I hurried to buy and read this book on the recommendation of a well-known translator (well-known to other translators, that is), and I loved it. I’ve nominated it for a Nebula Award.
As the author carefully points out in a note at the beginning of the novel, this is a fantasy based on historical fact. If you’ve heard of the Opium Wars between China and Great Britain, then you know that it was a dismal time in history for the people subjected to imperialism. Meanwhile, back in Britain, the first industrial revolution meant exploitation, deepening poverty, and misery for the working class.
The author is also a translator, like me, and the book’s magic system turns translation into a weapon for imperialism and economic abuse — an unsettling idea, carefully constructed.
Babel follows the life of novice translator Robin Swift (we never learn his real name) as he discovers his place as a cog in the machine that turns his very thoughts into weapons and will cost him his dignity, what little love he is able to find, and the lives of the people he loves until all that remains is the necessity of violence.