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Tales as old as time: The Tower of Babel and the power of translation

an illustration of the tower of babel

The Bodleian celebrates language and cultures with an illuminating, century-traversing adventure through the art of translation

We all know the story of Cinderella. Having lost both her parents at a young age, she’s forced to live life as a scullery maid who’s constantly at the mercy of her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. That is, until she meets her Fairy Godmother and is transformed into a princess with a dress that shines, a tiara that sparkles, and a pair of glass slippers that, in spite of their glaring impracticality, glisten beautifully.

Much to the dismay of her jealous step-siblings, Cinderella does go to the ball, she does dance with Prince Charming, and she does – eventually – get her happily ever after. We all know the story of Cinderella… or rather we all know that story of Cinderella; the Disney one, which has been staple childhood viewing since it was first released in 1950.

Disney adapted the story from French author Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, which dates back to 1697. The earliest variant of the character, though, is believed to date back to around 7 BC.

Known as the story of Rhodopis, it follows a Greek courtesan whose sandal is snatched by an eagle, carried to Egypt and dropped it into the lap of a king. He takes it as a sign from the heavens, and sets off on a quest to find the owner of said shoe and marry her.

a photo of a scraps of a manuscript

The Hawara Homer (2nd century) © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a photo of a double column page in a book in Latin

The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1375-1425) © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford / By kind permission of Jesus College, Oxford.

a photo of a fragment of stone with ciphers on it

Linear A: an undeciphered script © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

As this exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford demonstrates, stories such as this have been transferred and translated across time, space and media on numerous occasions. Indeed, since the 17th Century more than five hundred iterations of Cinderella’s story have been found in Europe alone, with countless others originating from different lands and cultures throughout history.

Traversing fantasy and fairy tales, the translation of divine texts and the endeavour to create a universal scientific language, Babel: Adventures in Translation contemplates the power of translation from the biblical myth of the Tower of Babel, to the challenges of modern-day multiculturalism in Brexit Britain: reminding us that the British Isles always have been, and still are, multilingual.

“for Tolkien the practise of inventing languages was to become a lifelong occupation”

Ancient treasures – such as a second-century papyrus roll of Homer’s Iliad, a mathematical textbook from ninth-century Byzantium, and a beautiful illuminated manuscript of Aesop’s Fables – are shown alongside contemporary objects such as signage, branding and leaflets that draw on multiple languages to speak to a global audience.

Visitors can appreciate illustrations by French artist Henri Matisse taken from a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in which the artist sketched scenes from Homer’s Odyssey rather than Joyce’s novel as he had not read it. And contemplate the mysteries of an ancient bowl dating back over three thousand years that’s inscribed with a mysterious script still resistant to deciphering.

One particularly rare gem is an unpublished notebook by JRR Tolkien containing a ‘Private Scout Code’, which he created himself at the age of seventeen while studying Esperanto. A foreshadow of future legacy, for Tolkien the practise of inventing languages was to become a lifelong occupation, and of the many he constructed, the Elvish language was his most pronounced.

a notebook with handwritten script in ink

Tolkien’s Book of Foxrook © The Tolkien Trust 1992, 2019

a scrap of a piece of manuscript

The Book of Ezra © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

a piece of paper with drawings of birds and other figures on it

Codex Mendoza (circa. 1541) © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

A master of his craft, Tolkien believed that the invention of an artistic language was as reliant on its linguistic development as it was the history of its speakers. In one of his letters (published as part of a collection in 1981), he wrote: “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows. I should have preferred to write in ‘Elvish’. But, of course, such a work as The Lord of the Rings has been edited and only as much ‘language’ has been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers. (I now find that many would have liked more.) It is to me, anyway, largely an essay in ‘linguistic aesthetic’, as I sometimes say to people who ask me ‘what is it all about’.”

Seen through a typically modern mind-set, the notion of translation is merely about the word-for-word rendering of another language that in an era of global English and Google Translate could be dismissed as being obsolete. But as this new exhibition reveals, translation is great influencer across all cultures and societies; an act of creation and interpretation that has been a part of our daily lives since time began.

Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford, and co-curator of the exhibition says the exhibition “explores the tension between the age-old quest for a universal language, like Latin, Esperanto or global English today, and the fact that communities continue to nurture and retain their own languages and dialects as part of their cultural identity.

“The exhibition illuminates how translation builds bridges between languages and how the borderlands between languages can be fertile ground for resistance, comedy and creativity.”

an illustration and text from the Qur'an

Qur’an © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Babel runs from February 15 – June 2 2019 and will be accompanied by a programme of free talks and events at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, including a Library Late event on March 8, which will be an interactive evening celebrating languages and cultures. For more information, visit: www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/whatson.


Bodleian Library

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…

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