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The Stolen Bicycle interview

The Stolen Bicycle interview

Wu Ming-Yi discusses the summer he spent touring Taiwan on a bicycle  while promoting the book, and translator Darryl Sterk considers the importance of translators understanding the settings of the books they are working on.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2018 longlist interviews.


Wu Ming-Yi, author of The Stolen Bicycle  

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s a great honour, especially because I’ve been inspired by so many books that have won the Booker; even books short- or long-listed for the Booker have influenced me. I’m particularly pleased to be longlisted with the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The Stolen Bicycle?

Though it’s the tale of a stolen bicycle, it’s also the story of Taiwan’s fate, which consists of the interconnected stories of all the people who have shared in it. One of the stories, for instance, is about the elephant Lin Wang, who was born into the Burmese jungle, tamed by a family of Karen mahouts, drafted to serve  first the Japanese then the Chinese as a war elephant, transported to Taiwan after the nationalist loss in the Chinese Civil War, and moved first to the Circle Mountain Zoo, later to the Mu-cha Zoo, where it lived to 86, an achievement that makes it the longest-lived Asian elephant in captivity. Many Taiwanese people remember getting their photos taken with Lin Wang in the zoo, including Pasuya, one of the many human characters in my novel. Pasuya was born in a Tsou aboriginal village in the mountains of south-central Taiwan, drafted into an elite war bicycle unit called the Silverwheels, sent to Burma as a transporter, transferred to a unit charged with the care of a troop of war elephants (including Lin Wang), and repatriated after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. After returning home to find that his parents had passed away, he records his wartime experiences in Japanese and Tsou to make a record for his son Abbas, in whom he was never able to confide face to face when he was alive. His son, in turn, shares the recordings with the narrator of the novel, Mr Ch’eng, for whom they serve as clues pertaining to the identity of his own father’s stolen bicycle.

The plot is inspired by your personal love for bicycles, and you recently spent a summer travelling around Taiwan on an antique bicycle to promote the book – what is it about this mode of transport that you like so much?

Taiwan’s an island whose historical fate has been so particular; and as an island, its biology and geology are very distinctive. There are over two hundred mountains above 3000 meters in altitude, with valleys that are home to numerous butterfly and fig tree species, many of them endemic; while the agricultural plain along the west coast is home to relative newcomers. On the tour to promote The Stolen Bicycle I cycled one of the antique iron horses in my collection to a bookstore in P’u-li in the hills near Taiwan’s geographical center, and to another bookstore by the river in coastal Kao-hsiung. It was a slow but intense approach to travel that I hoped conveyed to my audiences the time – and the emotion – that I had invested in the novel.


Darryl Sterk, translator of The Stolen Bicycle  

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It’s thrilling. However, there’s no obvious way to distinguish long and shortlisted in Mandarin, so it’s taken some explaining.

What did you most like about translating The Stolen Bicycle 

I most liked how the author balanced the technical and the biographical. I started out as a technical translator. The task of the technical translator was particularly challenging this time round, because the terminology the author uses is often as antique as the bicycles he describes. In some cases, the term is still used, but with a new meaning, so I had to be careful to avoid “cantilever brake” when the term meant “rod-actuated brake” fifty years ago. In other cases, the term is no longer used. For one term I was only able to get it right thanks to a picture on an antique auction site with a Chinese caption and “band brake” etched on the brake.

However, I realize that few readers share my passion for technical terminology. What I most admire about the novel is how the author managed to make the technical moving, by investing each antique object with biographies, both the story of the thing itself and the stories of all the people of whose lives the thing was a part.

You once spent three months living on Taiwan’s east coast to fully integrate yourself in world of Wu Ming Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes. How important is it that translators truly understand the settings of the books they are working on?

It’s nice to do if it’s possible, but it’s often impossible, and is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for an outstanding translation. In the case of The Man with the Compound Eyes, the geography of the east coast had obviously been altered in Wu Ming-Yi’s imaginati0n, in which case I had to follow the plotline, not the coastline. In the case of The Stolen Bicycle, it was possible for me to visit P’u-li, where the chapters about butterfly collecting and processing were set, and various parts of T’ai-p’ei, such as Ta-tao-ch’eng, named for a great threshing ground, where I lived for many years. But the Chung-hwa Market, where the narrator grew up, was torn down two years before I first visited Taiwan, and much of the novel was set in Malaya and Burma during the Second World War. For these chapters, I could hardly translate on location.