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


The chapter titles in Sun Tzu's Art of War involve one or two descriptive characters along with a chapter identifier. Here's the title to the first chapter:

ZIEGER: Evaluations
GILES: Laying Plans

Let's take a closer look at both characters before we look at considerations in the translation.

This character has no direct equivalent in English; it is often rendered calculate or plan. We chose evaluate in our translation.

To remember this character, it may be useful to consider how it is composed. On the left side, we have the character , which is close to word or speak in English. On the right we have the character , which means ten. The image of words with numbers fit very nicely with the idea of evaluate.

This character occurs thirteen times in the Art of War, exclusively at the end of each chapter title. It is easiest to simply relate this character to book chapter in English.

translation notes

There's a couple of issues to take note of with the title of the first chapter. The first is what characters the it includes!

Some of the manuscripts that have come down through the ages include the character , which essentially means begin. Most experts agree, however, that this character was at some point added to the text, and the earliest manuscripts do not include this character in the chapter title.

Giles does not explicitly translate the character in his title, so it is of minor concern in our comparison. There greater issue, however, is how the character is translated throughout the whole text.

As a character important enough to be a chapter title, the character is clearly being used in a technical nature: translating it consistently is critical in faithfully rendering the text. By using evaluate, we were able to use the same rendering for all eleven times the character occurred in the text.

Giles, however, uses a variety of renderings for the character:

  1. evaluations (8)
  2. evaluating (2)
  3. evaluate
  1. making plans
  2. deliberations (2)
  3. counsel (3)
  4. plans
  5. deviation (2)
  6. shrewdly calculating
  7. devise

As you can see, Giles translation is quite rangey in his renderings of this single character: the gaps from plan to deviation to counsel are large enough for even a non-expert to feel uncomfortable!

We'll get a chance to look at a few of these examples in more detail as they occur later in Chapter 1.

Next time we'll have a look at the three characters that start every chapter of Sun Tzu's Art of War.


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