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


In this phrase Sun Tzu introduces us to his usage of the character tao:

ZIEGER: the approach to survival and annihilation
GILES: a road either to safety or to ruin

It parallels the previous phrase in both structure and meaning, creating a marked emphasis.

This character is quite close in meaning to the English verb be, but exclusively in the sense of exist. It occurs four times in the text.

This character is more or less the opposite of the above character; while it could be translated as not be or not exist, it is its own verb; perhaps something like un-be or un-exist capture the essence of the character a little bit better. It occurs seven times in the text.

This extremely common grammatical character is discussed here, if you wish to review.

Though this character literally means road, some might recognize it as the character for tao, a Chinese word that has, to some degree, broken into the English vernacular. It was indeed tempting to simply render it tao in our translation; however, early in our research we found many English-speaking readers did not have a clear understanding of the meaning of tao, so we chose instead to render it approach. We were able to render it approach all twenty times it occurred in the text with the nuance of tao (the other four times it occurs it has the nuance of a physical road).

translation notes

There were several challenges in rendering this particular phrase, as it involves several concepts that do not translate easily into Western languages.

In the Chinese, the two characters 存亡 form yin yang type opposites, similar to life and death (死生) in the phrase previous; perhaps the more direct rendering would be something like being and not being. In agreeing with Giles that more urgent-sounding English words communicate the sentence more accurately — especially with a context such as war — we have had to make the sentence a touch more abstract that it sounds in the original Chinese.

When it came to rendering the character for tao (), approach has two advantages over other possible English renderings. First, we were able to render the character as approach all twenty times it occurred; most other major translations are forced to render tao several different ways. Second, approach embodies a neutrality that resembles the concept of tao better than most other choices.

This neutrality is especially appropriate considering it may be overzealous to assume that Sun Tzu's tao had the moral, religious and philosophical connotations associated with its present day understanding; it is prudent to remember that Sun Tzu was more or less contemporary with both Confucius and Lao-Tzu — generally thought to be the fathers of organized Taoist thought — and that their degree of influence on Sun Tzu is very much in question.

Giles varies his renderings of tao significantly: in this case he uses the literal road; in other cases he uses moral law, principles, ways, and sometimes avoids translating the character completely.

Next time we'll have a look at the second most common character in Sun Tzu's Art of War: the character for not.


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