Stomping the Sundz

Gary Gagliardi. The Art of War: Sun Tzu's Classic in Plain English. Clearbridge 1999-2003
D E Tarver. The Art of War: Plus The Ancient Chinese Revealed. Writer's Club 2002

The following was posted to the WSW list on 14 June 2004.

Fudgers, beware. Footnoters, avaunt. The new wave Sundz translators are here, and they are gonna stomp your ass. Such at any rate is the premise and the promise of these two hot recent works in what one can only call the Sundz genre of publishing. In the end, as we shall see, it is the Sundz that gets stomped.


Gagliardi faces his translation with a Chinese text, each character of which is glossed with a single English word. Says he, "In modern Chinese a given character can have different meanings as a verb, noun, adjective, or adverb, but Sun Tzu's use of key ideograms was more systematic" (p156). And again, "Other translations are full of contradictions arising from carelessly translating characters without analyzing the effect on the meaning of the text as a whole. In making our translation, we continually reexamined the text to identify these problems. When we found a contradiction, we clarified the translation until the confusion was eliminated" (p13). The method, then, is to reduce the original to pidgin English, and if inconsistencies appear, to smooth the translation until the inconsistencies vanish.

Tarver, who holds a black belt in everything you can think of, and some things you can't, comes out of his corner in a similar way. His Preface takes its stance thus: "This interpretation of The Art of War is written in plain English. It does not bog down with flowery, philosophical, or tedious writing. There is no beating around the bush. Strategy is strategy, and the same principles are used whether you are fighting for success or for survival. All organizations, whether predator or prey, function by these same principles no matter their size. I could have added fifty pages of personal dribble or opinion, but I chose to leave the text the way I think it was intended." A little later, in the Introduction, this pledge of fidelity gets qualified: "I tried to write in the way Sun Tzu would have if he lived today." And yet again, "I didn't so much concern myself with word-for-word translation, but tried instead to bring out the whole of his ideas." Tarver's example of this departure from "word-for-word" style is his substitution of the general phrase "a small thing" for the more literal "autumn hair." The example, as far as it goes, is well within the range of defensible translation practice.

Both strategies tend to de-Chinesify the text, and make it accordingly more universal. The appeal of doing so is obvious. Why write some obscure thing, and then explain it, like T S Eliot footnoting himself? Life is short. And let it be said: The philological value of such an undertaking is potentially great. Enough commentators in the past have made the whole idea of commentary ridiculous by focusing on their footnotes to the detriment of the flow of the original. Why not see what difficulties remain, if (as Gagliardi would hold) any indeed remain, after the artificial complexities, the mere artifacts of the passage of time, have been removed?


Let's go back to the beginning of that process. If we are going to call something a translation, some value will always attach to getting the meaning of the original right. Has this been done in these two Sundz versions? Let's consider the first few words in Sundz 8. The first character fan2 is a function word, tending to imply that the following sentence is a general statement. Gagliardi glosses it as "All" and translates the whole phrase (fan yung-bing jr fa, roughly "the way of employing troops") as a sentence: "Everyone uses the arts of war." Do they? It's news to me, and it would have been news to many even in Warring States China. The whole point of the Sundz, clearly enough expressed in its opening passage, is to recommend the art of war in general as a new and necessary thing, not to document what everybody was already doing. But let's continue. The next line of Sundz 8 (as Gagliardi has arranged the text) goes like this:

General endure order from monarch

As all word-for-word glossarists are tempted to do (see my satire in HJAS v35 p226-233), Gagliardi has here succumbed to the temptation to make his first version enigmatic, so as to leave room for revelations in his second version. His Pidgin gloss "endure" for shou (second word in the line), which is not correct, becomes more accurately "get" on the right-hand page, and the gratuitous mystification is dispelled. It should have been "receive" on the left-hand page, thus avoiding the mystification entirely. Why devote a whole page to creating mystification in the first place? It wastes half the book. That whole line is rendered by Gagliardi in this way: "As a general, you get your orders from the government." The topic grammar is wrong for "general," which is the subject of the sentence, and any first-year student can render that sentence more accurately as "the general receives his orders from the ruler." When Gagliardi actually encounters the Chinese topic marker, say in the middle of Chapter 1, he makes a noun of it:

War one

and comes up with the translation "Warfare is one thing." Nor can this nonsense be blamed on Gagliardi's consistency principle, since at the very beginning of Chapter One, where exactly the same phrase occurs, it is glossed "War / thing" and translated "This is war." That too is nonsense, but it is different nonsense. The only consistency here on view is that when Gagliardi encounters Chinese topic phrases, he makes a hash of them, and not even a consistent, even-textured hash, but a hash with strange corners and surprises and bits of unexpected gristle for the unwary diner to chew on.

We may now take up the end of the sentence quoted above from Sundz 8. Gagliardi's gloss does not deny that it is from the "monarch" that the general gets his orders, but in his translation, this becomes instead "the government." No modern reader is likely to be baffled by "monarch," or unable to apply it to his own, perhaps post-monarchical, situation, but "government" can be defended as acceptable updating. Still, how far is Gagliardi going to modernize, not only the text, but the society in back of the text? Sundz fans will immediately wonder about the line in Chapter 1 that mentions "calculations in the temple" in advance of battle. How is this temple going to come out of Gagliardi's meat grinder? Peeking back at p25, we find "Before you go to battle, your organization's analysis may indicate that you might not win." The answer to the question "how far" is thus, evidently, "all the way." For superstitious divination, we here get the much more modern concept of operations research and strategic analysis.

Sometimes gibberish results. Toward the end of Chapter 6, we have, in the ordinary acceptation,

Thus, of the Five Elements, there is none that is always dominant.

which Gagliardi glosses as "make / five / march / without / rule / victory," and translates as "Fight five different campaigns without a firm rule for victory." Was this tour de force of different rules for victory indulged in by Sundz just to show off? What about the sixth campaign? Or the hundredth? Must the army be retrained for each of these encounters? Tarver, again not to be trapped in little word questions, so dissolves this and the adjacent sentences into one paragraph of his own that it is impossible to locate the sentence in the resulting blur. As between gibberish (Gagliardi) and nothing (Tarver), the prospective reader of this line of Sundz may well ask, "Isn't there a Sundz option?"

Gagliardi's translation of our initial Sundz 8 sentence make the subject "the general" into a topic "as a general," and supplies a new subject "you." Gagliardi, as he imagines, has covered himself for this grammatical liberty by announcing, in his Introduction, "Although Sun Tzu occasionally wrote in the first person, the sentences [that is, his translation sentences] consistently use the second person for readability" (p13). Is consistency a virtue, if the original (as Gagliardi concedes) is itself not consistent? If it is better than Sundz, is there a warrant for calling it Sundz? Shouldn't we be reading Clausewitz, the already modern Clausewitz, instead?

Tarver (to use his verb) doesn't get bogged down in fan2, or any of this other bitsy stuff. He paraphrases Gagliardi's first three lines this way: "Now, we know the military gives the strike force leaders the permission and resources to form a plan, and the strike force consolidates resources and manpower to lead the attack." No wimpy civilian origination of plan for Tarver, a Marine (as he proudly tells us) from his 17th year. The "military" makes its own plans, and issues its own orders. Civil government, whether in monarchic form or in some more modern form, simply doesn't exist for him. The strike force is effectively autonomous. It controls resources, and decides how they are going to be used.

The joke on both these people, but especially on Tarver, is that this saying is not really in the original at all. Those characters exist at the beginning Chapter 7, but they were either wrongly copied there by scribal error, or intentionally duplicated at that point in order to insist, precisely, on the primacy of civilian control of the military. And why might this have been necessary? Because of the line which constitutes the tenth of the "nine variables" after which (but not in Tarver, who calls it simply Variations, and not in Gagliardi, who calls it Adaptability) the chapter is named The Nine Variables. That tenth line runs thus, in the two translations here being considered:

Gagliardi: There are government commands that must not be obeyed.
Tarver: There are some rules you should not heed.

Gagliardi has modernized the ruler as a "government," but at least he has retained the civil authority. Tarver has obliterated the civil authority altogether, leaving a world in which only military maxims exist. Heavy stuff.


Such are the shortcomings, and it is easy to find more. It was not really news that we would. How about the virtues? Are there places where these people actually cut through the mass of previous misunderstandings, and get to the bone of the original meaning?

Here's one. At the end of Chapter 8 is a list of five qualities in a general which can be fatal to the troops under his command. Translators from Giles on down have rendered this list in a detached sort of way ("These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war") which leaves it open whether we are to exploit the five shortcomings in an enemy general, or guard against them in our own general. Leaving it open allows the answer "both," and it can be argued that this was intended. But comparison with the form of earlier Sundz chapters (like the Analects, the Sundz has early and late chapters, and returns to early topics in the later chapters) will show that it is best to take the five shortcomings as dangers to our side (the original text helpfully calls them "dangers," rather than, say, "faults"). But the translator who takes up his pen at Chapter 1 and lays it down on reaching Chapter 13 may not pick up this pattern, since the chronologically earliest chapters in the work actually follow Chapter 8 in the text as it is presently arranged. Gagliardi, even though rendering "dangers" as "dangers" in his gloss, which might have given him a clue, translates "You can exploit five different faults in a leader." The good news here is that Tarver, more perceptively, if also at very great length, gets it right: "When you assume command, examine yourself and your leaders thoroughly and keep these five things close to your heart."

"Close to your heart" is a perhaps too cute unpacking of the supposed ideogram bi4 "must:"

but at least Tarver is clear about which army the text is discussing. This is an advantage not unambiguously possessed by all earlier translations.

It would be symmetrical to find a similar breakthrough in Gagliardi, but a search in Chapter 8 has not so far disclosed one. The search instead bogs down in a mush of pidgin on the left and vagueness on the right, and phrases hypostatized as weird sentences on all sides. Sundz is systematically muted by this approach, if "approach" is the right word for something that wanders so far from the original.


Gagliardi will thus fail to instruct the student of war at many points. Students of business, including the art of business startup, small business, management, marketing, sales, competition in general, career in general, and yes, one's personal love life, may perhaps be better served. For them, Gagliardi has packaged his Sundz translation in as many separate and customized sandwiches. It may be mush, but it seems to spread easily on many different kinds of bagel. None of that greatly imperils the nation. Tarver, on the other hand, is dangerous. He not only rids Sundz of any hint of a civilian check on military operations, he brutalizes the military operations themselves. The tactical frugality and strategic wariness of Sundz are on the whole brushed aside, and the doctrine is adjusted to the perceptions of a latter-day Sergeant Fury. There is a pervading sense of paranoia. Where Gagliardi, correctly except for substituting second for first person, has "Do not trust that the enemy won't attack," Tarver gives us a long scream: "Do not place your trust in the opponent's lack of aggression, for he will attack, and if he doesn't then another will." Tarver looks out on the world and sees only enemies, one lined up after another, all about to strike, and all bent on killing you if you don't kill them first. To a real general, on the other hand, the passiveness of an opponent is not a threat, but a tactical opportunity. Thus, audaciously but shrewdly, did Lee divide his force in the face of Hooker's larger army at Chancellorsville. Hooker was a simpleton, and it was useful to Lee to know that fact. Knowing it, and audaciously seizing the opportunity it presented, made Lee's reputation as a general.



It is easy to see where Tarver is coming from; he tells us himself. He is coming from the Dau of Swordsmanship, where indeed every combat is mortal, a me-or-him affair, with no tomorrow for one of the combatants. But not all combat is single combat, and it is precisely in conducting military operations on a wider scale that generalship comes into play. Is it safe to instruct our future generals solely in the art of single combat? That proposition has been tested, on the widest possible scale, and on an occasion that the Marines may collectively remember, even if the individual Tarver does not. The occasion is what the Japanese call the Pacific War. It is sometimes alleged that the Japanese admirals in that conflict were imbued with the principles of Sundz. Nothing could be further from the truth. The admirals were imbued with the ethos of single combat. The Japanese Navy's disastrous founding of its war strategy on a Principle of Decisive Battle flowed directly from the root idea of single combat, of winning the whole thing on one occasion - once for all. Under Yamamoto and his even less able successors, the Japanese Navy constantly sought to bring about a situation with the American Navy in which the rules of swordsmanship would hold. As the smaller power, it abundantly behooved Japan not to attempt any such thing, but Decisive Battle was nevertheless the chief concept animating the Japanese naval strategists. In the early years of the war, the Americans, themselves at that point the weaker power, showed how a weaker power could profitably conduct itself against a stronger power. They had either read or reinvented Sundz 13, the spy chapter, and could read the enemy's signals. With that superior knowledge, and with their skimpy forces concentrated in the light of that knowledge, the weaker Americans did enter an almost Decisive Battle with the much stronger, but dispersed, Japanese fleet at Midway. And won it. Later, when the power balance was reversed, as American industrial superiority began to make itself felt, the Americans (with the Marines prominent among them) showed how to press an advantage. Was it by seeking Decisive Battle? Not on your LST. It was by increments, by small successes, by hopping strength to attack weakness, by attrition of the enemy's morale and resources, by flank and not frontal attacks, by distracting and demoralizing the enemy, by resource attrition; in short, by the book. Meaning, the book which Sundz (or people operating under that label) actually wrote. Thus, the best illustration of the maxim on distracting the enemy in Chapter 8 (so hideously mistranslated by both Gagliardi and Tarver that it would be beyond the limit of reviewer propriety to quote either of them) is the Doolittle Raid of 1942. Its military results were negligible, but psychologically it so flurried Tokyo as to lead to the abandonment of a previous (and better conceived) plan, and the adoption of Yamamoto's pet notion, the Midway adventure. The outcome of that adventure irretrievably blunted the force of the Japanese naval initiative in the Pacific. From then on, all roads led downhill.


Kurita Takeo

Tarver would have liked Kurita Takeo, the commander of the First Strike Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a Japanese admiral after his own single-combat heart. Kurita liked to take his archery set along on campaigns, and he would assiduously practice archery every day. Thus did he keep his single-combat instincts sharp, despite the presence, under his feet and all around him, of weapons of war which required other reflexes, and sometimes needed to be used in another way. While en route to what Kurita thought would be a standard head-on battle with the Americans, he had his command ship (the cruiser Atago) shot out from under him on 23 October 1944 by an American submarine which was playing it Sundz's way, and making a flank attack. One wonders what Kurita would have done had he in fact encountered the American force head on, as he planned. Would he have shot his little arrows at them? We will never know, because, safely aboard a new command ship (superbattleship Yamato), he suddenly abandoned the attack plan and took off after a subsidiary target, thus becoming a victim of the third ruse in the Sundz 8 list (the Doolittle raid had demonstrated the second of those ruses). The attack on Leyte Gulf, Japan's only halfway promising naval opportunity at this late stage of the war, thus never materialized. Sundz, used by the enemies of Japan to utterly baffle Japan, had stomped Japan. The field test of Sundz vs archery thus proved decisive for the value of the Sundz. Blackbelting, shooting little arrows, seeing a substantial enemy behind every ship sighting, just aren't in it with the sober and level-headed Sundz. Not in a real war, and what other kinds are worth considering?

Gagliardi and his salesmen-lovers can be laughed off. What harm they cause is to themselves. If a certain number of incipient romances, or small business startups, go poof, Amazon may have to refund a purchase price or two, but the nation will probably survive. On the other hand, if copies of Tarver have found their way into the staff school, one hopes the top brass will have them collected and burned. The Sundz, it turns out, is perennial. But bushidô, whether in its original form or in Tarver's martial arts export version, is a one-way ticket to the bottom of the sea.

E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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