Monthly Archives: June 2012

Babel No More and other books

The myth of Babel, Bellos argues, is not only outmoded but actually harmful. It endorses an idealized picture of all languages descending from a pristine single source, “like a cascade trickling down the mountainside of time, branching out into streams and rivers.” “The supposition of an original common form of speech has been taken to mean that inter-comprehensibility is the ideal of the essential nature of language itself,” which “makes translation a compensatory strategy designed only to cope with a state of affairs that falls short of the ideal.”

This vision of Babel “tells the wrong story,” explains Bellos. What the Bible passage actually reveals is that the ancient Sumerians, with whom the story originated, were already all too familiar with linguistic diversity in 3,000 BC. In this more positive model, translation “comes when some human group has the bright idea that the kids on the next block or the people on the other side of the hill might be worth talking to. Translating is a first step toward civilization.”

Brook Wilensky-Lanford on Babel No More and other books, In Lapham’s Quarterly