Ben Adam translating Zhuangzi

Dynamic Equivocation: Selections from Zhuangzi


Steve Wayne had just got set up with this sweet new gig at Ernst & Young when he heard that Joe Johnson was coming for a visit. Wayne was thrilled: he’d spent years as a journalist for a handful of Midwestern newspapers, slowly working his way up to editor in chief at the Chicago Tribune. Seeing how he climbed the ladder as high as it would go, he got in touch with a headhunter and landed this job as head of PR for a Fortune 500 company. He moved to New York about a week ago and was just getting set up at his new office in the Financial District and couldn’t wait to show his old friend Johnson what he’d been up to. It had been years.

He was chattering on about his friend one day when someone interrupted him. “Wait, you mean Joe Johnson? No, no, no, that guy’s gunning for your job, dude.”

Wayne’s heart sunk. All those feelings of nostalgia quickly blossomed into a shroud of fear and anxiety. He couldn’t sleep for three days. He stayed up all night searching Google, Facebook, Twitter, asking everyone if they knew where Joe Johnson was. No one had a clue. Maybe he was in New Jersey.

Finally, when Steve Wayne was pacing up and down the hall, avoiding work, trying not to check his phone for news, a bell rang and the elevator doors opened. Out walked Joe Johnson.

Wayne walked up to him and extended a hand, but before he could start in on the pleasantries, Johnson said: “Y’know they got a bird down south called a limpkin – ever hear of it?”

Oh no, here he goes again, thought Wayne. Another one of these homey rants that city folk find so charming. He could feel the sweat welling up in his palms.

“Well, this limpkin’s a very peculiar kind of bird,” Johnson continued. “It’s nocturnal, you see, only comes out around night and tends to stay away from people like you and me. In fact, they’re actually easier to hear than see, seein’ as they got these real weird calls, y’know, like the kind they use for jungle noises in Tarzan movies. Now, them limpkins don’t set down on nothin’ but water hyacinth and shellflower and other kinds of them floating plants, I been told, and eat only these tiny little snails – apple snails, they’re called. Tiny little fuckers, real hard to come by.” Johnson seemed to stare straight through Wayne’s eyes. “Well, anyhoo, one day there’s an old black crow around and he’s got this rat carcass, you see, and it’s all rotting and nasty, eyes half-pecked out, but the crow holds onto it all jealous-like. And then that old black crow sees this limpkin flyin’ by and he turns around real quick and he looks up and you know what he says? Do ya?”

“Uh, no.”

Johnson took a step closer, his face now less than six inches from Wayne’s, and said: “Caaaawwww! Caaaawwww! Caaaawwww!” The whole office seemed to vibrate. People turned around, one of the partners peaked his head out from the conference room, the receptionist picked up the phone and started to whisper. Johnson, still looking straight at Wayne: “So how you gonna come a-cawwin’ at me?”



Mister Rogers went for a walk in Humboldt Park. He was in the area to shoot a few scenes with local children for the show and to look at some old cathedrals in a nearby Ukrainian Village. A camera crew came with him. His producer, Louise, always hated doing these sorts of things because she never knew what to expect. Last time they went on a field trip, to Union Station in New York to show his viewers the restored ceiling murals, Mister Rogers was mobbed by hundreds of people of all ages wanting to talk to him. No matter how hard Louise tried to keep them back, saying they didn’t have time, that they were on a schedule, they just kept coming, and Fred Rogers not only shook every person’s hand but actually spent a good five minutes each listening to their stories and asking them for pictures and autographs.

It was dusk in the park, and Mister Rogers was asking a few children about their favorite songs, drawing them out in his simple, methodical way, when the sirens came. It was the Chicago police, and they seemed to be gearing up for a showdown. Louise looked around, not knowing what to do. Mister Rogers was leading the kids in a few rounds of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The cameraman shrugged and kept filming.

“Fred, what are you doing?” asked Louise. “What the hell is going on? How are you still singing?”

Mister Rogers finished singing and turned to her: “Thank you for asking me that question, Louise.” Red and blue light waved across their faces as the police cars screeched to a stop. “Come here, I’d like to give you an answer. When I was a young man, about fifty years ago, I saw a big box in the corner of the living room in my parents’ house in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was a television. I was a curious boy, so I turned the knob and the first images flickered on. Do you know what I saw?” His expression went blank. “I saw people throwing pies at each other.”

The doors of the police cars unlatched, boots clinked as they hit the ground.

“I have spent the last forty-four years trying to use television for the broadcasting of grace throughout the land. I am not winning that battle. I try to create a special place for people, a place of peace and grace, and television has only become louder and faster. But these are simply the times we are living in.”

“Freeze!” shouted a police officer. The children started to panic, the crew kept rolling. “On the ground, now!”

Mister Rogers put his hands behind his head, started to bend his knees, and kept speaking: “When I was a boy, and there were only radios in the home, everything was much calmer and quieter. Families gathered together to listen to the ballgame or the Lone Ranger, and they would use their imaginations. Do you like to use your imagination, Louise?”

“What?” asked Louise. She’d barely heard the question over the bark of the policemen through their megaphones.

“I said, do you like to use your imagination, Louise?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Hands behind your head!” came the crackling voice. A rough hand seized one of Louise’s wrists.

“That’s wonderful, Louise. I do, too. But the fact that people were calmer when I was a boy does not mean they were any better than us. And the fact that people today get more excited does not mean that we are any worse than people used to be. It’s simply because times have changed.”

She could feel the cold steel of the cuffs as they pinched her wrists. Mister Rogers, getting the same treatment, was unfazed.

“Deep sea divers are very brave, Louise. A deep sea diver is someone who travels very far down into the ocean in very small capsules and fixes pipes and rigs, or else goes exploring. Sometimes these divers encounter rays and sharks and eels, and must keep working, even if they are afraid. This is the courage of a deep sea diver. Rescue paramedics are also very brave. A rescue paramedic is someone who flies into the mountains to help a person who has taken a big fall. Sometimes these paramedics are attacked by coyotes and bears and mountain lions, but they still try to save the fallen person. This is the courage of a rescue paramedic. And police officers are very brave, too.” Mister Rogers smiled as he looked around at the men cuffing them. “A police officer is someone who keeps us safe. Sometimes police officers encounter people with guns and unhappy attitudes, and even if they’re very scared, even if they think they might die, they must remain calm. This is the courage of a police officer.”

The police began shoving the cameramen. Obscenities were hurled.

“But you know what, Louise? Teachers are brave, too. A teacher is someone who passes wisdom on to other people. Wisdom is knowing that success comes from the help of other people. If times are not right, other people might not be willing to help or willing to listen. A teacher understands this and will not become angry or resentful even when he’s mistreated. This is the courage of a teacher.”

By this point, the arresting officer had Mister Rogers lying on the ground, a leather boot pressed against his face.

“So just sit tight, Louise,” he said, “and let us wait to see what is in store for us.”

Suddenly, a Suburban screeched to a halt a few dozen yards away. Louise whirled around to see the sweating police commissioner waddle forth as fast as he could.

“Hey, hey! Cut it out!” he screamed. “Stop the arrest, fellas! What are you doing? Stop it, you little nincompoops! Hey, c’mon, you realize what you’re doing here? Huh? You realize?”

The policemen loosened their grips. The sirens wound down.

“C’mon, Joey,” said the commissioner. “Help ‘em up.”

Most of the police officers grunted in confusion. One of the younger ones helped Louise up.

“Sorry, Mister Rogers, my apologies,” said the commissioner, one hand on Mister Rogers’ elbow. “We thought you were Pee-Wee Herman.”



Joe Johnson set out one morning to go fishing on the Ohio River. He’d only been in his boat for a few hours, the sun barely starting to glisten on the still water, when a couple of suits pulled up to the shore. Judging from their tans and their coolly insistent attitudes, they had come from California. The taller of the two took off his sunglasses and flashed one of those sly little MBA smiles, saying, “Johnson! How you doing?”

No reply.

“That’s fine. We’ll talk, you listen. It seems you’ve come to the attention of our boss – you know our boss, right? Travis Kalanick?”


“Well, he’s looking for a new guru, you know, someone who can help him meditate and maintain a disruptive mind and all that. Of course, you could pursue your own projects in your spare time and have all the resources of Uber behind you. You’ll be generously compensated, of course. Big salary, stock options, a whole team of the brightest—”

“I hear,” said Johnson, fiddling with his fishing pole, “they got a stuffed grizzly in the Capitol Building out there in California. You boys ever been to Sacramento? Real nice place, Sacramento, real nice place. Got a brother out there, y’know. Real nice place that Sacramento. Anyway, that grizzly sure is a sight – downright majestic, you ever get the chance to see it. Big golden-brown pelt, eyes like fire, jaws all mean and howling, looks like it’ll jump right outta that glass case they got it in and start prowlin’ around the senate floor. I swear, it’ll scare the bejeezus right outta you.”

A pause. Joe Johnson grunted a little as he pressed against one of the levers of his fishing reel.

“Shame is, real California grizzly’s extinct! Extinct! Would you believe it? I mean, time was, they roamed up and down the whole state like they owned the place. Now nobody done seen one since 1924, if you can believe that. Nineteen-twenty-four…” His voice trailed off as turned his head to the sky and set down the fishing reel. The two suits looked at each other, wondering if he knew they were there.

Johnson continued: “Now this grizzly, you think he likes being dead, all cleaned up and put on display in that shiny glass case? Huh? Pelt all clean and shiny, stuffed with Lord knows what, schoolkids comin’ by wavin’ at him on their fieldtrips? You think he enjoys that, bein’ a symbol or somethin’? Or, I dunno, you, uh, you think he rather be alive and rollin’ around in the dirt?”

The two suits looked at each other, dumbfounded. A small school of fish darted by. Water lapped against the shore. The shorter of the suits ventured, “Um, I guess alive.”

Johnson picked up the fishing pole. The reel clicked. He turned to them and said, “Get the hell off my property! And to hell with the both of ya! I’m gonna keep rollin’ around in the dirt.”


Translator’s Note

Eugene Nida once proposed a method of translation called “dynamic equivalence.” By this strategy, a translation aims to find not semantic equivalents of the source text in a target language, but rather to render the whole contextual force of the original in a new language. Nida developed his method to aid Bible translators: if a remote tribe had different sacrificial practices from the ancient Israelites, perhaps the “Lamb of God” should be portrayed as a different animal.

Nida’s approach has come under attack in recent years. Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti has vilified it as the ultimate move in domesticating a text, a way to strip the original of all its upsetting foreignness. Such a view of the world, he says, in which all other cultures are seen through the prism of one’s own preconceptions, is the literary equivalent of solipsism. And indeed, most experimental translations now attempt to foreignize the source text, and bring the reader as close to the original as possible.

The Dynamic Equivocation project aims for just the opposite. The source text is brought close to the reader, uncomfortably so. It pushes Eugene Nida’s theory to its logical conclusions. Thus, these selections are part of an attempt to produce the most Americanized version of Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi possible. In this translation, provocateur Zhuangzi becomes the crazed Ohio fisherman Joe Johnson, his interlocutor Huizi becomes ad man Steve Wayne, and Confucius becomes Mister Rogers. Corporations replace the Warring States as the wielders of power, and local flora and fauna are substituted throughout.

Ben Adam

Ben Adam is a writer and translator from Ohio. He has lived and worked in Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Kathmandu, among other places. He currently resides in New Jersey.


The Zhuangzi (or Chuang-tzu) is a collection of parables, riddles, and fables that is one of the foundational texts of philosophical Daoism. It has been attributed to Zhuang Zhou and his followers, most likely composed between the fourth and second centuries BC.