Emily Xu’s translation of Tyrannicide Brief


Geoffrey Robertson is a well-known human rights lawyer whose reputation extends around the world. He has written numerous books about his occupation and the latest, Tyrannicide Brief, is a historical account about putting King Charles I on trial in England in 1649, a King who everyone regarded as having the divine right to rule.

Robertson relates this to modern cases such as that of Sadam Hussein and talks about the lawyer, John Cooke of Oxford and Inns of Court, who devised the idea that the King was guilty of “tyranny” for oppressing his people despite the divine right to rule.

The book was translated into Chinese by Emily Xu. Danwei wrote to the translator for an account of her landing the translation deal as well as how she felt about the book. Xu’s answers were in English.

Danwei: Did you find the subject matter of the novel easy to relate to?

Emily Xu: Indeed. First of all, it’s a non-fiction book rather than a novel. That’s why I was so impressed because the story had really happened in the UK. All the trials and events had sources. This is the strength of truth. Secondly, the social conditions described by the book are strikingly similar to today’s China, and this inspires many readers to reflect upon many of China’s own problems, especially in the spotlight of the 60th anniversary of the PRC. But on the whole this is a book about a brave lawyer who pursued his conscience and challenged tyranny and carried forward the spirit of the law. Nowadays, there are many examples of this at an international level.

Danwei: What about it drew you to the novel?

EX: I should thank my mentor, Professor Ying Chan at the University of Hong Kong. She gave me the book on a windy winter night when I was doing some freelancing work for JMSC. The book is a 17th century British drama. During the turbulent times, people argued vehemently about the re-establishment of government and society; the destiny of individuals intertwined with the tide of history. The book also depicts the trajectory of growth of an ordinary lawyer and legal education in UK.


All these factors enlightened me and made me think about myself as a law student. I did not practice as a lawyer after I graduated from law school because I was not sure what we, the new generation, could do within the legal system. The book has a practical significance about legal ethics and law reform in China, the establishment of a national health service, legal assistance, social welfare system etc.

The legal pioneers in The Tyrannicide Brief inspired me to follow my own conscience. As long as we understand the difficulty of progress in a civil society, we should try and come up with some practical solutions.

Danwei: Are there things in the novel you didn’t like because it was far-fetched for Chinese readers?

EX: I think the religious part of the book may be kind-of far-fetched for Chinese readers because most of us have been brought up as atheists and some Chinese people tend to be wary about such “irrational” beliefs. So I guess it might be difficult for them to understand Cooke’s motivation to prosecute the King. As far as I’m concerned, Cooke’s contribution to the development of the law and of history is not limited to his devising a lawful means to end the impunity of a tyrant, but more about the legal reform that he launched in Ireland afterward. I don’t think the trial of the King is the highest point of his career. His decent qualities as a lawyer should also be noted.

Danwei: Do you have a new project at the moment?

EX: Not at the moment. I’ve finished all my freelancing projects and moved to London last weekend. Actually I am planning on my own Grand Tour. What is interesting is that I am the same age as John Cooke when he started his Grand Tour more than 370 years ago. I will keep writing and researching, but it would be more personal.

Danwei: How do you think Chinese readers have reacted to the book?

EX: The book sells well and there are some interesting book reviews. From the feedback I’ve received, I’m quite happy that most of the readers find the book stimulating and enlightening. They were impressed by the detailed depiction of the trial of the King and the trial of the “tyrannicides” 360 years ago. Chinese People don’t know much about the trial of the “Gang of Four” 29 years ago. As Geoffrey said in the book, “memories became self-protectingly selective” in UK. I agree that this is also the truth in China today.

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