Posted by: patenttranslator | March 16, 2011

The Happiness of Fish and the Shortsightedness of Translators

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”

Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

(From a famous discourse by Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi  (), 4th century BC, sometimes referred to as “The Happiness of Fish” (魚之樂, sakana no raku in Japanese), translated by Burton Watson in 1968).

This is a dialogue that I studied many years ago in a classical Chinese class. Incidentally, I think that this translator took too many liberties with the text – for instance I seem to remember that the philosophers kept calling each other “Sir” and that there were no minnows in the Chinese original, but I think that he had a good reason to do what he did  and that it is a very good translation. Sometime when I read comments on blogs of translators, I somehow flash back to this dialogue between two bearded Chinese sages who must have been wearing funny round hats and sandals when they were discussing whether one can know what fish enjoy the best.

We know about how other translators work and live about as much as Huizi knew about the happiness of fish. Namely nothing. But regardless of what we know or don’t know, we sure have strong opinions about everything, just like those two bearded Chinese sages almost twenty five hundred years ago. The world of this patent translator, who lives in Virginia near the Great Dismal Swamp not far from the North Carolina border, is very different from the world of a translator who lives in Berlin and mostly translates software manuals, or a translator who lives in Oakland, CA, and who mostly translates newspapers from French.

We talk to each other on the blogs and once in a while on the phone, while assuming that we have so much in common, but that is not necessarily the case. I was an in-house translator for a news agency in Prague in the early eighties and for an import company in Tokyo in the mid eighties. Those were two completely different worlds again and so were the two jobs, although they had the same title.

Some translators assume, for example, that translators who don’t use Trados and other processing tools are Luddites who will come around one day soon by necessity. Other translators, such as this one, think that before we “Luddites” come around, Trados will go the way of WordPerfect and pluperfect. Which one of us is right? Only the fish know.

Some people may think that they have all the answers.  I fall into that trap too often myself. But I do realize that nobody has all the answers and that the differences are what makes life interesting.

We can assume that darting around and jumping is what fish like the best, but we can’t know it for sure. Maybe some fish do, and some fish don’t, just like some translators like to go out chasing clients, while many probably find the idea about as appealing as a root canal operation.

So, how should a translator finish a blog that started with a fairly long translation from classical Chinese to try to strike the right kind of balance,  which is mostly impossible to find in real life? With a short French sentence, of course.

And here it is:“Vive la différence!”

Kristina4dalailama left the following comment on Youtube about this Neil Young video:”Dear God, Please bring back Bob Marley, in return you can have Justin Beber, Amen.”


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