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


So far we've looked at some titles and some chapter conventions of Sun Tzu's Art of War, and now finally we can have a look at some real content. Here's the first sentence of the chinese text:

ZIEGER: War is, to the kingdom, a great matter.
GILES: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

This phrase contains one character you already know, and two very important grammatical characters. Let's have a look.

Hopefully you remember this character. It is discussed here, if you wish to review.

This is a key character in ancient Chinese grammar. It occurs 224 times as the third most common character in Sun Tzu's Art of War. There is no equivalent expression in English for this character; it essentially identifies the character or characters before it as the subject or topic of the sentence that follows. For this tutorial we use (is) as the keyword to represent it in English, but it could also be expressed as with regard to, or even a simple comma.

This character occurs seventeen times in the text, and essentially means country in modern Chinese. We rendered the character using the more era-accurate word kingdom.

This is another key grammatical character, occurring 332 times in the text as the most common character. Again, there is no equivalent expression in English: it essentially creates a modifying relationship between the images before and after the character. We use (of) as the keyword to represent it in English, but it could be represented by 's or any number of other prepositions.

This character is an extremely common Chinese character, although it only occurs six times in the Art of War; it essentially means big; in this case, however, we render it great .

This is another extremely common Chinese character, occurring eighteen times in the text. It is probably most accurately translated as thing in the non-physical sense, or as we render it in this phrase matter.

At other points in the text it can act as helper verb with a meaning close to should.

translation notes

There are several issues to consider with this sentence. First, it gives us a chance to consider image ordering; notice how our translation strictly follows the order of the original Chinese images, whereas Giles has flipped the image order:

ZIEGER: War is, to the kingdom, a great matter.
GILES: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.

In this instance the effect may be small, but repeatedly disregarding the original image order creates a text that does not accurately reflect the original author's writing style — and can in fact lead to serious misrepresentations of the text, especially in passages that seem obscure.

The second prominent issue is the character , which we managed to translate as kingdom seventeen of the eighteen times it occurs. Giles, as in this instance, uses state as his default translation (eight of the eighteen times it occurs), while also using country, nation and — three times — kingdom. The reason for his inconsistency is unclear, as these arbitrary substitutions significantly misrepresent the simplicity of Sun Tzu's writing style.

Further, Sun Tzu's time was a time of kings, kingdoms and emperors; it is doubtful the people of the time were conscious of such abstract concepts as state, nation or perhaps even country. As such, kingdom seems to be the superior translation for the character in all cases.

Finally, in modern Chinese the two characters 大事 work together idiomatically to create a concept that is very similar in meaning to the English word important. In the Giles translation of vital importance the vital seems to add meaning to the text. We chose to render it in the more direct character based translation of a great matter to avoid this problem.

Next time we'll have a look at the characters for life and death in the next line of the first chapter.


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