We are told, in chapter 11 of Genesis, that once "the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech". In the aftermath of Noah's flood, the survivors decided to celebrate their lucky escape in a time-honoured way: with triumphal architecture. "Let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach even to heaven" is how the Bible expresses this aspiration. "Let us make us a name," said the children of Noah, "lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth".

Fat chance. According to the Old Testament, mankind's urge to find a common purpose does not appeal to the Almighty. So the idea that men and women should be like gods was a non-starter, and the name of the doomed project was called Babel. As the King James version has it, "the Lord did there confound the language of all the Earth". For good measure, he scattered the differently speaking peoples across the globe.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the world remains a patchwork of more than 5,000 separate and competing languages. But for those who still dream of the restoration of a universal language, the outlook has rarely been brighter: 2011 has been an extraordinary year for the art of translation. Could the tower of Babel actually be rebuilt?

Many language scholars now accept philosopher Noam Chomsky's ground-breaking perception that, notwithstanding mutually unintelligible vocabularies, "Earthlings speak a single language" – an observation Chomsky claimed would be evident to a visiting Martian. For a variety of reasons, we are perhaps closer than ever to making it intelligible.

Through the power of global media, there is more than ever before a market for literature in translation where the default language for such translations will be British or American English. Such versions may sometimes bear as much resemblance to the original as the wrong side of a Turkish carpet, but that hardly seems to lessen their appeal. Read full article in The Observer...