Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most widely read of the military classics. A very large number of translations exist, of decidedly uneven quality. Some of these “translations” omit large portions of the original text’s commentary; and some of them are glossy, slicked-up books that bear little relation to the original.

As it turns out, The Art of War has much to tell us about the art of translation. The translator must know the language, of course; but he must also know his subject, and have a sensitivity to the nuances of a work’s historical context. The quality of a translation can make or break a work. A good translation can communicate the spirit of the original, while a bad one can alienate a reader permanently.

There is a delicate balance that must be struck between fidelity to the original, and the need to convey ideas into another medium in a way that sounds lucid. The translator succeeds or fails in how he manages these two tensile factors.

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I wish to make the case that the best translation of Sun Tzu is the 1963 edition by Samuel B. Griffith. Griffith was a remarkable man: a decorated combat veteran of the Second World War, a Chinese linguist, and an Oxford-educated Ph.D.

Sun Tzu is practically part of the popular culture now—he is even quoted in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street—but before Samuel Griffith, he was almost entirely unknown in the West. It was Griffith, through his brilliant translation, that raised Sun Tzu from obscurity.

Background on the man

Born in Lewiston, Pennsylvania, he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. From 1931 to 1933, he served in Nicaragua with the American forces aiding that country’s Guardia Nacional, in what later became somewhat derisively referred to as the “Banana Wars.”

After this, he was posted to China. It is not widely known now, but units of the Fourth Marines were posted in Shanghai in the early 1930s to protect American interests. China at the time was experiencing one of its periodic descents into chaos and war, and duty there was not without its share of excitement. Duties there consisted primarily of policing the borders of the international concessions that had been carved out by various foreign powers.

Griffith, however, was assigned at the language officer at the American Embassy in Peking. From the moment he arrived in China, he devoted himself to the study of the Chinese language. According to his statements in later interviews, he spent six hours per day, five days per week, in intensive study of this most challenging and subtle language.

Within two years he was able to read a basic newspaper article. After leaving China in 1938, he was confident that he had gained a working knowledge of modern Chinese. This knowledge would serve him well in his later career.
He was awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart on Guadalcanal for his part in the fighting at Matanikau River; later, at the island of New Georgia, he was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

With the end of the war in 1945, he returned to occupation duty in Northern China in the city of Tsingtao. The remainder of his career was spent in the United States in a variety of staff and command appointments. He retired from active duty in 1956 as a brigadier general.

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It was at this point in his life that Griffith proved he was no ordinary military man. Whereas most veterans would have been content to rest on their laurels and seek a comfortable retirement in some government post, Griffith felt the call of other disciplines. So he exchanged the tunic of the soldier for the robe of the scholar. He applied for, and was accepted to, a Ph.D. program at Oxford University in the Chinese language.

This was not the colloquial, modern Chinese that Griffith had been exposed to previously: this was the classical language of ancient China, as different from modern Chinese as the language of Euripides would be to a modern resident of Athens.

Discovering the work

It was here at Oxford that Griffith discovered the remarkable Chinese military classic that became the subject of his Ph.D. thesis. At that time, the existing translations were either inadequate or entirely unknown.

The first translation of Sun Tzu in the West appeared in 1772 in a French version, released by an obscure Jesuit missionary named J.J.M. Amiot. It was an amateurish effort, and received little attention. The first English translation apparently did not appear until 1905; this version, done by a British Army captain, was based on a corrupt Japanese edition of Sun Tzu, not the original work.

Another English version followed in 1910, and there were a few minor, slipshod efforts made during the war years of 1940-1945 to turn out an acceptable English version.

Griffith’s translation towers over all others, both before and after him. It is scholarly, informed, and puts Sun Tzu squarely in his historical context. There are special sections on the textual tradition, the “warring states” period of Chinese history, Sun Tzu and Mao Tse-tung, and a brilliant series of appendices that provide further insight into Sun Tzu’s influence.

The text is fully annotated. Most importantly, I think, Griffith preserves, the words of the ancient commentators that pepper the text. Far too many other translators simply omit these commentaries so as to “dumb down” their product, but they form an integral part of the original.

All in all, this is a work of patient scholarship, not something churned out for cynical commercial purposes. Griffith brings a combination of skills to the table that no one else has been able to match: his military experience, his mastery of Chinese, and his care for the classical Chinese language.

If you want to read Sun Tzu, this is the version to read.

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