Babel: Adventures in Translation

About the exhibition

Babel: Adventures in Translation took visitors beyond the ancient myth of the Tower of Babel and society's quest for a universal language to explore the ubiquity and power of translation in the movement of ideas, stories and cultural practices around the world.

Through a stunning selection of objects ranging from a second century papyrus book and illuminated manuscripts to animal stories, religious books and a bilingual road sign, Babel exploded the notion that translation is merely about word-for-word rendering into another language, or that it is obsolete in the era of global English and Google Translate. Treasures from the Bodleian Libraries' collections, both ancient and modern, illustrated how stories have travelled across time, territory, language and medium.

Highlights on show included:

  • a 4000-year-old bowl inscribed with a language that still resists deciphering
  • an unpublished Tolkien notebook revealing how he experimented with Esperanto before creating his fictional Elvish languages
  • an experimental 1950s computer programme designed to generate love letters

Exploring themes of multiculturalism and identity, the exhibition considered issues that are more relevant than ever as Britain approaches Brexit. It also tackled the tricky question of how to translate for the distant future.

 The curator

  • Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford

 The co-curators

  • Dennis Duncan, writer, translator and Visiting Fellow at St Peter’s College
  • Stephen Harrison, writer, Professor of Latin Literature and Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Corpus Christi College
  • Matthew Reynolds, writer, Professor of English and Comparative Criticism and Fellow and Tutor in English at St Anne’s College

...intriguing and frequently gorgeous.

- The Times Literary Supplement -

a thoughtful exhibition of books, ancient papyri and tablets, and contemporary translation-related ephemera that … attempts to show what translation looks like.

- Apollo -

Gifts & books

A gold horizontal flourish

Babel: Adventures in Translation


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