The Tower of Babel and the birth of multilingualism

The Tower of Babel is a universally known construction of Antiquity, mainly due to its presence in Genesis. The creation of the biblical myth that surrounds this monument has its origin in the 6th century B.C., when a good part of the Hebrew inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah were deported to Mesopotamia –after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II– to work in the beautification of the city of Babylon, which was ruled by the Chaldean dynasty at that time. This episode is known as the «Babylonian Captivity», and lasted until approximately fifty or sixty years later, when the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and destroyed its empire, authorizing in 537 B.C. the return of the Hebrews to the land of Israel. 

The city of Babylon had become the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, and its influence extended throughout the near-eastern world. The nerve center of the city was its famous stepped tower, a ziggurat called Etemanaki, which was dedicated to the cult of the god Marduk, conqueror of the forces of chaos and organizer of the universe. Today, only the ruins of this famous building remain, and therefore, ancient sources are the best resource we have to try to know its original appearance, such as the Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, the work of the Greek historian Herodotus or the biblical account itself. Thus, the Etemanaki must have been a monument with a square or rectangular base, built in the form of a high terrace and staggered in several levels (maybe up to seven), on the last of which a temple was erected. The nucleus of the construction was made of adobe, and this was covered with a layer of fired bricks, while the upper temple was decorated with blue glazed bricks, imitating the color of the sky. Ascent to each of the towers was via a spiral staircase leading to the top.

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That said, what really interests us about the Tower of Babel is the biblical myth that lies behind its construction and the reflections we can draw from this, always with reference to the field of translation and communication. Well, according to the Old Testament passage, after humanity had become almost extinct after the universal flood, all of Noah’s descendants, as the only human beings on the planet, spoke a single language. These, having moved to the plain of Senar (Babel), set out to build a tower so high that it would reach to the heavens. Then, Noah’s god, Yahweh, judging this act as a display of pride, set out to punish the humans and made them all speak different languages, which led them to abandon the construction and spread throughout the world, as they were no longer able to understand each other.

In this regard, it is interesting to see how the Bible explains the origin of the multiplicity of tongues as a consequence of an act of defiance towards God perpetrated by humans, who had tried to reach heaven by building an immense tower. However, compared to the Genesis version, the construction of the Tower of Babel could be interpreted in other terms, that is, instead of signifying a gesture of rivalry launched by the people of Babel towards the divinity, it could be conceived as a reverential approach towards it, that is, that the ziggurat represented the meeting point between the two worlds, the terrestrial and the celestial.

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However, beyond the hypotheses that we can formulate about the true intentions of the builders of the Tower of Babel –which is left to the imagination–, it is interesting to focus on the significance behind this biblical myth. In this connection, it is worth noting how the diversity of languages is interpreted in the Bible as a moral punishment, since it ultimately implies the loss of the original and wise language, that is, the disappearance of a «linguistic paradise» in which everyone could understand everyone else. In this sense, the Tower of Babel represents a peculiar symbol, since it shows how «non-communication» is conceived as a real tragedy for humanity, since it makes it impossible to understand and comprehend each other, transmitting to us an idea of a polyglot society as a fragmentary and overwhelming reality. On the other hand, we can also think of the importance that this account confers on language as a social link: languages, as vehicles of communication, allow us to collectively achieve common purposes, and when there is no common language, this objective remains incomplete.

However, this polyglot world, which would have arisen as a result of human hubris, can be conceived in more optimistic terms, i.e. as a complex reality that presents us with diverse communicative challenges and provides us with valuable resources, including cultural diversity. Moreover, this non-communication has ways of understanding through the learning of the unknown language, and, to this end, translation and interpretation are presented as the element that allows the restitution of the missing communicative component, making possible the rapprochement between the different peoples that inhabit the world.

Carlos Sánchez Luis