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

05: LIFE and DEATH

In this next phrase Sun Tzu expands upon the importance of war to the kingdom:

ZIEGER: It is the land of life and death,
GILES: It is a matter of life and death,

This phrase contains one grammatical character you already know, and three very common image-based characters. Let's go over them:

This character is very close in meaning to the English word death. It occurs twenty-four times in the text.

This character is very close in meaning to the English word life. It occurs twenty-five times in the text.

Hopefully you remember this extremely common grammatical character; it is discussed here, if you wish to review.

This is the most common image-based character occurring in the Art of War. It occurs eighty-eight times, as the ninth most common character. Rather than corresponding to a single image in English, this character combines the ideas of land, ground, Earth, territory and place into one concept.

The default translation we chose for this character was land, a word that resembles in its weak-image flexibility, but does not quite fully express the range of images the character can represent. We were able to use this rendering about eighty percent of the time; when land was for some reason unclear, earth was our next choice, followed by place.

translation notes

The first issue with this phrase is how to render the character . Rendering the character land honours Sun Tzu's imagery better than does Giles' rendering of matter; that said, there is a slight grammatical tension that land creates in the sentence which matter manages to avoid. In short, various renderings have strengths and weaknesses, as is often the case with weaker-image characters such as .

The other issue is the ordering of life and death; the Chinese characters are, of course, ordered death and life (死生). As mentioned in the previous tutorial, a key factor in faithfully reflecting the original text is respecting the original author's image order.

In this case, however, the phrase death and life surprised test readers to the extent it could not be used: surprises not intended by the original author tend to distract from the text, and are best avoided. So in this particular case we were pleased to follow Giles' rendering of life and death.

Next time we'll have a look at Sun Tzu's first use in the text of tao.


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