Sun Tzu's Original Art of War

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A beginner's TUTORIAL on how to read, understand and translate the Chinese for Sun Tzu's Original Art of War.

~ by translator andrew w. zieger

01: the TITLE

In modern Chinese, the the title Art of War is Sun Zi Bing Fa. It's comprised of four Chinese characters. Here are the characters, along with my our translation (Zieger) and the widely published 1908 translation of Lionel Giles:

ZIEGER: Sun Tzu's Art of War
GILES: Art of War

Let's take a closer look at each character before looking at a few translation points.

This character is close in meaning to the grand in grandson, and can be rendered descendant in more technical translations; it also, however, acts as a surname — and in this case it is the surname of the author, believed to be heroic general Sun Wu.

This character literally means child. In classical Chinese, however, it was also used as an honorific title, somewhat close to how we would use Dr. for people who have a Phd. — though we can be quite sure Sun Tzu did not go to graduate school! Some modern translators will go so far as to render the character Master, as in Master Sun.

It is worth noting here that there are two main systems for writing Chinese pronunciations in English: Wade-Giles and Pinyin. While Pinyin is the modern standard, many of the Chinese loan-words we have in English are in the older Wade-Giles style. The character is expressed Tzu in Wade-Giles to create the familiar Sun Tzu; in Pinyin, it is expressed Zi, as shown above, to create the more modern Sun Zi. We will use the more up-to-date Pinyin system to express pronunciations for this tutorial, but because Chinese load words the the English vernacular are almost exclusively Wade-Giles, in translations for modern English readers Wade-Giles is often the better choice.

This character occurs over seventy times in the Art of War and essentially means weapon. When you look at it, you might see an axe sitting on top of a table — an apt pictograph for weapon.

By extension it has also come to mean war and army; both of these uses occur extensively in the Art of War.

This character occurs over twenty times in the Art of War and basically means method; it is represented by art in the traditional English title, Art of War.

The first three dots that are written on the left represent water; the cross with the line below it represents ground; and the triangle like shape on the bottom looks kind of like an elbow (although etymologically its origins are related to the idea of secrecy). Water, ground, elbow: those images together sound a lot like clay-work, which is a fitting image for art.

translation notes

If we were strictly concerned with imaging and ordering, we could well end up with a title like Sun Tzu's War Methods — which is, it could be argued, more accurate.

However, Giles title Art of War is so ubiquitous in English-speaking culture as to make a title like Sun Tzu's War Methods confusing for the vast majority of readers — most would probably think it another book completely!

Confusing and surprising are not words that usually describe quality translations. Gauging comprehension and expectations is key in creating an experience for the target audience that closely mimics the experience of a work's original readers.

All of this makes art more appropriate than method, or any other possibilities; and made it an easy choice to honour Giles groundbreaking translation in our title.

Next time we'll have a look at the title of the first chapter of Sun Tzu's Art of War: Evaluations.


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