Mo (mofic) wrote,

Of Severing Gordian Knots and Other Creative Solutions to Thorny Problems

This is a story I've been telling for 20 years, and the guy who told it to me had been telling it for close to 15 years when he did. It's amusing, but I think it also illustrates something applicable to lots of different situations.

I had a colleague a long time ago named Eric, whose brother worked for the State Department. After Nixon went to China and trade between the US and China started to open up, Eric's brother accompanied a bunch of American businessmen on one of the first official trade missions there. The American delegation was wined and dined all over the country, as well as shown various industrial areas.

At a banquet one evening, Eric's brother was at a table that consisted, besides him, of three American businessmen, four Chinese factory managers, and an interpreter. None of the Americans spoke any Chinese and none of the factory managers spoke any English. The interpreter was excellent and was well able to keep multiple conversations going, translate quickly, and generally make them all feel like the eight of them were really conversing with one another. Everyone at the table was so impressed with his skills.

One of the Americans, a man Eric's brother described as a Good Ol' Boy from Texas, decided to test the interpreter. "You're pretty good, buddy," he said, "but let's see if you can handle this." And then he told a joke. It was a terrible joke, both unfunny and offensive. This was a joke that was not only racist and sexist and also very specific to American culture and concerns (it was about college football). It seemed unlikely that one could translate it into Chinese, even if one wanted to.

The interpreter, though, seemed to have no misgivings. He said something in Chinese; the factory managers all laughed; the Good Ol' Boy was impressed; conversation moved on.

But Eric's brother couldn't get over it. How had the interpreter managed to not only translate that joke but even get a laugh out of those men? After the banquet he pulled the interpreter aside and asked him to please tell him how he did it.

The interpreter smiled inscrutably :-) and replied, "It was simple. I said, 'the American gentleman has just told an untranslateable joke. Please laugh.' And they did."

Sometimes the solution is easy if you just look at the problem in a slightly different way.

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