The post-modern Babel

Marcos Chiquetto mar 10 2023

In the famous English Bible commissioned by King James in the 16th century, we can see this passage, partially summarizing chapter 11 of Genesis:

All men speak the same language — They build the Tower of Babel — The Lord confounds their language and scatters them over all the earth.

Thus, according to the Biblical story, all men spoke the same language until they decided to build the great Tower of Babel, which was to be so tall that it would reach heaven.

The Tower of Babel, painted by the 16th century Dutch artist Pieter Brugel, the Elder

God was not happy with that project. By means of divine intervention, people began to speak different tongues and, no longer able to understand each other, were unable to finish the tower. Moreover, humanity was scattered through countless nations all over the world and spoke a different language in each nation.

This piece of Christian mythology is so deeply rooted in our culture that the very word “Babel” means confusion, disorder, and a mixture of languages. It tells us how a diversity of languages can inhibit collective action.

However, for thousands of years, the diversity of tongues has not been a significant issue for human endeavor, as collective action has been carried out either within small communities, where everyone speaks the same language, or by large groups of slaves just obeying simple orders.

Throughout human history, most collective action has been carried out within small communities with everyone speaking the same language
Another kind of collective activity always present in human history has been slave labor, such as mining in ancient Rome (depicted here in the 1960 movie “Spartacus”)

However, starting with the great navigations of the 16th century, a new kind of collective activity took the stage: the global capitalist enterprise, which initially relied heavily on slave labor. In fact, as recently as 150 years ago, much collective work was still carried out by slaves in the capitalist economy, as shown in the following picture of a large Brazilian coffee plantation around the year 1870.

Slave work in a coffee plantation in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 19th century (Photo by Marc Ferrez)

Although these workers spoke different languages when they arrived in Brazil, that diversity did not prevent them from doing their work as they merely had to obey simple orders. Eventually, most of them ended up learning basic Portuguese, the language of their masters.

However, from the 19th century on, global business moved toward paid labor and multinational consumer markets, increasing the need for effective communication between people of different nations.

With the communications revolution of the 20th century, especially after the internet boom, the world is moving towards a single cultural entity, a change the Canadian philosopher Marshal McLuhan had already envisaged in the 1960s when he coined the term “global village”.

Marshal McLuhan: the global village
We are moving towards a culturally unified world. The Shanghai landscape does not seem much different from that of New York or São Paulo.

However, while the economy and society itself are quickly being unified, there are other aspects of human society that are evolving much more slowly, such as language and culture; which cannot change within a few decades. Therefore, although business is an ever-more globally unified endeavor, it still has to connect people who speak different languages. Many global products today are released simultaneously in dozens of countries, and even though the product is exactly the same in each country it has to be localized, i.e., marketing and technical material and product information have to be translated/adapted to the language and culture of each target country.

People from different countries who speak different languages have to communicate with each other, in the first place to make the production of goods and services by global companies feasible, and last but not least, to facilitate the actual sale of those same goods and services in the global market.

The hubs of this network of languages are the translation agencies, an increasingly thriving business. The following image shows a typical job order received by our company, a Brazilian translation agency, from a large multilingual agency based in China:

Multilingual project carried out by a large translation agency

The project came from a large IT corporation. Their software laboratory in Palo Alto, California, released a software update affecting 25 words of the original English user interface of a certain software product. As this product is sold in 40 languages, they sent those 25 words to a large translation agency based in Shanghai, which distributed the job to dozens of language-specific agencies around the world, including our company, which was assigned the translation into Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish. That same day, all vendors delivered their translations and forty translated packages were sent back to Palo Alto, where they were integrated into the software in all 40 languages. Then, users all over the world received an automatic update and began to use the updated software, each in the language of the country it was distributed to.

This is only an example showing the kind of work performed daily by thousands of translation agencies around the world, translating hundreds of millions of words to make the production and sale of products all over the global market feasible.

We are now at what can be seen as the end of a very long cycle in human history, which started in the mythical era, when God punished men in the Tower of Babel. Humanity, once spread over countless nations and speaking countless tongues, is now striving to be one again. We are all dwellers of a new Tower of Babel, one that does not intend to reach heaven but to distribute dividends to shareholders in large corporations.

Again, we are guided by a transcendent entity: not the venerable Hebrew God, but the new omnipotent god we call “market”.

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