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Comparing English Translations of Sun Tzu's The Art of War (scienceofstrategy.org)
50 points by wslh on Dec 8, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments



The previously posted comments are correct that the way to evaluate a translation is to find someone who knows the original language. I do read literary Chinese, although I have never tackled the full text of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. (I've mostly read the major philosophers like Confucius and Mencius.) There was a whole genre of Chinese literature at that time of guides to warfare, so 兵法 ("art of war") is a title of some other books from that era, which is why Sun Tzu's book is usually mentioned with his name.

Literary Chinese has quite intricate grammar, about which both Chinese and Western linguists debate in book-length works. Just as with any other language, a word-by-word approach to translation will not do. When I first saw this article submitted to Hacker News, I read it for a while, looking for clues that the blog post author actually knows Chinese. To me, too, the site looked a bit like a scam, trying to sell management advice based on an ancient holy text for rather too much money.

For me, the key take-away from translations of Sun Tzu's Art of War that I have read is to leave an enemy a way to flee. Don't force people to fight to the death by surrounding them entirely. That advice was followed when P.R.C. soldiers moved in on the peaceful Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. One corner of the square was left open as an escape route so that people could simply run away.


The lack of "academic" translations such as Lionel Giles's or Victor Mair's is odd for that site...


I like this free online version, which shows side-by-side original with corresponding English translation (derived from Lionel Giles work in 1910). The Chinese version shows characters with tooltip-style dictionary entries. Very useful if you are trying to learn the language.

http://www.yellowbridge.com/onlinelit/artofwar.php


Link to a free download of their translation: http://scienceofstrategy.org/main/content/free-sun-tzus-art-...

I read the samples of the translations, and their translation and the Sawyer translation seemed to be the best to me. (Full disclose: I don't know any Chinese.)


That's an interesting coincidence since the "translator" Gary Gagliardi doesn't either. His theories of translation are quite unique.

From an interview ( http://www.sonshi.com/gagliardi.html ) that was done with him:

"Languages have always been my hobby and, at the time, I had spent about three years studying written Japanese, so I had some grounding in the Kanji character set that is shared with Chinese.

However, I discovered that ancient Chinese is a language unto itself, written more conceptually (or poetically, as some prefer) than any modern spoken language. Fortunately, I also have a bit of a background in mathematics and physics and I immediately saw the similarities between The Art of War and classical Greek mathematics, especially Euclid (I also study ancient Greek).

With my background in using Sun Tzu's concepts successfully in business competition with years of explaining these ideas to others, I was better positioned to interpret Sun Tzu's equations than someone who was a linguist alone. I started with the assumption that Sun Tzu didn't contradict himself so, if there was a contradiction in the translation, the problem was with the translation, not the original.

I also had the advantage of working from a complete compilation of Sun Tzu various textual traditions created by the University of Taipei, so I had a more complete source document that many other English translators and a number of Chinese dictionaries on the Internet for doing research and on-line versions of other texts from the period (such as the Tao Te Ching)."


Thanks. I just downloaded the free version. Seems rife with typos - example:

While you are may be reading this book out of curiosity, we hope it interests you in learning more about using Sun Tzu’s system to make better decision.

Also uses difficult-to-follow formatting. Concludes with an infomercial-esque sales pitch for additional products:

At this point, you have to make a decision. This is appropriate because Sun Tzu teaches the science of making better decisions. At this point, are you satisfied just being able to say you read The Art of War? Or do you want to develop real skills you will use every day?


interesting stuff. its very hard to judge translations without knowing the original and the language of it... its a shame this website mainly has the appearance of some kind of scam. can't quite put my finger on it...

maybe needs a good design pass on it - it might sell more books then. :)

can't help but notice its using apple's font preference and the same list of fallbacks too...


Yes, it feels like a mail-order site to me too.

Not like scam, but more like "hey we are all after you money, and that is about it."

Maybe it is the aggressive adverticing of their products, that makes for that either mail-order/scam/new-age/Evangelical Christian feeling I get?

I'd be much better with a gentler introduction, and then hit harder as I dwelled deeper into the material.

I have actually read a good copy of Sun Tzu already. And after having looked briefly at the sight, I decided to dwell no further into the subject.

I recommend I'Ching translated by Richard Herman, if it has been retranslated into english.


Translators can end up with considerably different results. The first version of the Tao Te Ching I ever read was Stephen Mitchell's translation. I later picked up another version and just couldn't stand it.


THAT is really weird! Because in NLP and Machine Translation the symmetric translation of text is seen as proof that the algorithm works perfectly.

And I had the opinion, that professional linguists or bilingualists, should all come up with almost or mostly identical translations. And when their translations are published, they should easily be able to have consensus, that one translation is better than the other, which reflects the coherent structure of language.


in NLP and Machine Translation the symmetric translation of text is seen as proof that the algorithm works perfectly.

Are you serious? That's the dumbest metric ever. Even a translator that does nothing passes that metric.


that only works for some languages - as someone else mention chinese is quite a conceptual language. I've read 3 different translations of Tao Te Ching, and there have been some wild differences. One of the copies that i have has the authors translation, and then the remaining 2/3 of the book devoted to explaining the different possible meanings of each and every sentence


In 1024 years time, an article will be posted on intergalactic HN comparing translations of the linux kernel source from ancient C to SaturnScript.

Luckily they pickled Torvalds' head in a jar (which he wasn't too pleased about, since he was stuck on the display cabinet between Zed Shaw and RMS, && Fabrice Bellard was at the end continuously spewing out *&£$script mangled with Haskell and BrainFuck for an entire millenium), so he was able to give some guidance.


I have a copy titled 'The Art of Strategy'. The author states that the proper translation of 'bing' was 'strategy' rather than 'war'. I asked a friend from China what he thought 'bing' means and he said 'soldier' or 'war'.

I'm not sure why the author of my copy translated that way, but he did mention that the translations vary depending upon the zeitgiest of the times.

I think his idea was that war was wrong and that we should be moving to a new ideal. I agree, which I why I bought that copy, rather than the one about war.

-- X


Hm, did they have Chinese input picking a product name for their search engine at Microsoft?


Translating can be hard, especially when dealing with old dead languages. Just look at all thus different English text for John 14:2 http://biblehub.com/john/14-2.htm .

"My Father's house has many rooms" and "There is more than enough room in my Father's home" may not mean the same at all, especially when taken out of its original context.


At one level, translation is literally "impossible." Books are written for people who speak a common language, and have a common cultural context. No matter how "accurately" the individual words (or broader meanings, which is different) are translated, there just isn't a 1:1 mapping to another culture, place, and time.


I've always been bothered by how things like The Art of War and Machiavelli's The Prince haven't been made more accessible to the modern general public, "translated" to the modern age while keeping the richness and complexity of the ideas expressed. Something I'd love to try and work on if I had the time.


I've read the John Minford translation of the book [1]. Does anybody know whether this is any good?

[1] http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Art-War-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140...


Translations make a big difference. JRR Tolkien's Gawain and the Green Knight is head and shoulders above another soulless and forgotten one I read.




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