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Babel Stories - The Countdown to WITmas I

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Only three weeks to go until Christmas – oh, the long wait! And even though it’s not quite Christmas yet, it already feels festive; not only because Waitrose is stocked with mince pies and the John Lewis ad is out, but also because, let’s face it, who doesn’t like rushing into that comfy, snowy, Santa-Clausy feeling?

That is why the time has come for three little Christmas posts, one per week, to tide you over. Advent fables, if you will. We trust you’ll be savvy enough to decipher our wordy tales.

Once upon a time, on the much-anticipated (and very rainy) International Translation Day, in the mighty city of Babel (it was in Farringdon really, but humour us), seven elves gathered atop the highest tower of the Free Word Centre London, each with a particular elvish translation issue to discuss. These gatherings were quite common, when it came to urgently preserving universal comprehension throughout the land.

Excitable Eolin-i

The first elf was a young and promising teacher from Gojoseon (although you might now know it as Korea) sent by her king Dangun to resolve a very problematic gender matter. The founder of the land had roped her into telling the legendary tales of one hermaphroditic imugi, a dragon who saved the kingdom from flames but who couldn’t be assigned any gender as we know them. The epicene name of the dragon, Eolin-i, “Child” in English, wasn’t so hard to translate faithfully. But what about the pronouns? The Gojoseon language didn’t bear any, it was easy to refer to someone without mentioning gender.

How should the young teacher be referring to the dragon? “It” was out of the question, for the dragon couldn’t be assimilated to a mere object, a common everyday tool, or a deceitful fictional villain.… Eolin-i had saved the city, for Dangun’s sake! Neutral pronoun “they”, as the other elves suggested, therefore seemed not only the obvious solution, but also a very interesting artistic choice.

The second elf, a philosopher who had dedicated her entire life to studying the Abbasids, had just arrived from far-off sandy lands with a very peculiar issue; she had met a wise, old Egyptian scribe. He wanted her to translate his memoirs to showcase his thinking and experience to all of Babel. The philosopher found herself very challenged, for she had never recounted such important heritage, and was afraid she could get readers lost in translation. To make matters worse, scribes of the Caliphate were known to be extremely knowledgeable and enlightened, and the Arabic languages had ways of transmitting wisdom using highly sophisticated words which were sometimes hard to grasp in (the equally rich) English. Quite the conundrum.

Nonetheless, she was given the serum of confidence and began believing in her skills like never before. The thrilling memoirs, whose final chapter would see the translator herself as the protagonist – at the scribe’s insistence – would later become one of the most read masterpieces in Babel.

That is how, with a flurry of intelligent flair, the first two elves were given solutions to their head-scratching translation dilemmas. But lots were still left to tackle! Open our next figurative advent calendar window for a second tale


By Elise Haja, WIT Project Manager

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