Short story: A typical afternoon in Babel

By Mónica Vega, Project Manager

My name is Tarug and I happen to find myself behind bars at this very moment completely by chance. I don’t know what divine purpose led to the general confusion that occurred during the construction of the Etemenanki ziggurat, but I’m pretty sure that Tiamat had a hand in it all.

During the eighth month of construction, for reasons unknown to everyone, the whole of the town began to speak in a thousand different tongues. The whole town except for one single person, me.

I also have no idea what dark twist of fate put me in such a difficult position. I could understand everyone without a problem, but I was fully aware of the differences that stopped everyone else from being able to communicate with one another. This curse completely altered the relationship between people. So much so that, what was once a simple greetings would now be translated as a strange kind of insult.

For example, on the first day of the disaster, many people were now responding to a good morning greeting with a «go to hell». An initial reaction to such a response would entail some form of violent act which, for no apparent reason, would result in brothers and friends having the most unpleasant confrontation. When the mind stands between earnest hearts and says the wrong thing, chaos is guaranteed.

Indeed, the chaos that followed these initial signs was spectacular. The youngsters –always more game for a laugh than their elders– would entertain themselves by insulting one another to hear what their ridiculous responses would be. Expressions such as «hi ugly» would receive responses like «may peace be upon your ancestors».

If I’m honest, while I could see the funny side of these situations, something inside me told me that there was no way that all of this could end well.

My role in this story is pretty bizarre. I didn’t consider myself one of the gods’ chosen ones. There was a time when I thought that part of my destiny would involve helping everyone to understand each other. Perhaps that would have been so if I hadn’t only been able to understand 80% of what my fellow man was saying. Sometimes I think that, rather than being the exception to the rule, my role was to be the icing on an absurd and pitiful cake.

I will try to briefly explain what brought me here. Knowing that I had this apparent ability to understand all tongues, I stood before the highest authority in the town to explain how I was suddenly able to understand what my fellow citizens were saying and offer my services as an interpreter, to help to stop the riots that would then erupt by late morning.

Moved by the reality of the situation and my remarks, they granted me a position of vital importance to restore harmony. They named me the Official Translator of the Etemenanki Project, an enterprise in which the whole town was involved. It was such a mammoth undertaking that some people started to think that the confusion of tongues that had suddenly occurred was no less than a curse from the gods, for daring to try to elevate ourselves so high.

My first assignment as an interpreter was unfortunate to say the least. The foreman asked me to tell the carriers and workers to take all of the blue glazed tiles to the top floor. I understood it slightly differently and I told them that they had to «take up all of the tiles, you bone idle halfwits». The carriers didn’t like that one bit and they decided not to move a single brick until that insult was explained. At the time, I didn’t understand why they felt insulted when my words had been perfectly understandable. The foreman was so infuriated by that sudden walkout that he asked the guards to step in and make them do their work. When I spoke to the guards, I translated what the foreman had said to me as:«I want you to force the workers to work immediately». The guards understood it as something like «I want you to force the workers to rest indefinitely». When they asked «what type of order is that? », I passed on their words to the foreman with a few minor changes that I don’t quite recall, but they may have sounded like:«your crappy order stinks».

The foreman, visibly annoyed, ran off to talk to the project manager. I tried to keep up with him as best I could because, sometimes, anger makes you whizz around like a Tasmanian devil.I don’t know if it because I was tired after the pursuit or because of that 20% of understanding denied to me by the gods, but my initial translation of the foreman’s words was a far cry from what he really meant to say. The first words he uttered were actually:«we have a riot on the site, nobody wants to work»; which I, not without my doubts, translated as «we have to stop the work, it may fall apart». I never thought that so few mistaken words could provoke such a disaster; this made me aware of my great responsibility.

When the project manager visited the construction with the foreman, he could see no sign of a catastrophe anywhere, so he ordered him to be flogged for trying to sabotage the project. When the workers and carriers saw that the foreman was being flogged, they thought that the manager had given him his due for the insult he’d hurled at them. The group of workers appointed a spokesman, to convey their gratitude to him. He used the least appropriate words possible to convey their gratitude, a sentiment which I naturally translated with my usual accuracy. The manager did not fully appreciate their gratitude as it was accompanied by the words «we will always remember your dandruff». But, aware that these may not have been the precise words used, he ordered them to follow him to the top of the tower to check its strength.

I managed to translate 100% of these words and over two thousand people climbed to the top floor. The construction seemed to be stable, no cracks appeared anywhere. The manager ordered me to tell the guards to stop flogging the foreman and bring him before him so that he could see how strong the building was.

When I went down and informed the guards of this, I heard a voice from on high saying:«come up, come up», which I translated as «ask, ask».The foreman, enraged, shouted:«jump from the top, you bloody bastard», addressing the manager.Words which I translated as «everyone jump up and down to celebrate», which the two thousand fools did without a second thought. And the tower collapsed to the ground.

We were dumbstruck. Not a single person survived. The guards arrested me immediately and here I am, waiting for the trial. Knowing that my life now depends on an accurate interpretation, I’m no longer sure whether being able to roughly translate is a gift or a curse.