Sun Tzu’s Art of War,
Translated by Thomas Huynh and the Editors at Sonshi.com
Annotations by Thomas Huynh
Foreword by Marc Benioff
Preface by Thomas Cleary
(Woodstock, VT: Skylight Illuminations) 210 pp.
DNI Review by Chet Richards, editor
April 30, 2008
Thomas Huynh has produced an approachable and readable new translation of Sun Tzu that should take its place alongside the classics from Samuel B. Griffith (1963) and Thomas Cleary (1988). As Huynh explains in the introduction, his new edition benefits not only from the translations that preceded it, but also from nearly a decade of interacting with visitors to his website, Sonshi.com.
I don’t have any knowledge of any form of Chinese, much less one 2,500 years old, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation. As a work of English, though, it reads easily and smoothly. Let’s compare some of the best-known passages.
1. “Speed is the essence of war.”
Griffith (p. 134): Speed is the essence of war. Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness; travel by unexpected routes and strike him where he has no precautions.
Cleary (p. 152): The condition of a military force is that its essential factor is speed, taking advantage of others’ failure to catch up, going by routes they do not expect, attacking where they are not on guard.
Huynh (p. 161): The essential factor in warfare is speed. To take advantage of the enemy’s lack of preparation, take unexpected routes to attack where the enemy is not prepared.
Note the subtle differences in meaning. Griffith and Huynh both have the flavor of maneuvering in space, with Huynh making “take unexpected routes to attack where the enemy is not prepared” the method of taking advantage of the enemy’s lack of preparation. Clearly seems to bring in the notion of maneuvering in time, “operating inside the opponent’s OODA loop”: taking advantage of others’ failure to catch up. I have no way to choose between them, but a comparison of all three provides ideas that you might not have gained by just looking at one or two.
2. “All warfare is based on deception.”
Griffith (p. 66): All warfare is based on deception. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.
Cleary (p. 49): A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective. If you are going to attack nearby, make it look as if you are going to go a long way; when you are going to attack far away, make it look as if you are going just a short distance.
Huynh (p. 13): Warfare is the Way of deception. Therefore, if able, appear unable; if active, appear not active; if near, appear far; if far, appear near.
Again, notice the differences between Cleary and the others (which should be a good indicator of the difficulty of translating from a 2,500 year old language).
One significant difference between Huynh and the other two is how they handle comments. Both Griffith and Cleary include remarks by the “canonical” commentators, a group of Chinese generals and pundits from Sun Tzu’s day through about the 12th century. They both also limit their own commentary to introductory remarks, 62 pages in the case of Griffith, 37 for Cleary. Huynh does not provide any of the canonical commentary. He does have a fairly brief introduction and translator’s note (totaling 18 pages), but most of his commentary is incorporated into the even-numbered pages that face the text on the opposite (odd numbered) pages.
Whether you like this is a matter of personal taste. It does allow for a smooth, uninterrupted reading of the Sun Tzu text itself, which is difficult in translations that have commentary interspersed with the words attributed to Sun Tzu. This is a huge plus. As for Huynh’s comments, they fall into two categories. One, which all readers will appreciate, concerns his insights into the language of the text and the environment of Sun Tzu’s day.
Many people, for example, have skipped over the parts of Sun Tzu dealing with ground, figuring that they are not going to be conducting warfare with spears and chariots any time soon. Huynh, however, notes (pp. 6, 53, 130) that “ground” can better be considered as any unchangeable factor that affects all competitors. “Nine grounds” has the connotation of “all grounds,” not specifically nine, and so the agility and creativity of the competitors in dealing with these “grounds” is what is important. As he concludes in the introduction to the chapter on the nine grounds (Chapter 11, page 148):
Hence, despite its prescriptive appearance, this chapter actually calls for flexibility and adaptation to your environment and circumstances. With flexibility and adaptation, you can calmly control your reactions, and thus the outcome of conflicts, without feeling the need to control the situation itself.
You might compare Boyd’s observation that adaptability is a good counterweight to uncertainty and that initiative is a good way to offset the feeling of menace in an uncertain situation (Patterns, 124; Huynh does not mention Boyd).
There were a few places where I found his annotations distracting, especially when he veers from the text and its context to his own ideas about their application. So we find ourselves reading about Robert E. Lee’s instructions to his troops at the start of the Antietam Campaign, where he ordered payment for all goods confiscated from civilians (p. 22). [He does not mention, however, what form that payment took — Confederate bank notes, perhaps?] On the next page, he gives us an estimate of the world’s spending on defense ($1.2 trillion) and compares it to the GDP of Canada (“America’s largest trading partner!”) These are interesting points, but they seem more to show off Huynh’s erudition than to enlighten readers on Sun Tzu. My advice to Huynh would be to write a separate book on these topics, which deserve more than a sentence or two, weaving in insights from Sun Tzu to bolster his case.
On the other hand, I found places where more commentary from Huynh would have been helpful. In his introduction, for example, he talks about the options available to armies based on their strength in numbers (pp. xxxix-xl). Yet, in chapter 6, Sun Tzu says that even large numerical advantages are of no importance: Based on my calculations, though Yueh’s troops were many, what advantage was this to them in respect to victory? (p. 77 – compare Cleary, p. 109.)
As Huynh notes in his annotations on chapter 1, what seems to be more important is who rates higher on the various lists of things to consider, such as the five factors (Way, Heaven, Ground, General, Law) or the seven elements on page 11. Of these, only one, “which army is strong?” on page 11 might have some relation to numbers. Or maybe not, if chapter 6 is considered as more definitive.
For that matter, there are two more lists of factors that determine victory, the five factors in the chapter on Planning Attacks (chapter 3, pp. 41-42), and the “factors in warfare” listed in chapter 4, Formation, p. 53 (one of which, quantity, might mean “numbers of troops,” although Huynh’s comments refer more to culture — correctly in my opinion). Some words from Huynh would have been helpful in sorting out all these lists. For that matter, do all these various lists suggest that the Sun Tzu text we have today is not the product of a single author?
A new translation of Sun Tzu from original sources is a major event, and this one would make a good addition to any library. If you get only a half dozen new insights — and you will (I did) — the book will repay its price many times over. Add it to the translations you’re using now and you’ll gain another source of ideas.
Who is Thomas Huynh?
Beats heck out of me. The cover says that he founded Sonshi.com and has an MBA from Vanderbilt. He did an e-mail interview of me for his site when Certain to Win came out (for which I am eternally grateful) and he has reminded me that we met once at a conference. I have no memories of this, perhaps because I have few memories of anything nowadays or maybe he was practicing Sun Tzu’s art of formlessness. In any case, buy the book — you won’t be sorry.
[DNI Update: Read the interview with Thomas Huynh by Brenda Miesel at Georgia Asian Times.]
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