Translation Highlights The ‘Need For The Bike’

October 29, 2003

University Park, Pa. --- In recent years, bicycling in the news has conjured up images of Tour de France and five-time winner American Lance Armstrong with determined, grim faces of exhausted riders and cheers of victory along the Arch of Triumph in Paris. But a book newly translated by a Penn State professor paints a different world of bicycling: a very personal world of communication and connection where all people and things passed by the way of the bike.

"Need for the Bike," by Paul Fournel and translated by Allan Stoekl, professor of French and comparative literature at Penn State, is an extended meditation on cycling as a practice of life. Each chapter unveils Fournel's travels where he speculates about the difference between animals that would like to ride bikes (dogs, for instance) and those that would prefer to watch (cows, marmots), and reflects on the fundamental absurdity of turning over the pedals mile after excruciating mile. He describes the country doctor who will not anesthetize him after he impales himself on a downtube shifter, At the same time, the author captures the sound, smell, feel, and language of the reality and history of cycling, in the mountains, in the city, escaping the city, in groups, alone, suffering, exhausted, exhilarated.


“..…Road maps for me are dream machines. I like to read them as if they’re adventure stories. When I drive my car, I use them to find the shortest route, to find the long roads where cities join, roads that don’t go through the country. As a bike rider, I use them for everything else. If I know an area, every centimeter of the map is a landscape laid out before me. If I don’t know it yet, every centimeter is an imagined landscape that I will explore. For example, I like maps of Brittany, which is a cyclist’s region I’ve never ridden. It’s my storeroom, my wine cellar. It’s the masterpiece in my library I’ve not yet read.”

Currently the cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Fournel also is an avant-garde writer whose works focus on the problems of puzzles and language.

Penn State's Allan Stoekl teaches courses on modernism, the narrative and autobiography and in his research, analyzes the writings of modern intellectuals of the early 20th century such as Paul Sartre and George Bataille.

"I'm an avid cyclist, and I wondered for a long time why there was not a good meditation on cycling that would treat the experience from every angle: growing up with the bike, using it in all situations, undergoing it as a corporeal event, so to speak," Stoekl says. "A book that would have something of the density of real writing, of a work of literature. I knew of no such book in English. I was thinking of writing such a book myself, but, to be honest, wasn't sure how to go about it."

By pure chance, he stumbled upon Fournel's book in Paris, just after the work came out in May 2001 and decided that Fournel had more or less done what he was fantasizing about.

"As I read on, I also started to imagine how various turns of phrase would sound in English--and very soon decided that I would like to translate all of it. Not just for selfish reasons—i.e. the pleasure of translating--but also to make this wonderful text available in English. It's a text that *is* about the bike--and it also gives the English speaking reader some insight about what the bike means in France--in French culture," Stoekl says.

Once Stoekl secured permission from Fournel and his publisher, he and Fournel worked together long-distance by email.

"I forwarded my translation to him in bits and pieces and he went over it, making many suggestions," he said. "Fournel's input was especially valuable both in catching some flat out errors, but also in making precise what certain slang meanings meant. A number of times he explained them in French, and I was able (more or less) to find English equivalents. I tried to be faithful to the French, all the while making the language flow and have both an eloquent poetic tone (like the original French) as well as an informal one. We worked this way off and on for almost a year.

“Cycling is a descriptive universe in which one lives, or wants to live, and from which, on occasion, one senses a bitter exile,” Stoekl notes. “Phrases such as ‘the Wool Eaters (wheel suckers)’ or ‘Squirrels (trackies)’ are personifications of cyclist being. Entering this world is more than just learning slang, it’s fashioning oneself in connection in body and mind.”

The two finally did meet in 2002 in New York City where they had coffee and discussed cycling. "I found it an enormous amount of fun to do it. In fact of all the projects I've been involved with--writing books of literary theory and criticism, editing volumes on literature, translating other authors--I have to say I've enjoyed this one the most," Stoekl recalls. "Working with the author long-distance was a pleasure. I hope the book will enable a lot of people to think about, and experience, the bike in new ways."


Excerpt reprinted from “Need for the Bike” by Paul Fournel, translated by Allan Stoekl, by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Besoin de vélo copyright Editions de Seuil, 2001. Translation and translator's introduction copyright 2003 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska


EDITORS: Dr. Stoekl is at by email or at 814 863 7499 by phone and can assist in setting up an interview with Mr. Fournel. For media review copies of the book, contact Erika Kuebler Rippeteau, publicity manager, University of Nebraska Press, at 402-472-5938 by phone or at by email.
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481