If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction,
he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in
the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order.
My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.
—“The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges
The Tower of Babel in Genesis is a brief and dramatic story about how human languages and
habitats become multiple and scattered. The story is tightly constructed, and its poetic ambiguity
yields profuse interpretations, retellings, allusions, and echoes throughout literature about
language. In this course, we’ll examine the way literature returns to and rewrites Babel. How
does power inform relationships among different languages, particularly in colonial and minority
cultures and in translation? What is at stake in language transmission and in translation? What
are the limits of creativity and experimentation in translation? How do translations into English
affect the reception of non-English language texts in the U.S.?
Looking at poetry, fiction, film, and other visual media, we’ll investigate the ways that the
permeable boundaries of language inform identity, politics, and artistic production. While we will
mostly examine works from the 20th century, the ongoing and ever-changing Babels in these
texts remind us that literary time is multidirectional: Are we Babel’s living inheritors, or are we
oracles of a future Babel?
As part of the University’s R&C sequence, this course is designed, above all, to help students
improve their critical reading and analytical writing skills. We read literary texts closely to
develop interpretive arguments and write convincing and well-constructed essays. In addition to
regular attendance, reading, and participation, assignments include a diagnostic paper and a
series of essays—drafts and deep revisions—as well as bCourses posts, quizzes, and a final
project. This is a reading- and writing-intensive course.
We will read from a selection of the following literary texts:
● “The Library of Babel,” “Borges y Yo,” and other work by Jorge Luis Borges
● Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem
● Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa (excerpts)
● Decolonizing the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (excerpts)
● The Book of Genesis
● Poetry by Yehuda Amichai, Juan Gelman, Alejandra Pizarnik, Louis Zukofsky, and Mikhl
● Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me by Ana Castillo
● Book of Clouds, Chloe Aridjis
● Portrait of a Tongue: An Experimental Translation by Yoko Tawada (translated by
● The Songs of Bilitis by Pierre Louÿs
● The Paths of Marriage, Mala Kumar
In addition, we’ll watch a selection of the following films and other media:
● Do I Sound Gay? by David Thorpe
● Homecoming King stand-up comedy special by Hasan Minhaj
● Mosquita y Mari by Aurora Guerrero