Sign up for e-News Donate
Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones

June 1, 2017

Random House, Inc.:  New York
1998 (PB)

Between 1921 and 1937 a series of excavations were carried out at a site at Zhoukoudian, China, near Beijing (then known as Peking).  Fossil remains estimated to date from 500,000 years before the present, along with a large number of stone tools, were unearthed in the cave system below Dragon Bone Hill, and a new subspecies of Homo erectus—H.e.pekinensis—“Peking Man, was entered into the lexicon of paleoanthropology.  Excavations ended in 1937 with the Japanese invasion of the Chinese mainland.  Before the invasion, however, a number of international scholars, from both China and the West, studied this treasure trove of fossil remains from the dawn of the history of early man.  Among those scholars was the French anthropologist/philosopher/theologian Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an extraordinary figure in 20th century intellectual life, who spent most of the 1920s and 30s in China and other parts of East Asia.

The Peking Man fossils were stored at the Union Medical College in Peking after the Japanese invasion.  As the situation grew more dire, and just before the outbreak of war between Japan and the Allies in 1941, the fossils were packed and loaded onto a US Marine truck to be transported to a Marine base and from there shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  The shipment never arrived at the Marine base and the fossils of Peking Man have been lost to history ever since.

This bit of history provides the background to Nicole Mones’ remarkable novel, Lost in Translation.  It follows the odyssey of three individuals as they join forces to discover the ultimate fate of the Peking Man fossils.  They seemingly have little in common on the surface but all three are souls lost between worlds of their own making.

Alice Mannegan is an expert translator and unabashed Sinophile living in late 20th century Beijing.  She loves all things China—including Chinese men—and wishes more than anything to jettison her American identity.  She bears the burden of her birthright—daughter of a US congressman whose claim to notoriety was his unrepentant racism—and who mercilessly sabotaged her marriage plans with a young Chinese man.  But her love for China is unrequited.  She may “talk” Mandarin and Cantonese like a native, and love Chinese history and culture with a fervent passion, but to the xenophobic Chinese she will always be a Westerner—an “outsider.

Alice, or as she is known as Translator Mo Ai-li, is hired by Dr. Adam Spencer, who is also lost in his world.  After a brilliant start as a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia in archaeology, he finds himself in late middle age as a virtual non-entity.  While his classmates have excelled in the field, he labors in obscurity teaching anthropology at the University of Nevada-Reno.  His marriage has been a colossal failure and he has a son who barely knows who he is.  His one hope for redemption is Peking Man.  For his grandfather, a highly-regarded scholar at Stanford, was a close personal friend of Teilhard de Chardin, and Teilhard had informed his grandfather that he was going to retrieve the bones of Peking Man.  Piecing together clues from the life of Teilhard, Adam believes that the Jesuit had hid the bones in far Northwest China.  Because the fossils had never been recovered, Adam believes they are still hidden and that he will be able to unearth them once again, thereby jump-starting his moribund career and perhaps even putting his shattered domestic life back in order.  But he needs the translating skills and talents of Alice to make this quest possible.

But China is a society that guards its cultural patrimony very closely.  In order to acquire all of the permits and approvals necessary to travel through the country and to seek out one of its greatest lost treasures.  Vice Director Han of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, a deviously gifted bureaucrat, assigns two Chinese scientists to accompany the Americans—primarily to keep tabs on their activities and to prevent them from smuggling the fossils back to the United States, in the highly unlikely case that they should actually discover them.  One of the scientists is Dr. Lin Shiyang, an expert in early man in China.  But Lin also is a lost soul, wandering between two worlds.  He is a successful scholar in the “new,” more outward-looking China, but for decades he has lived with an almost unbearable grief.  For during the Cultural Revolution, now known throughout Chinese society as The Chaos, Lin had “adjusted” his anthropological research to fit the dictates of the Party, while his wife Meiyan, also a scholar of great promise, refused to hue the Party line and was exiled to Northwest China—the very area the American expedition is to explore.  His forlorn yearning is to learn something of Meiyan’s fate.  But to his great shame and dismay, he also finds himself falling in love with Alice— and her with him.

Lost in Translation is a beautifully written novel, rich in the nuance of its characters as they conduct their quest—both for the lost treasures of pre-history and for their own souls.  The book is also rich in vivid details and descriptions of China at the turn of the Millennium—the sights, the sounds and the subtleties of this very ancient and incredibly complex culture.

Four trowels for Lost in Translation.