Book Review



Obviously, the title makes you think of the Italian neorealist film, which is mentioned in the novel. The film is about how important a bike used to be as a means of production at a certain place and time, in Rome right after the war. The novel is about how important a bike used to be in Taiwan. What distinguishes the novel from the film is its historical depth. The novel is nothing less than the socio-political history of Taiwan in East Asian and global context over the past hundred years, told through the story of a bicycle.

The narrator, Little Cheng, whose last name means process or journey, is an antique bicycle restorer. He takes old iron horses, old bicycles, in and restores them to roadworthiness if he can. Descriptions of this process can get very technical. Long stretches of the text reminded me of nothing so much as technical translation, which I did quite a lot of back in the day, an experience that has served me well translating literature. The main rule in technical translation is that you must know what the text is referring to. To do that you have to be able to visualise it. Best if you have hands on experience of it. That is true for the writer as well. The writer, in this case Wu Ming-Yi, knew what he was talking about because he turned himself into an antique bicycle restorer. I am dedicated but, with a two-year-old daughter and other interests (these days, the Formosan Austronesian language Seediq, as well as the natural history of Taiwan), not that dedicated. For the particularly difficult bits I went to the local bicycle shop, the owner of which referred me to his father, who owned a bicycle shop in Sung-shan. His dad was one of those old-timers like Master Huang, “his eyes like a nail, like a knife, like an axe, shining with the light of a cold star.” One of those fellows with kang-hu, “consummate technique matched with unusual resolve.” I like to think I have some kang-hu myself, but as a translator I am also unusually dependent on the expertise of others.

Two moments stand out now. One when I realized that hsuan-tiao sha-ch’e wasn’t cantilever brake, which is what it means today, but rod-actuated brake, a kind of brake that is no longer in use. The other was when I found “band brake” on Google Images. Sometimes, all you can do is enter Chinese keywords and hope they’ll appear in the caption of some picture, in this case on an antique bicycle site. The reader should keep in mind that some of these terms that take a fraction of a second to read if they register at all took an hour each to find.

Technical translation is not exactly for everyone. It is an acquired taste, a taste I could not assume my audience had acquired. I suppose Wu Ming-yi’s biggest challenge was including all these technical bits without losing that human element. I think he succeeds, in several ways. First, in the conceit that a bicycle, or any old object, contains traces of human experience, like electrical shocks. Antique iron horses somehow bear all the stories of everyone who has ridden them. In this way, in working on a bicycle, one is connected, somehow, to people in the past, to their experiences and their emotions. In this way, Mr Cheng’s search for his father’s stolen bicycle ends up involving Taiwan’s butterfly export industry (in which friends of mine used to work as butterfly-catchers in childhood), in the conquest of Malaya, in the Burma campaign, and in Taiwan’s post-war industrialization.

It is not just technical but also philosophical. To my mind, the novel’s main message is Uncle Luck’s quip that emptiness is not the point. Uncle Luck’s name in Chinese is not quite luck, but rather what we hope luck will bring us: happiness and hope. At any rate, his name is not Uncle Vanity (as in Ecclesiastes). Uncle Luck does not deny the truth of co-dependent origination, which entails that all dharmas are empty, that everything will pass away and disappear. He knows it. We all do. His question for all of us is, what are you going to do about it, how are you going to live your life?

Which reminds me of the passage I agonized over the most. It kind of slipped the radar the first time we finalized the text, for the first edition, in a marathon of all-nighters. When I saw it in print I was horrified, because a passage of a couple of dozen words had ballooned into a hundred. Facing the author, Anthony Pym (my favourite translation studies scholar), and a roomful of students who had paid a hundred bucks for a masterclass (which I felt I was taking not teaching), I felt a little vulnerable. Here’s what I did:

  • The word for fate in Mandarin is ming-yun, literally ‘life-luck’ or ‘command-turn’. But ‘fate’ in my mother’s native tongue of Taiwanese is the other way round: ūn-miā. It belies fatalism, putting luck in front of life, suggesting you can turn the wheel of fate yourself instead of awaiting the commands of Heaven.

In my attempt to explain the various meanings of ming and yun I’d made it seem a bit philological. I also interpreted the meaning of the different order in Taiwanese, where the original merely said that the Taiwanese puts luck in front of life. It is not implausible, though, that the narrator would have seen things this way, because he received a modern education, which would also have included the medieval European image of the wheel of fate. I think it is brilliant, my combination of the wheel of fate and the bicycle wheel, but I have to admit that it is my combination. When I had the opportunity to revise this past March I took it out – if you take a look at the second edition you will see what I did in the revision. I think that as literature was better the first time round, but the revision is definitely closer to the original.

Ultimately this is testimony to the open-ended possibilities one explores in translation, actually in any piece of writing. In this case I was able to have it both ways, or two ways out of a multiplicity of ways it could have been.

Darryl Sterk is Assistant Professor at the Department of Translation, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. He has done research into film and fiction representations of indigenous peoples from Taiwan, and is now interested in indigenous translation studies. He also works as a translator of Taiwan literature.