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

03: SUN TZU said

Each chapter in the Art of War begins with the same three characters:

ZIEGER: Sun Tzu said:
GILES: Sun Tzu said:

These three characters are usually translated as Sun Tzu says. You should recognize the first two characters from our first lesson as the name of the author, Sun Zi in Pinyin and Sun Tzu in Wade-Giles. Let's take a quick look at the third character.

This character is similar to the English word say; it occurs fifty times in the Art of War. While it is similar to say, it is a weak-image character — which means its meaning is somewhat unclear without context: how it is rendered can change depending on its role in the sentence and what other characters it is interacting with.

translation notes

We have chosen to render this phrase Sun Tzu said, but the character , like all characters functioning as verbs in Sun Tzu's Art of War, is in fact tenseless: it can refer to the past, present and future. So rendering it Sun Tzu says would also be perfectly acceptable — which is, in fact how the character is translated from the expression Confucius says.

So which is better? Translators use context — especially time expressions — to help them determine which tense to use. Barring temporal clues, situational cues are considered.

In this case good arguments can be made for both says and said. Essentially, we ended up using said in our translation simply because our test readers seemed to prefer it; which gave us exactly the same rendering as Giles!

Finally, it is important to remember that this tense ambiguity is part of the nuance of the original Chinese: a nuance that is inevitably lost when translating into tense obsessed languages such as English.

Next time we'll have a look at the first unique line of the first chapter.


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