Where all translations of Sun Tzu (even our own) go wrong


No book written in the conceptual ancient Chinese can be completely translated into English prose sentences. The original Chinese has more in common with mathematical formulas than English sentences. Like formulas, they have various meanings in different contexts. English translations of these formulas are like describing the meaning of E=mc2 in a single sentence. It can be done, but it misses much more than it captures.

Sun Tzu took a very scientific approach to his work, but he wrote in terms that were well understood in his era but mysterious in ours. He defines his terms very carefully, but translators prefer using the common meaning for his characters.

To help you understand the problems, we have identified a few examples of the five common errors in translation. This errors are:

  1. to invert Sun Tzu's meaning,
  2. to make "slight" mistakes leading to complete confusion,
  3. to opine rather than translate,
  4. to choose vague, generalized words that could mean anything, and
  5. to lapse into "fortune cookie" phrases that seem profound only in their obscurity.

Different authors have very different approaches that can be seen objectively when comparing each author's translation of the same stanza of the original Chinese. This comparison of popular versions is a good illustration of those differences.