Sun Tzu's Methods

Translating Ancient Chinese

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There are many hurdles to creating an accurate translation of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Many of these hurdles are unique.

First, ancient Chinese is a conceptual language, not a spoken language. This means that its characters cannot be properly understood as verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and so on, as can words in other written languages. Ancient Chinese characters represent general concepts that can be translated in an extremely wide variety of ways.

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

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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.

The Denma Translation

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The Denma translation is one of the strangest, perhaps the most "fortune cookie" of all, in the sense of keeping the meaning vague. Either the version of the original Chinese the translators used was missing many lines that exist in all other translations, or they chose to ignore those lines. Other lines are shown out of their usual place in the text (see example below). The text also uses different section breaks (indicated by ***) than the other versions, so our sample stanza is a combination of two stanzas from their work.

Sawyer's Translation

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Sawyer's Translation: The major strength of Sawyer's version, which was written in the nineties, is the academic research surrounding Sun Tzu and his era. The book includes over a hundred pages of footnotes and another hundred pages or so of extensive historical information. Unfortunately, this academic knowledge proves to be a mile wide and an inch deep, especially when it comes to the translation, which has more mistakes than many of the others. The author should have referred to a much better academic work, Ames' version, to get the meaning of the translation on track.

Gagliardi's Translation

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Full disclosure: This is the official Science of Strategy Institute version, The Art of War Plus the Ancient Chinese Revealed, written by our founder. The goal of our version is to give readers a better idea of what Sun Tzu wrote. In this sample, as in the entire book, we try to give the same weight to each phrase in the English as it has in the Chinese. We also try to translate the phrases as simply and directly as possible. We let the reader make his or her own assumptions about what Sun Tzu meant in terms of deeper meaning.

A Standard Benchmark

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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.


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