A Century-old Classical English Version of The Art of War Still Shines
When you step into the British Museum, you would see the most conspicuous The Art of War – the Oldest Military Treatise in the World among masses of Chinese military books. The museum staff said proudly to the journalist that the English version was translated by Lionel Giles, the Assistant Secretary of the East Library Manuscript Division. Although the translation version was completed 100 years ago, it is still one of the most widespread one.
Giles, the son of Old Giles (Zhai Lisi) who was a Britain Consular Officer and a sinologist, was born in China and had a Chinese name: Zhai Linnai. In 1900, Giles joined the British Museum Library to be in charge of Asian books and periodicals and devoted himself to the Sinology.
In 1910, London Luzac & Co. published Lionel Giles’ English version of The Art of War which was faithful to the original and was in strict accordance with the Ten Annotations of Sun Tzu by Sun Xingyan. This Chinese-English version was translated sentence by sentence with detailed annotations, characterized by smooth and fluent language, making a far-reaching influence on the dissemination of Sun Tzu Thinking in the Western world.
Giles had made full preparations before translating The Art of War and paid great efforts during the translation. He had studied Zuo’s Commentary on Spring and Autumn Annals, The Historical Records, Spring and Autumn Annals of the States of Wu and Yue, Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature and many others famous ancient books, and had surveyed the historical background of 13 Chapters of Sun Tzu and the information of Sun Wu, as well as various historical and existing versions of The Art of War. Giles said that The Art of War was the succinct of Chinese Strategics, and it couldn’t be humiliated by poor translation.
Choosing a good version from the numerous and complicated Chinese strategics classics is the key point of a successful version. Giles perspicaciously translated The Art of War from Chinese to English based on Ten Annotations of Sun Tzu which is of great authority and ensures this English version’s basis could withstand the test of history. After him, except for The Art of War of Seven Military Classics was translated on the basis of Military Classics, all other English versions of The Art of War were based on Ten Annotations of Sun Tzu.
Giles had learned from the methods used by the famous sinologist Legge in translating The Four Books and The Five Classics to translate each paragraphs sentence by sentence. In order to remain faithful to the original work, he placed the complete Chinese sentences above and the corresponding English sentences below on the same page perfectly. But unlike Legge, both long and short sentences in each paragraph of The Art of War, were given sequence numbers, and all annotations quoted from Chinese classics were attached with original text, which was very convenient for Western readers to read and for bilinguals to compare and check.
His translation is also characterized by detailed explanations. He made brief introduction to and summarized major works annotators and the features of their annotations. Annotations to the strategics concepts, names, place names and ancient Chinese glossary in 13 Chapters were mostly abstracted from Annotations of Ten Masters with his unique perspectives. Within the whole Translation, he appropriately made comments on the previous Western translations, which was very rare in common translations and annotations.
Giles’ translation has reached the standard of faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance with preciseness, fluency, charm and his own unique style. He not only greatly explained the charm of the original The Art of War, but also completely expressed the extensive and profound strategics thinking of Sun Tzu in English.
A worker from the British Museum said that Giles’ translation has been recognized as a masterpiece to introduce The Art of War to Western readers, and it also has established a solid foundation for translate The Art of War into other Western languages, enabling Europeans to get a better understanding of Sun Tzu’s Thinking.
The British Marshal and Earl of Kandahar Roberts once wrote to Giles:”Many Sun Tzu’s mottos are totally applicable to the present situation.” The American Brigadier Thomas R – Phillips wrote in the introduction for it when republished in 1949:”Doctor Giles’ translation is accurate in semantic meaning and concise & vivid in word-choosing, while the French translation version is relatively inferior in both respects.”
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