Why Babel Fish?

Babel Fish front cover

I’ve been thinking about this theme of Babel Fish for almost a year now, and it’s never stopped seeming like a broad and suggestive portal for the pieces gathered here. For those who aren’t familiar with Douglas Adams’s 1979 novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (originally conceived as a radio play for the BBC), a babel fish is a universal translator in the form of a small fish that you stick in your ear. While its fish-ness suggests the origin of life itself, the “babel” in its name refers to the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament—the story of how humankind came to speak different languages. In the Bible story, the creation of many different languages from one single, universal language is a punishment, but the concept and codification of difference (first introduced as sin in the Garden of Eden) is also the root of meaning. The thinking life begins with the acknowledgment of difference and the pursuit of significance.

There are many such pursuits in the pages that follow: meditations on language, art, people, and how these interact and disconnect. Like a good fish, we translate: there are nine new translations here from seven different languages. Each, by the nature of its existence, is a defiance of language as an obstacle, the endurance of human experience as a common tongue, and a celebration of English’s vast capacity for inclusion. Love and romance splay, artfully and elusively, across these pages. History, old poems, and dead writers braid forward sinuously into the present. There is so much searching, which is what art can and must do. Here we offer a gift of alternatives to complicate, dismantle, and simplify the status quo. Make peace with uncertainty; the endeavor itself is evidence of purpose. “Without my hope,” writes poet Richard Hoffman in the closing pages of this issue, “I would revel in my ignorance, needing, / like God, to know nothing and would / know it as freedom, without panic, just / the way things are.” But things never just are—they haven’t been since Genesis, or since life first animated in the primordial ooze.

We hope that our Babel Fish sticks in your ear, and with all its many, divergent tongues, speaks to you.




Minna Zallman Proctor has been the editor of The Literary Review since 2008. She is the author of Landslide, True Stories and Do You Hear What I Hear? She is an award-winning translator from Italian; her most recent translation is Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives