First Western Translation

Competitive Arenas: 

Many of the historical problems with understanding Sun Tzu's work can be trace back to its first Western translation. A Jesuit missionary, Father Amiot, first brought The Art of War to the West, translating it into French in 1782. Unfortunately, this translation started the tradition of mistranslating Sun Tzu's work, starting with the title, The Art of War (Art de la guerre). This title, copied the title of a popular work by Machiavelli, but it didn't reflect Sun Tzu's Bing-fa, which would be better translated as "competitive methods."

We cannot say what effect being translated by a Jesuit priest had upon the text. It was unavoidable that the work's translation reflected the military prejudices of the time era when war was both popular and Christian. It was also unavoidable that most future translations would reflect some of the first translation's prejudices. However, war was on the verge of becoming much less Christian in the West since this time was the era of the French Revolution (1789).

The work might well of slipped into obscurity after its initial publication, but it was discovered by a minor French military officer. After studying it, this officer rose to the head of the revolutionary French army in a surprising series of victories. The legend is that Napoleon used the work as the key to his victories in conquering all of Europe. It is said that he carried the little work with him everywhere but kept its contents secret (which would be very much in keeping with Sun Tzu's theories).

However, Napoleon must have started believing his own reviews instead of sticking with his study of Sun Tzu. His defeat at Waterloo was clearly a case of fighting on a battleground that the enemy, Wellington, knew best. Wellington’s trick at Waterloo was hiding his forces by having them lie down in the slight hollows of this hilly land. This is exactly the type of tactic Sun Tzu warns against in his discussion of terrain tactics.

After Napolean, Sun Tzu's theories made their way into western military philosophy. Many of his ideas are reflected in the ideas of work of Carl von Clausewitz. who
defined military strategy as "the employment of battles to gain the end of war."