A Standard Benchmark

To compare different translation styles, we looked for a simple stanza that is translated with the same general meaning by all translators. For this purpose, we chose the stanza that appears at the very end of Chapter 7, Armed Conflict. In this stanza, there is only one Chinese character that is translated a little differently (see below) in the various common popular translations.

(NOTE: What we call a "stanza" of Chinese ideograms is one block of characters from the original text. This block was originally written together, separated from other blocks by physical space. Each line is a phrase, usually written in modern Chinese with a "comma" or similar Western-style punctuation after each phrase.)

Comparing a stanza in which translators disagreed would have been easier and more entertaining. But it would make an objective comparison of actual translation styles useless. Our purpose here is not to debate or explain the true meaning of the text, no matter how critical that issue is. Our purpose is limited only to illustrating the various approaches used in translation, especially in regard to how language is used in translation. This topic touches on the difference between translation and explanation, but one advantage in seeing the original Chinese is that you can see that for yourself, at least in this small example.

There are several different traditional Chinese versions of Sun Tzu's The Art of War because of its complicated history in China and in translation. For our comparison, we use the newest compilation, which includes 20 to 40 percent more material than earlier fragmentary versions.

This is a good benchmark because there is only one minor disagreement about the meaning of a single character in this stanza. Clavell, Cleary, Denma, and Gagliardi translate the character as "war" or "military." Griffith and Ames translate it as "troops." Both "war" and "troops" are legitimate, though "war," as in The Art of War itself, is more common. One other meaning of is "soldier" or "soldiers." The word "troops" is more often shown as , which can also mean "legion." Sawyer is inconsistent in his translation, translating as "military" and "army," while translating as "army" as well. We are very critical of translations that render different source words or characters into the same English word, because English offers plenty of alternatives.