Anarchist Anthropology, Happy Fish, and Translation: Where do you get that?

By Lucas Klein, published

At the end of his new article, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?,” David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and public intellectual, writes: "Years ago, when I taught at Yale, I would sometimes assign a reading containing a famous Taoist story. I offered an automatic “A” to any student who could tell me why the last line made sense. (None ever succeeded.)" The story as Graeber quotes it:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling on a bridge over the River Hao, when the former observed, “See how the minnows dart between the rocks! Such is the happiness of fishes.”

“You not being a fish,” said Huizi, “how can you possibly know what makes fish happy?”

“And you not being I,” said Zhuangzi, “how can you know that I don’t know what makes fish happy?”

“If I, not being you, cannot know what you know,” replied Huizi, “does it not follow from that very fact that you, not being a fish, cannot know what makes fish happy?”

“Let us go back,” said Zhuangzi, “to your original question. You asked me how I knew what makes fish happy. The very fact you asked shows that you knew I knew—as I did know, from my own feelings on this bridge.”

Graeber admits, in a manner of speaking, that he would have had a hard time earning the “automatic ‘A’” himself. “After thinking about the story for years,” though, he concludes that Zhuangzi shows “himself to be defeated by his logician friend” as a form of play—“arguing about the fish, we are doing exactly what the fish are doing: having fun, doing something we do well for the sheer pleasure of doing it.”

Graeber’s is a compelling answer, but it’s not quite right.

And though I never took a class with Graeber when I was at Yale (I did organize for the union for which Graeber’s support led to his contract not being renewed), I will say that he won’t arrive at the right answer with the translation he cites.

He’s not the only one to come to a forced reading of the end of the parable based on an inaccurate translation. In Allegoresis, Zhang Longxi 張隆溪 says that the last statement “asserts the relative validity of knowledge, that ‘all knowing is relative to viewpoint’”; this, too, is compelling, but the translation he provides doesn’t quite make sense. Interestingly, Zhang quotes A. C. Graham here, but from Disputers of the Tao, not Graham’s translation of Chuang-tzŭ: The Inner Chapters. Instead, he gives his own translation, which reads, “When you said ‘how do you know about fish’s happiness?’ you asked me because you already knew that I knew it. I knew it above the Hao River.”

Graeber doesn’t credit the translator for the translation he provides (an anarchist who has written brilliantly on work, Graeber nevertheless reiterates capitalist commodity fetishism and an ideological faith in language as a fungible good when he denies the translator a name in his writing), nor could I find the version he’s working from in my internet searches.

The only translation I know of in which the logic of the last line in classical Chinese is successfully brought into English is A. C. Graham’s. Here’s the full text in Chinese:

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非 子,固不知子矣子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰汝安知魚樂云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。

The key point is Huizi’s phrasing of the question as 安知魚之樂?The translation Graeber quotes has this as, “how can you possibly know what makes fish happy?” Zhang’s is “How do you know about fish’s happiness?” Burton Watson, likewise: “how do you know what fish enjoy?” And James Legge: “how do you know what constitutes the enjoyment of fishes?” Similarly, every modern Chinese edition I’ve consulted glosses this in like manner, with read as 怎麼, “how?”

Only A. C. Graham’s seems to get that , pronounced ān in modern Mandarin, not only means “how” in classical Chinese, but “where?” Graham’s translation: ‘Whence do you know that the fish are happy?’ And the final line: ‘Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “Whence do you know that the fish are happy?”, you asked me the question already knowing that knowing that I knew. I knew it from up above the Hao.’

Graham walks this back a bit in a footnote, saying, “Chuang-tzŭ’s own final stroke of wit is more than a mere trick with the idiom An chih [ān zhī in pinyin] ‘Whence do you know …?’, one of the standard ways of saying ‘How do you know …?’ What he is saying is: ‘Whatever you affirm is as relative to standpoint as how I see the fish while I stand up here on the bridge.’

And so Graham ends up agreeing with Zhang Longxi (citing Graham), after all. But not for the same reasons. While Zhuangzi’s stroke of wit may be more than a mere trick, it is, at root, word play. Graeber could have incorporated that into his argument, and been none the worse for it.

Graham’s translation has the virtue of being accurate, but it might read a bit stiff. There’s mock formalism to his version that might replay the mock formality of Zhuangzi, but it’s hard for me to tell if it’s making fun of being stodgy, or if it’s just plain stodgy. I would have gone with something more contemporary and colloquial, like, “Where do you get that, that the fish are happy?”

Graeber’s use of Zhuangzi makes some other philological errors. He asks, “why did Zhuangzi, who wrote it down, show himself to be defeated by his logician friend?” The passage in question comes from Zhuangzi’s Outer Chapters 莊子外篇, which consensus says were not written by Zhuangzi himself but rather by followers centuries later, playing at being Zhuangzi, and enjoying some of his happiness without being him.

But it’s this issue of translation, and how something that made pretty plain sense to its initial readers, thousands of years ago, makes such little sense to us now in the wrong translation, that seems to matter most. Think how many students it’s kept from getting an automatic “A”!


# 1.   

I asked Graeber about this on Twitter and he said he was aware of this reading of . It's a shame, since as you say, part of the joy of reading Zhuangzi is that he, too, is playing around at a very high level. A few of the students at IES had the same problem a year or so ago: they were reading passages of Zhuangzi for their Classical Chinese course, but since nobody had told them that Zhuangzi was funny, they just found him mystifying and faintly obnoxious.

I think "how" probably can still work as a rendering for 安, but like you I'd go for something a little more up to date than "whence." "You're not a fish -- where do you get off talking about what makes fish happy" would probably be going a bit too far, but I'd be tempted all the same.

Brendan, February 12, 2014, 2:49p.m.

# 2.   

Nice to know Graeber knows that means both "how" and "where." Too bad he didn't reflect that in the translation he posted.

It can't be "where do you get off," though, because they're on the bridge.


Lucas Klein, February 12, 2014, 3:02p.m.

# 3.   

It doesn't really matter how "" is translated, and I disagree with the statement that Zhuangzi's stroke of wit here is just wordplay. It is much more than words because it is essentially Kant vs Hume on the possibility of knowledge. One needs to get beyond the language and see the logic structure in the conversation:

Huizi: “You not being a fish, how can you possibly know what makes fish happy?” -- Since knowledge can only come from experience, you cannot know what makes fish happy.

Zhuangzi: “And you not being I, how can you know that I don’t know what makes fish happy?” -- If knowledge can only come from experience, you cannot know that I do not know what makes fish happy.

Huizi: “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, does it not follow from that very fact that you, not being a fish, cannot know what makes fish happy?” -- If I cannot know that you do not know what makes fish happy, it means that you accept that knowledge can only come from experience. (Very unintelligent!)

Zhuangzi: “Let us go back to your original question. You asked me how I knew what makes fish happy. The very fact you asked shows that you knew I knew—as I did know, from my own feelings on this bridge.” -- If knowledge can only come from experience, why did you even bother asking the question, or any questions, in the first place? Why do we even have such conversations all the time? The fact that you are curious shows that you understand intuition, imagination, and the value of playfulness, just as I standing on the bridge in this joyful autumn day, can understand the joy of fish darting between the rocks right under the bridge.

The beauty of Zhuangzi's language lies in its playfulness and openness. I agree with both Graeber and Zhang Longxi's interpretations.

Sun Yunfan, February 12, 2014, 9:43p.m.

# 4.   

I think this also shows how vague translations can cause an over-mystification of Chinese, which is especially easy with Zhuangzi.

Another tricky part of this passage is dealing with 樂全. According to, another waipian chapter defines it like this: 乐全之谓得志, and a Tang dynasty commentator goes on to define it as 忘哀忘乐, something pretty far from just the idea of simple "play."

Jeff K, February 12, 2014, 10:10p.m.

# 5.   

In reply to Sun's post, Zhuangzi could have made the exact same argument about the nature of knowlege if he would have stopped at 既已知吾知之而問我. But he goes on to add 我知之濠上也, which is almost like a gratuitous zinger he adds at the end to explicitly highlight the double meaning of . I think the fact that he includes both of these lines at the end instead of one or the other shows that he is not only making a philosophical point, but he also can't pass up the chance to poke fun at Huizi, and maybe the poking fun part is the part he finds most important rather than having a serious philosophical debate.

Jeff K, February 12, 2014, 10:27p.m.

# 6.   

Sun Yunfan, that's a very erudite comment you've given, but pay attention: I didn't write that the end of this parable was "just wordplay," and I didn't say that Graeber's and Zhang's readings were wrong or invalid. I wrote that "While Zhuangzi’s stroke of wit may be more than a mere trick, it is, at root, word play," and called both Zhang and Graeber's takes "compelling"; I took issue with the translations they presented to reach their compelling conclusions.

How is translated does matter, because in English "how" and "where" are not immediately associable with each other, and without that association the surface logic of the passage cannot reveal the larger philosophical implications you're talking about.

I don't know what you mean when you say "The beauty of Zhuangzi's language lies in its playfulness and openness." Playfulness I certainly agree with, though what you've written above would indicate that you don't agree with yourself. As for "openness," and your demand that we "get beyond the language," you seem to be suggesting that language itself is incidental to Zhuangzi's philosophy. Now, there seems to be a lot of that in Daoism, from Laozi's "The way that can be spoken is not the eternal way" 道可道非常道 to Zhuangzi's "Where is someone who has forgotten words, so I can have a word with him?" 吾安得忘言之人而與之言哉? (my translations).

But what both these quotations reveal is that there's a deep and enduring awareness of language, expressed in ways both ironical and playful, and how it frames the simultaneous difficulty and necessity of pushing past language as we do our thinking. A translation that doesn't follow in this suit, I think, doesn't get at this central tension in the Daoist tradition. This is related, I think, to Jeff K's point above about the "over-mystification of Chinese," as if we pretend that all these timeless sages had no sense of humor. And as Brendan points out about the students he encountered, "since nobody had told them that Zhuangzi was funny, they just found him mystifying and faintly obnoxious."

As for Jeff's question about 樂全, I thought was basically a way of saying "Q.E.D.," or 「我非子,固不知子矣子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣」 as "I'm not you, therefore I do not know you; you are not fish, therefore do not know fish--so there, my logic is sound, I rest my case." But since you asked, I'm not so sure. I'll have to look it up.


Lucas Klein, February 13, 2014, 3:01a.m.

# 7.   

I read the same way there -- [子之不知魚之樂][全矣]; "your not-knowing of what makes fish happy is TOTAL" (sick burn, btw) -- and other translations seem to do the same. Legge has "you certainly are not a fish, and (the argument) is complete against your knowing what constitutes the happiness of fishes," according to CText; Mair's translation in Wandering on the Way is "you're certainly not a fish, so it is irrefutable that you do not know what the joy of fishes is." The translation -- Watson's? -- in Sources of Chinese Tradition has "it is also evident that you are not a fish, and so it is certain that you do not know what fish enjoy." Not sure was commonly used in argumentation -- a quick search through CText suggests not, but I'd have to look more closely to be sure..

Brendan, February 13, 2014, 6:58p.m.

# 8.   

Someone asked me about Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (a Pynchonian enough name to qualify him as a sinologist in the line of Knight Biggerstaff, Elling Eide, and Dudley Poston).

Ziporyn also uses "whence," and in a footnote explains, "Zhuangzi is saying, ‘I know their enjoyment down there from our enjoyment up here’—a friendly metajoke suggesting that the debate itself is an enjoyment." In other words, he follows Graham, agrees with Zhang, and predicts Graeber.


Lucas Klein, February 14, 2014, 12:19p.m.

# 9.   

Jeff, you bring up a great point--translating into "where" does turn the last line into a fun poke, which offers an added layer of enjoyment. But I would argue, just as the Ziporyn's footnote Lucas quoted above shows, the last line wasn't just a poke but the cherry on top of the cake in this mischievous philosophical verse.

Also, I'm not sure if there is an over-mystification of Zhuangzi, or if it is caused by vague translations. Aren't all classics perpetually mystified as long as people still read and talk about them? In today's China, the most quoted sentence from this verse is "子非鱼安知鱼之乐," and not "我知之濠上也." The merit of this verse is almost completely forgotten. The reason is not that this story is vaguely translated into modern Chinese, but that most Chinese today champion individualism and tend to have empiricist and materialistic world views.

Sun Yunfan, February 15, 2014, 3:42a.m.

# 10.   

Lucas, you've elegantly pointed out the tension between and . I guess I only differ from you a little bit in that I think the philosophical structure of this verse does come across when is translated as "how". But I agree with Brendan, it probably would read better as something like: You are not a fish, where did you get the idea of what makes fish happy?

I think Zhuangzi would agree that the larger implication of the verse is more fun than its parts on the surface: the mockery of Huizi's logic, the double meaning of "" or the homonym of “” and “”. They are instruments to frame up a space for a certain philosophical contemplation. Each translation shines a beam of light into this space. As such, a translation is not meant to be verified but to be experienced. Once we experience the 意, we can forget about the 言, which is why I do not have a problem with Graeber's translation.

Sun Yunfan, February 15, 2014, 4:55a.m.

# 11.   

Ooh, I like that, about the homophony between and . In that case, 安知我不知魚之樂 sounds like, "How do you know I don't know my own happiness?" Hadn't thought about that before!

You're certainly right that these "are instruments to frame up a space for a certain philosophical contemplation." For that reason, I don't see a contradiction or an either/or decision between the "empiricist and materialistic world views" and this story having been "vaguely translated into modern Chinese"; both can be true.

I mean, there's a common mystification of classics anywhere (isn't that what makes them classics?), and a lot of translations play into that (I think Emanuel Pastreich, whom I link to here, is trying to de-mystify Confucius in how he tries to translate). And I think, as related to an "empiricist and materialistic world view," a lot of people in China probably read the modern gloss of this passage--where becomes 怎麼--instead of reading the passage in classical Chinese. But also, for all that puns are fun and playful, they're rarely where the real substance of the philosophy exists for most people (the people who aren't that interested in "framing up a space for a certain philosophical contemplation," I mean). That, I think, is part of why 子非魚,安知魚之樂 would become the most commonly quoted passage in this story. And that it's pretty straightforwardly the statement upon which the parable centers.

"Once we experience the 意, we can forget about the 言," you write. Zhuangzi says as much somewhere, that once you've caught the fish you can get rid of the trap 得魚忘荃, an expression I've quoted as an excuse for not memorizing! And yet, these memorable expressions work against the idea that you can ever really separate meaning and language.

The classical expression you're referring to, I think, is 言不盡意, that words do not exhaust intent, or that there always seems to be more you wanted to say than what words seem to be able to convey. And yet, I've often thought the opposite to be true, that intent does not exhaust words, or that there's always more conveyed than just what you wanted to say.


Lucas Klein, February 15, 2014, 5:40a.m.

# 12.   

"What's the point if we can't have fun" ! check out this fabulous interview on PR in 1956. How do you translate: " Immaculate Conception is really spontaneous combustion" from English into Chinese :-)

susan, March 24, 2017, 12p.m.


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