R is for ‘The Rainbow Fish’

The Rainbow Fish is the most beautiful fish in the whole ocean but he is so proud and rude that the other fish start avoiding him. Soon he becomes the loneliest fish in the whole ocean and finds himself faced with a choice – will he share his beautiful scales and learn to be happy?

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Written by Marcus Pfister, this international best seller, translated from the German by J. Alison James, was published by NorthSouth Books in 1992. The illustrations are bold and striking, with bright colours and shiny foil scales that catch the light. The story is sweetly told, yet almost a parable about the true source of happiness. I rather like the translation, although I’ve always been puzzled by “happy as a splash” – I don’t have a German text to hand for purposes of comparison. Fils aîné is particularly taken with it, even wanting to know why the Rainbow Fish didn’t give his very last scale away too, so he could be even happier! There are several other books in the series too – although I haven’t read them – which deal with various other childhood issues such as overcoming fears and settling arguments.

the Rainbow FishOf course, it’s always possible for adults to start over-analysing these things – has the rainbow fish truly changed or is he just buying fair-weather friends? What is the role of the mysterious octopus anyway? Isn’t it convenient that he knows just the right number of fish to give away all but one of his scales?

I thought I was just messing about with those ideas, but when I glanced at a few reviews on-line, I discovered that the Rainbow Fish is a source of huge controversy. British critics tend to concentrate on the fact that the Rainbow Fish is required to give up his individuality to court acceptance, while certain right-wing Americans are mightily concerned that this evil book is teaching children SOCIALISM! One amazon.com reviewer suggested that the Rainbow Fish should have taught all the other fish how to get their own scales as shiny as his, so that they could all work for success instead of expecting handouts. Meanwhile, according to Neal Boortz, The Rainbow Fish is:

“the most insipid, disgusting and subversive children’s book available today.”

(Which makes me think it must be doing something right…) Here is a rather more balanced critique from Eric Steinman:

 “Where this book could easily be teaching honest lessons about the value of communication and sharing, it teaches flawed lessons about being liked and losing yourself to mass popularity.” Read more: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/lit-crit-the-rainbow-fish.html#ixzz1vATyotMj

 and a positive view from Anna M. Ligtenberg:

“The message in this book is more about not letting your possessions possess you, about understanding that others won’t like you just because you’re pretty, and about recognizing that friendship isn’t about someone else adoring you but about sharing something, even if all you share is play time (not necessarily possessions).” Source: http://www.amazon.com/

Oh, and if you were wondering whether the debate is due to anything being lost in translation, I can assure you that the reviews on amazon.de are equally polarised.

Meanwhile, here’s what the author has to say about it:

“Rainbow Fish has no political message. The story only wants to show us the joy of sharing. We all enjoy making presents for Holidays or birthdays and the warm feeling it gives us when we do so. I want to show children the positive aspect of sharing: To share does not only mean to give away something (what is quite hard for a child), but above all to make someone else happy– and themselves happy by doing it.” Source: http://www.marcuspfister.ch/evolution.htm

Personally, I think that most of this fuss comes down to simply reading too much into it. Clearly, Pfister could have made his point in a less clumsy way and avoided such a whirl of controversy, but I also think that children are more likely to understand the book the way it’s meant than adults…

What do you think? Love it or hate it? A nice message about sharing or Communist propaganda? Let me know!

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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3 Responses to R is for ‘The Rainbow Fish’

  1. I think I bought this for my sister when she was little – I liked the pictures and she did too which goes to show how deeply we thought about it. Not as overtly socialist as Wilde's The Happy Prince which generally reduces me to tears (still).

  2. Rachel Ward says:

    Yes, I like the pictures too! I think I've read the Happy Prince, but can't remember for certain.

  3. Pingback: Sharing a Shell « a discount ticket to everywhere

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