I’ve never read a novel like “The Stolen Bicycle” before. The stories it contains circle each other, winding tighter and tighter around the central unnamed protagonist. Looking for his missing father’s bicycle, the narrator delves into the world of antique bicycle fanatics in Taiwan. The stories he encounters there traverse history. There’s the tale of the pregnant butterfly handicraft maker, the life of the oldest elephant who ever lived, the account of the Silverwheels unit who fought in the jungles of South-east Asia during World War II. At the centre of each of these stories are bicycles. Each is lost, stolen or gifted. The narrator follows their trails, hoping to be led to the story of his father’s.
I’m interested in where this central concept came from, a lost soul trying to find the bicycle that is so essential to his memories of his father. It’s one of the first questions I asked author Wu Ming-Yi when I met him in Melbourne last week during his visit for the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Can you start by telling me about where the concept for “The Stolen Bicycle” came from?
Ming-Yi: It relates to a previous novel I wrote in 2007 called Routes in a Dream. The father’s bicycle in that novel ends up going missing at this assembly hall, called the Chung-shan (Zhongshan) Hall. A reader wrote me an email saying, “well what happens to this bicycle? It’s a loose end.” So I decided to not tie up that loose end, but draw it out, and found I could draw it out so much that it could become the main narrative line of an entirely separate novel. It turned into The Stolen Bicycle.
This is his third novel, “Routes in a Dream” was his debut. Wu Ming-Yi is known as one of the leading writers of his generation in his native Taiwan, as well as being a butterfly scholar, an environmental activist and an artist. For the cover of “The Stolen Bicycle” he created a swirling illustration to tie together different components of the story. The finely drawn bikes in the “bicycle notes” sections that punctuate the book were also drawn by Ming-Yi.
His English translator, the Edmonton-born Darryl Sterk, also translated his last novel “The Man with The Compound Eyes.” Sterk spent three months living in tents and youth hostels on the Taiwanese coast in order to have the details to fine-tune his translation.
I sat down with the two men in a loud cafe in the edge of Melbourne city. It was the first day of spring, and the sun beamed down through the window next to us. An instant intimacy was established as we sat with our heads close together to be heard over the tinny music and loud steam of the coffee machine. The conversation weaved between English and Mandarin, as Sterk translated parts of my questions and Ming-Yi answered in a combination of languages.
Darryl Sterk (left) and Wu Ming-Yi (right) in conversation. Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay.
“I have to take the trees, the buildings in the village, the local elementary, the fields composed of various colours, the little fishing boats swaying in the wind—and place them like chess pieces, one by one, in the landscape.”
In a novel as complex as “The Stolen Bicycle,” with so many interlocking stories and sections, I decided to start at the beginning. These are the opening lines of the book:
“I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew. I must start by letting the morning light lay out slowly upon the land. I have to take the trees, the buildings in the village, the local elementary, the fields composed of various colours, the little fishing boats swaying in the wind—and place them like chess pieces, one by one, in the landscape.”
From here, Ming-Yi focuses in on a small child who wakes up in the rice field of the village to discover the sky is turning black. Her only means of escape is a discarded police bicycle. Titled “Before Time,” the opening section is self-contained. It reads very differently to the rest of the novel.
Can you tell me about the opening section “Before Time”?
Sterk: That section is untitled in the original. That was the editor’s idea, Elizabeth’s idea, to give it the title Before Time. Because it’s ambiguous I think.
It read like a prologue to me.
Sterk: Yeah, it’s a prologue. This is part of the backstory to the narrative.
It’s a beautiful and haunting depiction of a small village. It almost seems like a parable, was that the intention?
Ming Yi: My dad never talked about the past, it was always my mum. It seemed sort of legendary—the stories she used to tell, like parables. But she would say no, this is a real story, I lived through it. I didn’t put this in the novel, but in 1944 and 1945, the American’s were bombing Taiwan, which was then under Japanese rule. My mother said that she saw Mother Matsu, which is a goddess of the sea. The fisherman pray to her and there are temples to Mother Matsu all around the country. She would use her apron, her skirt, to catch the bomb so that it wouldn’t blow anything up. She said “I saw this with my very own eyes when I was a girl.” I said that’s impossible. It’s like a parable, but my mother believed it. My mother lived through a bombing like the mother of the narrator in the story. It’s a legend, or a parable, that she believes in.
Sterk: It’s amazing.
Some of the stories that are told to the narrator in the book have a magical realism quality, and they are often set in the natural world. Even though the narrator spends most of the novel in the busy streets and markets of modern day Taipei, the stories he hears give us a sense of how much Taiwan has changed in recent history.
Can you tell us a bit about the theme of Taiwan’s urban growth in the novel?
Ming-Yi: It’s a story of material development and prosperity after the war. People in Taiwan talk about the economic miracle, and they mean industrialisation, rapid economic development. So that’s what the novel is about. It’s also about the price that Taiwanese people have had to pay for the miracle, ecologically. What paid for this miracle was natural resource extraction. It had an ecological cost.
I really got a sense of that through some of the stories in the novel—like Abbas’s and the elephant Lin Wang. There was quite a few different voices in the story—through emails, audio recordings or the narrator’s recollections of the stories told directly to him. Was the language different for each one?
Ming Yi: Taiwan is a multi-cultural society and China is too, but Taiwan has embraced multiculturalism more. Because multiculturalism is potentially dangerous if the individual cultures have their own ideas about whom they want to be. Language is the most obvious expression of multiculturalism. It’s a multi-linguistic society.
“I’ve always believed that language is not just a means of communication—that it is fundamentally poetic.”
In the postscript you write: “I’ve always believed that language is not just a means of communication—that it is fundamentally poetic. Languages are not mere casks for wine; the cask makes the wine.”
Can you tell us a bit more about the way you used language in the novel?
Ming-Yi: There’s a different kind of poetry that you can’t convey in English, because it’s particular to the languages that I speak and that my parents spoke. My parents grew up at the end of the Japanese era, so they would have learnt Japanese. So there’s a particular poetic beauty of Japanese that was in their consciousness. It entered their consciousness and shaped them somehow, was formative. My mother tongue is Taiwanese. The kind of Fujianese that’s spoken on Taiwan wasn’t respected to put it mildly. The government did everything it could to prevent people from speaking the language. When I went to school, if you were caught speaking Taiwanese, they’d punish you, make you wear tags. Even though it wasn’t respected Taiwanese, it has it’s own aesthetics. It’s in my consciousness and was formative for me and I wanted to express the poetry of Taiwanese in the novel.
Sterk: If you look at the original Chinese version there is more Taiwanese then there is in the English. I edited some of it out—especially in the chapters with the mother. Ming-Yi often uses Chinese characters to represent Taiwanese, but sometimes supplies the sound of the word in romanisation. A lot of people in Taiwan don’t speak Taiwanese very well, so this is to remind people how it sounds and its aesthetic. I think it’s beautiful to look at. If you know how to read it, it’s really beautiful to hear.
I really liked the part where the narrator finds an audio recording of his friend Abbas’s father, Pasuya, talking about his time as a soldier during World War II. In the recording, Pasuya uses a mix of languages and the narrator works to translate the story into Mandarin.
Sterk: Pasuya grew up speaking both an Indigenous language and Japanese; he’s bilingual. It’s sort of interesting how sometimes elites will speak more than one language. Sophisticated people will speak French and English and other languages. In Taiwanese history, it’s often subalterns, people who have to follow order, or just ordinary people who are bilingual—like Abbas’s father Pasuya.
Is this section different in the original version compared to the English?
Ming-Yi: I definitely wanted to keep the actual sounds of the words he was using in the actual recording, even though what you read of it is a translation into Mandarin.
Sterk: I made the English translation more paratactic; more like Hemingway, more like storytelling, less formal.
“More and more I feel I shouldn’t make any changes, I should be as literal as possible, as long as it’s acceptable to the reader and readable.”
Did you add sections to the translation to explain parts that you thought English readers might not understand?
Sterk: When I’m translating something like a postscript, because it’s non-fiction, I somehow feel like I can do whatever I want. But with literary translation, more and more I feel I shouldn’t make any changes, I should be as literal as possible, as long as it’s acceptable to the reader and readable. If you re-write it, you might miss what’s really important or interesting in the original stylistically.
I add some things for the benefit of the reader, to make sure the reader can understand things like, what fate means. Ming-Yi notes that the two characters in the word for fate in Mandarin, ming-yun, are the other way around in Taiwanese, yun-ming, but doesn’t draw out the significance of that difference in order. I translated according to my interpretation of the significance.
I guess there would be things that would be assumed knowledge in Taiwan, things that might not translate culturally.
Sterk: Yeah, because the original reader would instantly know exactly what you mean, but you need lexical items—words you have to explain what they mean in context. With the editor, I even wanted to insist on words that she was concerned might seem offensive to the reader. Like there’s the Deciduous Ganyan tree, or Sparrow Banyan in Mandarin, which is a kind of fig tree (Banyan is in the Genus Ficus). In Taiwanese it’s “Bird Crap Banyan,” so I called it “Bird Crap Banyon” and the editor thought, oh this could be offensive. You call Indigenous people Indigenous people, you don’t call them savages or natives because it seems disrespectful, but that’s what it was in the original. Figure this, it’s anachronistic to say Indigenous that far back in history. That’s just how people talked. Sometimes the editor was worried it was going to be offensive or that the reader would find it disrespectful to say “Bird Crap Banyon,” but I ended up persuading her to let me have my way.
What was the process like translating this novel into English? I imagine it involves a lot of trust.
Sterk: I asked him about a thousand questions for the first novel, The Man with Compound Eyes, and maybe a hundred questions for this one. I didn’t want to bother him too much. He’s got better things to do than answer my questions. It’s my responsibility to make an educated decision about what he means, and I’m free to interpret too. He’s been the best.
[They exchange a quick smile.]
Sterk: I say “is it okay for me to do such and such?” and he always let’s me do what I want. He is totally the best. Often writers are intrusive or controlling, but he’s always said “I do my thing and I let you have it. You do what you have to do and you are fully empowered to do what needs to be done.”