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The Bodleian exhibition Babel: Adventures in Translation explores how translation has shaped our lives and ideas, our cultures and stories. Multilingual voices greet visitors at the entrance, reminding them that linguistic diversity is all around us. The exhibition shows that the same holds true for translation – it connects cultures, builds bridges across languages, and enriches how we think, speak and write.

The illustration of the Tower of Babel in Athanasius Kircher’s magnificent book Turris Babel (Amsterdam, 1679) marks the conceptual centre of the exhibition. Construction of the tower is still busily underway, facilitated by a perfect language understood by all – soon to be dissipated in the diversity of languages that characterises the human condition.

Curse or blessing? The exhibition shows translation at work in so many creative ways that the binary question is soon left behind. Yet the precariousness of human communication is a running theme. It emerges from the contrast between a tablet with Linear B, deciphered in 1952, and a bowl with still undeciphered Linear A. The diagrams of mathematics, apparently immune from the vicissitudes of language difference, are seen to have gained their influence only thanks to translators who converted Euclid’s Elements from Greek into Arabic and thence into Latin.

The most challenging reminder of our fragile communication systems comes in a case that simply shows a spade and a radiation warning sign. What language can we use to warn people about nuclear waste many millennia from now? How do we enduringly convey ‘Don’t dig here!’ when Linear A stands as an example of language that has become untranslatable after just 4000 years?

The Babel myth gives us an insight into a biblical world where linguistic globalisation was already on the horizon as a solution to the communication problems that beset multilingual communities. But it doesn’t explain why ‘perfect’ languages such as Esperanto haven’t caught on in the way their inventors had hoped. Exhibits from the heyday of Esperanto show its practical uses, for example in travel guides to ‘Skotlando’. But intriguingly, they also include a notebook in which Tolkien created his own ‘Private Scout Code’ at the age of 17 while studying Esperanto – at the start of an individual journey in language invention that gave us Elvish and stimulated the mythical world of the Lord of the Rings.

The magnificent history of Homer translations shown in the exhibition begins with the exquisite Hawara Homer, consisting of fragments from the second book of the Iliad preserved on papyrus and found in the grave of a young woman. It ends with Christopher Logue’s War Music, drafted over five decades on computer paper with post-it notes, and a recording in which Alice Oswald reads from her intensely moving Memorial. An excavation of the Iliad (2011).

A case exploring animal fables shows traditions emerging in different places and with varying trajectories of transmission. In the West, the ancient Greek stories attributed to Æsop (fourth century BCE) remain well-established favourites, a tradition celebrated by Beatrix Potter in her dedication of The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918) to ‘Æsop in the shadows’. Meanwhile the Eastern tradition built a richly varied history of transmission on the Panchatantra (fourth century BCE), with some 200 versions in 50 languages. The two traditions came together in the seventeenth century, in La Fontaine’s influential Fables (1668).

Fantasy thrives in translation as creative minds rejoice in the freedom to transpose, adapt and reinvent popular tales, modifying settings and plots along with the language. The age-old favourite Cinderella is shown in various versions including Cendrillon by Charles Perrault and the more brutal Aschenputtel by the Brothers Grimm. An English version of Perrault’s tale that keeps close to the French version stands at the beginning of an exuberant tradition of pantomimes, musicals and films – and a beautifully illustrated jazz-age story by Shirley Hughes with an unusual final twist.

Cultural diversity is everywhere in this exhibition, and it is shown to go hand in hand with different approaches to translation. While the ‘Bishop’s Bible’ used in creating the 1611 ‘Authorized’ or ‘King James’ version bears testimony to the legitimacy of translation in Christian transmission of its central sacred text, a magnificent Qur’an establishes the inimitability of the Arabic original asserted by the Islamic tradition. Its beautiful visual design is complemented by the richly musical sound of the Imam of Oxford’s Islamic Centre reciting the verses in a recording.

The biggest case is devoted to ‘Negotiating Multilingual Britain’ – celebrating the past and present contribution of translation to the languages of the British Isles. Welsh Arthurian romance in the iconic Red Book of Hergest – one of the ‘Four Ancient Books of Wales’ – connects with the Anglo-Norman ‘Oxford Roland’, the oldest surviving manuscript of France’s national epic La Chanson de Roland. Medieval surprises include a Cornish trilogy of Mystery Plays with stage directions in Latin that are thought to be the earliest surviving stage directions in the world, and a diagram suggesting that the circular stages of Elizabethan London may have medieval origins.

Exhibits showcasing translation in the modern British Isles include Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, published in 1956 and marking the Windrush moment – translating patois into written form as English in the UK connects with the multitude of Englishes across the globe. Modern Posters of an exhibition involving BSL and a more provocative ‘Urban Sign Language’ complement multilingual health and housing leaflets, a magazine written for the London Japanese community, multilingual foodstuffs and merchandise, and a T-shirt from a local Oxford primary School featuring Urdu as one of the many languages spoken by its children. As UK citizens pursue heated debates about where they belong in Europe and the world, the case shows ‘British’ identity continually on the move – in and through translation.

A key part of the exhibition is engaging with the public and with schools. Natasha Ryan, the Modern Languages Faculty’s enterprising Schools Liaison Officer, has been working with graduates to bring Babel to local schools and encourage their students and teachers to visit the exhibition and explore translation in new ways. A ‘Library Late’ organised in collaboration with the AHRC-funded research programme Creative Multilingualism and the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages attracted a large and diverse audience, who were able to participate in activities from printing to translating Jabberwocky, and experience the ‘Spectacular Translation Machine’ invented by Modern Languages alumna Charlotte Ryland. Currently, schools are being encouraged to take part in a competition with national reach.

Babel explodes the idea that translation is becoming obsolete in the era of global English and Google Translate. It shows how translation is an act of creation and interpretation, and has been part of our daily lives since human beings began to communicate with each other.


Babel: Adventures in Translation
Curated by Dennis Duncan, Stephen Harrison, Katrin Kohl and Matthew Reynolds

Until 2 June 2019
The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
Free admission, no booking required

For the accompanying book, see

A series of lunchtime talks explores ‘The Paradox of Translation’ (Matthew Reynolds, 25 April), ‘Translating Multilingual Britain’ (Katrin Kohl, 8 May) and ‘The life and times of a dying language: the story of Istro-Romanian and its speakers’ (Martin Maiden, 22 May), see

For schools, there is a teacher's guide to Babel, and We also have a Babel competition for schools currently running for years 5 – 13. Pupils can choose between three tasks, with the opportunity to win up to £100: Magical Translation, Fabulous Translation and Futuristic Translation. Deadline for entries: 15 May 2019.