The Tower of Babel is much more than a building mentioned in the Bible. In truth, this is a founding myth that tries to explain why the people of the world speak different languages.
This construction known as the Tower of Babel is described in the book of Genesis, whose authorship is traditionally attributed to the prophet Moses. Being deeply related to the biblical origin of languages, this myth is also closely linked to translation as we know it today.
What is the myth of the Tower of Babel?
According to the book of Genesis, humanity was almost extinct after a worldwide flood, called the universal flood. However, thanks to Noah’s Ark, this biblical character managed to survive the natural catastrophe along with seven members of his family.
According to myth, as the only human beings that inhabited the planet, the descendants of Noah settled on the plain of Senaar (later Babylon). There, they decided to undertake the task of building a tower so high that it reached the sky. When observing the building, Yahveh (the God of Noah) decided that the inhabitants of the Earth should speak different languages so that they would stop understanding each other and thus abandon this construction.
According to the Bible, to avoid the development of the building God made the builders begin to speak different languages giving rise to the origin of the different languages. Thus, human beings dispersed throughout the Earth speaking in different languages:
All the Earth spoke the same language and used the same words. As the men migrated from the East, they found a plain in the Senaar region. They settled there and said, “Let’s build a city and a tower whose top reaches up to the sky. Let us become famous and let us not be scattered on the face of the Earth ». But Yahveh came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building and said: «Behold, they all form one people and they all speak the same language; This being the principle of their companies, nothing will prevent them from carrying out everything they set out to do. Well then, let’s go down and confuse their language so that they don’t understand each other. “
Thus, Yahveh scattered them from there over the entire face of the Earth and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there Yahveh confused the language of all the inhabitants of the Earth and scattered them all over the surface “
Genesis 11: 1-9
Are there traces of the Tower of Babel?
Although the Tower of Babel is part of a biblical account, it is often associated with the ancient Etemenanki temple (“The temple of the creation of heaven and earth”). The construction of that temple is uncertain, but it probably existed before the reign of Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, whose reign lasted from 1792 to 1750 BC. C.
This building was a seven-story high ziggurat (pyramid-shaped temple) dedicated to the Babylonian god Marduk of which few remains exist today. Etemenanki was historically associated with the Tower of Babel to such an extent that this temple is said to have inspired this popular biblical account.
What is the relationship between this myth and translation?
The myth of the Tower of Babel places the origin of the world’s languages in one, an “original language”. According to the Bible, the diversity of languages is a “divine punishment”; therefore, this multiplicity of languages would be a negative thing for humans since they stopped understanding each other.
The intention of this biblical story is to show that humans need to understand and collaborate with each other —without challenging God— to achieve their projects. But in addition, this myth gives great importance to language as a social link to achieve the common objectives of humanity. This teaching is closely linked to translation, since it makes it possible to overcome these linguistic barriers and understand people from all over the world.
Professional translation allows a text – of any kind – to become intelligible for all cultures that inhabit the Earth. Thus, it is possible to think of the task of the translators as a small amendment to that union and understanding that humans lost along with the ambitious Tower of Babel. Thanks to translation, today we are able to enjoy this multiplicity of languages and appreciate them in all their human, social and cultural richness.