Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.” — Babel, R. F. Kuang

From tall, elite observatories to grouchy mentors and end-all-be-all examinations, the use of academia in fictional stories waters worldbuilding. Found across genres from fantasy to Renaissance to poetry, academia as a setting or theme is a timeless trope in storytelling.

On February 18, 2023, authors R. F. Kuang and Vaishnavi Patel sat down with the Trinity College Book Club to discuss elements of academia in their fiction and nuances of bringing their stories to life, and to participate in a short audience question-and-answer session. Moderated by Trinity College students Sarah Mughal and Zeina Seaifan, the panel took place at George Ignatieff Theatre and ran for an hour. It was followed by a book signing.

Patel’s addition to the ever-growing library

Patel’s Kaikeyi is one of thousands of retellings of the Ramayana — an epic first written in Sanskrit. She spoke about how her research for the book started when she was six years old, when she heard the stories of the Ramayana from her grandmother. “So, really, I have been working on this book my entire life,” she said. 

Noting how the story is both an ancient text and an oral tradition, Patel read dozens of translations and did deep research to understand the core of the stories. She spoke about how she had to read not only those translations but also a lot of other readings to reach into the specific details of the stories. “I didn’t want to make alterations without understanding the originals,” she explained. 

Renditions that branched off the epic poem have appeared in many regions of the world, in different languages, by many writers, and with diverse takes on its numerous characters. Patel explains that she was originally familiar with the “dinner table version” of the story but that as she started the research project for her book, she discovered that as Hinduism spread, new versions of the Ramayana showed up. She spoke about, for example, shadow puppet versions of the Ramanaya that are very different — and about how part of her writing process involved discovering the extremely deep and rich tradition of retelling.

The tradition of myth retelling has continued into modernity. From current Greek feminist retellings to plays and more current movie adaptations, myths are the stories that humanity returns to. Consider Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson franchise, Dante’s Inferno in Hozier’s “Unreal Unearth,” the Chinese myth of Chang’e in Over the Moon (2020), and more. The very act of passing down oral traditions is retelling, perhaps with small variants or embellishments. 

One question that arose during the panel was: do people pass down stories to teach about religion or tradition, or are they simply told for personal enjoyment? Kaikeyi was originally just meant for Patel, and maybe her sister. Now, it’s been rated nearly 25,000 times on Goodreads and has been nominated for two awards. 

Kuang and the untranslatable

When asked about the research process for her novel Babel, Kuang said that it was a process of becoming the kind of scholar who could write the book she wanted to write. To create the speculative fiction novel, which surrounds an 1830s Oxford, Kuang drew upon historical handbooks of Oxford, textbooks about public buildings at the time, and personal memoirs from the era. She did what she calls “vocal training.” She spoke about how she read everything that she could in the genre. She said that she did not want to just write about the 1800s, but that she wanted to have a discussion with the era.

Kuang had just started translating professionally — translating Chinese texts to English — when the seedling ideas for Babel took root. Translation is often thought of as progressive, as a method of bringing stories from one party to another. However, it is not that simple. 

Kuang spoke about how she had not spent a lot of time thinking of the process of translation as a form of violence. However, she discussed how there is an act of change, of destroying and recreating in translation. A sentence, a sentiment, a theme, shifts — sometimes ever-so-slightly and other times dramatically — perhaps from just a single word. Kuang tackles this betrayal known as translation in Babel

On ‘dark academia’ 

Babel squarely fits under the subculture of dark academia, a genre focusing on classic — and therefore often white — literature, education and learning, Greek and Gothic architecture, and allusions to the classics. The Harry Potter series brought its own idea of dark academia to the masses, while books such as Donna Tartt’s The Secret History seem to have revived interest in the classics. Think of the film Dead Poets Society (1989) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, which both also embody the subculture. 

There is no way to overstate the deep examination of education and translation Kuang undertakes in Babel. The book’s full title — which is constructed in the style of an academic paper — indicates the importance of academia in the novel. Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, asks questions about cultural and artistic colonialism through both subtle and outright rewriting of narratives. Babel tackles the weight and costs of the “pursuit of knowledge.”

When asked about the fetishization of their respective genres, Kuang vaguely touched on the roots of dark academia. Regarding dark academia’s nostalgia for the past, Kuang asks whose version of the past we escape into when we idealize it. Academia was never welcoming to all. By romanticizing vintage academia, what are we saying about our ideal education system? 

Your greatest passion

Both Patel and Kuang stressed that storytelling works best if you trust yourself. When asked about her main lesson, Patel advised the audience to trust their gut. She told them that they could do their research but that, at the end of the day, it was ultimately important to go with their instincts when writing. Even when faced with criticism, since you can never please everyone, you have to tune it out and trust yourself.

Kuang spoke about how publishing is a very unpredictable industry and how the only consistent thing writers can do is write something for themselves. She advised listeners to write with their greatest passion in mind and that if they did not write what excited them, they would be doing their work a disservice. 

Academic themes and concepts are so close to us students because we find ourselves in the midst of our own ‘bildungsromans’ — moral and psychological coming-of-age stories, typically featuring young adults, sometimes set in college. R. F. Kuang and Vaishnavi Patel have transformed their own journeys in academia into daring and intelligent novels.