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The discussion and analysis presented after these translated stanzas is our opinion.  Read the translations for yourself and our analysis, but also seek out varied sources and come to your own conclusions.


Auden & Taylor:

The fool thinks that those who laugh
At him are all his friends,
Unaware when he sits with wiser men
How ill they speak of him.


The foolish man | for friends all those
Who laugh at him will hold;
When among the wise | he marks it not
Though hatred of him they speak.


The unwise man weens all who smile
and flatter him are his friends,
nor notes how oft they speak him ill
when he sits in the circle of the wise.


The stupid man thinks
that all who laugh at him are friends
He does not notice how the talk goes
when he sits with wise men.


The unwise man weens that all
who laugh with him, like him too;
nor sees their scorn, though they sneer at him,
on bench 'midst the sag when he sits.


The foolish man thinks everyone his friend
who laughs when he does;
if wise men mock him behind his back,
he'll never know.


A foolish man
thinks all who on him smile
to be his friends;
he feels it not,
although they speak ill of him,
when he sits among the clever.


At first reading, several of these translations (Auden & Taylor, Bellows, and Chisholm) make it sound like the foolish man thinks that all who "laugh at him are his friends."  And, this makes it sort of sound like people are laughing at him...or making fun of him.  But, I think Bray, Hollander, Terry, and Thorpe translations are closer to the intended meaning, when they suggest that the fool believes that everyone who laughs with him is his friend.  Everyone who "laughs when he does."  Bray attempts to make this as clear as possible by putting, "all who smile and flatter him."

Essentially, lines 1 and 2 say that the Fool believes that everyone who is nice to him is his friend.  Everyone who glad-hands him.  Everyone who laughs at his jokes.  Everyone who smiles when he walks in a room.  The fool takes these rather shallow indications...as indications of friendship with others.

Lines 3 and 4, describe the truth of the matter.  If these "friends" mock the fool behind his back he'll never know it (Terry).  The fool has no clue about how these "friends" speak ill of him when he sits among the wise (at a feast or at Thing). 

This stanza warns against falling for the tricks of those that are two-faced.  Those that glad-hand you, laugh at your jokes, and tell you over and over how great you are.  It warns that these people may have an entirely different attitude about you when you are not present...or not looking.  To your face they may be all smiles and pleasantries, but behind your back they may be working against you.  The fool is unaware of this, but the wise man takes note. 

The wise man also knows the difference between acquaintances and true friends.  The difference betwen those you are familiar with and those that are actually loyal to you.  The difference between those you've met and those you truly know.

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