80s Versions and Popular Culture

In the 1980s, the mention of Sun Tzu's The Art of War in the movie Wall Street made the book fashionable. This led a number of popular fiction authors to release their "own" versions of the work to capitalize on its newfound popularity. These versions were more about the pop culture of the era than Sun Tzu.

Unfortunately, though popular, none of these versions took advantage of the work completed in Taiwan creating a definitive version of Sun Tzu's text by this time. These versions were based either on old English translations or incomplete Chinese sources. However, all of these versions remain popular today, despite their questionable sources and poor quality of translation.

In 1983, James Clavell updated the Art of War translation of Lionel Giles and published it in a very popular version. This started a very common practice in English translation: creating a "new" version from other English translations instead of going back to the original source. Authors today continue to follow this practice, which only perpetuates and exaggerates the problems with early translations.

Thomas Cleary, another well-known author, did his own Art of War translation with historical commentary in 1988. Again, his name recognition did much to increase awareness of Sun Tzu, even if his work did nothing to improve the general quality of the translation.

To read some commentary about the Clavell or Cleary Art of War translations and a comparison of their translations with the original Chinese, click on the translators' names.