thank you so much for participating with me in a conversation so I could say the things I wanted to say about this book.

Glynis Jones:                        Yeah, no problem. I’m just happy to talk about it because it’s a cool book from a great author.

Stephanie Jo Kent:           Yeah. I encourage everybody to read it. She has a new book out now and she also has a trilogy that’s already been out that is also wonderful. This is R.F Kuang, is the author. You’ve been listening to Structures of Interaction.

Show Notes

This short Reading of an excerpt from RF Kuang’s Babel Or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution (pp. 534-536) was recorded on April 10, 2023. The conversation about Part 2 with Guest Glynis Jones was recorded on June 21, 2023.

Glynis Jones is a language scholar, linguist, translator, and teacher. She is fluent in English, Chinese, and Russian. She works in the realms of theoretical syntax and morphology, translation of Daoist metaphysical texts and Slavic folklore, and second language instruction. Her other interests include taichi, icon painting, and language preservation and revitalization.

Glynis is also a member of the Klingon Language Institute.


Structures of Interaction is produced by Charles Hobby, co-host and producer of “When Will It End?,” an irreverent movie review podcast that explores cinematic universes, with each season of the show focusing on an entire film franchise that Josh and Charles watch from beginning to end.

Original music written and performed by Richard Guild Kent.

Transcript by Esther Wokabi.

Shownotes and Transcript are published at


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