A curious moment for a translator

FrozenInTimeI had a curious moment today. Or I should say “intriguing”.

I was walking from Collins Street to Swanston Street, in Melbourne, Australia, this evening. I just attended a gathering of some of the city’s Chinese writers, who were there to meet a gentleman from Shanghai, China, to discuss how writers from China and Australia can further collaborate.

This gentleman is a very successful entrepreneur, a collector of precious antiques, a bestselling author, and a businessman well-connected to numerous Chinese government and private enterprises. Most importantly, he has just made a very successful movie that appeals not only to Hollywood but also to Jewish communities around the world.

So when this gentleman announced that he would seek worthy writings among Melbourne’s Chinese writers and explore the possibility of turning perhaps one of them into a movie, everybody rushed to see him. I was one of them.

I was there to promote an Australian writer’s book that I translated and published as a Chinese ebook last year. Written as a detective novel, the book reconstructs a murder case that took place in 1856 and incited much racial hatred between the European and Chinese migrants in colonial Melbourne.

In this book, an English prostitute was murdered in Stephen Street, which was renamed Exhibition Street after the Melbourne International Exhibition was held in 1880. Nicknamed “New Gold Mountain” (in contrast to San Francisco that became the “Old Gold Mountain”), the Melbourne in 1856 only had a population of 123,000. It was a town for gold diggers, gamblers, prostitutes, laborers and merchants, with the English authorities struggling to control them via a brute and often brutal police force.

Today’s Melbourne has a population of over four million. It is a vibrant multicultural city whose landscape features a combination of Victorian gothic buildings, modern commercial, office and residential blocks, boutiques, restaurants, theaters and cafeterias. Day and night there are crowds of people and cars on the streets. The noise here never dies down.

So I stood there in the corner of Exhibition Street and Collins Street, imagining that on a December night nearly 160 years ago, a woman was butchered perhaps within a hundred meters from me. Two men were arrested, convicted and hanged because of her death, but they were not guilty. I imagined the two men waiting for their deaths in the old Melbourne Gaol next door to the Supreme Court, way on the other side of the city. After they died, wax figurines were made to depict how they “killed” the woman, with an evil look on their faces and spilling blood everywhere. The life stories of these three ordinary people were therefore frozen in time. For more than half a century after that, they as wax statues had stood in a dark corner of some exhibition hall, endlessly killing and being killed.

These three people would have remained forgotten if the aforementioned Australian writer had not spent years digging up this case and sifting through hundreds of thousands of court proceedings, police files and government documents in search for judicial flaws. And I, as a translator, have done my best representing this book in Chinese, hoping to promote it as an important page in the histories of both Australia and China to readers in the Chinese world. As I stood in that street corner, I wondered what these three people would say if they knew this. I then left the spot, keen to go home and have some rest, while hoping with all my might that they would now be able to rest in peace.

Image source: “Frozen in Time” by MsToygirl on deviantART

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