‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’ is the new exhibition at the Weston Library. ‘Adventures’ may not be a word you usually associate with translation, but when I looked around I was surprised with how interesting I found the different directions the exhibition went in. I found myself considering a topic that usually only makes linguists excited in a completely new light.
The name of the exhibition obviously refers to the well known biblical story, but the same idea can be traced to many different cultural origins. What all of these myths have in common is the idea that our inability to understand everyone’s languages is a curse, and the implications of this ‘curse’ are thoroughly explored in the exhibit. We start by looking back through history, as we have messages from the past that are yet to be decoded because the languages have been forgotten. But the exhibition isn’t just stuck in the past: it also looks to the future with a fascinating section dedicated to the question of nuclear waste. How will we warn generations 1000 years in the future to stay the hell away from the radioactive waste we leave behind when we have no idea what language they will speak? The language puzzles posed to the viewers require expertise and effort to solve, but we live in a country whose foreign language teaching is on the decline. The exhibition points to the need to redouble our efforts.
That isn’t to say all the exhibition does is ask difficult questions, as it does a wonderful job of showing manuscripts owned by the university that trace various different stories of translation. Highlights include the histories of the translations of Homer, Aesop and Harry Potter. Maths, computing and Esperanto also feature when the exhibition takes a look at the different ways people have tried to overcome the ‘curse’ of multilingualism by creating universal languages, some more successfully than others.
This ‘curse’ is also seen as a blessing in the exhibition, as one of the ten cases gets political in its reference to Brexit. Half of the case contains evidence of the current levels of multilingualism in our country, which include Welsh road signs and Arabic doctor’s pamphlets. The other half then shows how this level of diversity is in no way a new condition for our country: the UK has always been a linguistically diverse place. Never has there been a UK united under one language.
I won’t pretend that this isn’t a niche exhibition, but even if you don’t particularly care about translation you will still be able to find something that catches your interest, and I recommend a visit.
‘Babel: Adventures in Translation’ runs until the 2nd of June
Image credit: Weston Library