What Is The Best English Translation Of Sun Tzu’s “Art Of War”?

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.


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.


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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30 thoughts on “What Is The Best English Translation Of Sun Tzu’s “Art Of War”?”

  1. Now you’ve got me questioning whether the “Art of War” that i read was dumbed down (intentionally or otherwise) thanks! My time is stretched thin as it is!
    Seriously though, given that i consider you no less redoubtable a scholar than myself, i will take your advice and read Griffith’s version, since it gives so much more elucidation on the Man behind the magnum opus.
    One question though, with regard to Griffith’s inclusion of Mao, was that done to create a philosophical dichotomy as well as a military one? I find it curious for him to include Mao, when someone like Cao Cao might have been far more appropriate to include as an ancient example of Sun Tzu’s military principles (and concomitant philosophy) executed in near flawless efficiency.
    Would you ever consider writing an article on Cao Cao? Your historical articles on Men of destiny are always a blast to read.

    1. In one of the appendices, he compares Mao’s thoughts on guerrilla warfare with Sun Tzu’s ideas on mobile warfare. Griffith also published a separate translation of Mao’s treatise on guerrilla warfare. So he knew the writings of both of them. He also has appendices on other subjects as well. But the overall quality, reliability, and completeness of the translation is obvious from just opening the book. Highly recommended.

      1. Understood. I am no fan of Mao for obvious reasons. I hope Griffith didn’t try to glorify him as a great Man but merely as an effective tactician.
        I will find this out for myself eventually. Thanks for the recommendation.

      2. Thank for informing me that I may need to re-read such a brilliant piece of information and writing. Makes me wonder if my copy of The Five Rings needs a review as well. Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Wow. It makes you wonder how many victories Griffith created for others just by dedicating himself to understanding the language and translating the book.

    1. The James Clavell version is a Lionel Giles translation that has been edited by Mr. Clavell. I enjoy the book but there are better versions. I recommend Dr. Cleary’s.

  3. If you are interested in Sun Tzu, then I think you would be interested in the Master of Ghost Valley (鬼谷子). 鬼谷子 was, by tradition, the teacher of Sun Bin, descendant of Sun Tzu. He was also the founder of the School of Diplomacy, and his disciples have the reputation of ending the Warring States period.
    As a professional lobbyist, I’ve found 《鬼谷子》 to be invaluable to my work, and a distinct force multiplier. The original text has more depth and complexity than translations though (even translations into modern Chinese), and I’m not sure if it’s accessible to the Western mind.

    1. No, this is not a good copy. What you have here is a mutilated version of Griffith’s work. It’s missing the introduction, preface, prologue, appendices, and the index.
      Come on, guys. Don’t skimp on your edification.
      A book (Kindle at least) on Amazon costs about as much as a 6-pack of beer. Never skimp on books.

  4. I have 59 different interpretations of Sun Tzu in my library. I also have Chinese friends that tell me they cannot read the original because today nobody uses the language as Sun Tzu did. Getting the “right” translation is a fool’s dream. Just as with any ancient text, reading various translations and interpretations broadens the view of this work. My favorites are from Gary Gagliardi as well as Ames, David Li, J.H. Huang, and the Denma translation. Nearly all interpretations are based on Giles so you’re not getting new translations with most books, just different perspectives on the application of the Giles’ translation (not a bad thing). Avoid McNeilly if you want Sun Tzu as his works are a blend of modern business ideas with Sun Tzu sprinkled in to sell his books (they’re not bad books, but not really based on Sun Tzu). An interesting interpretation is by Donald G. Krause. He uses the Giles translation and can be a little loose with the application, but it’s unique for business.

      1. I teach organizational leadership, strategy, etc., for UC Irvine so it’s kind of a hobby to investigate resources broadly. 🙂

  5. Respectfully, I must disagree with Mr Curtius’ condemnation of the Giles translation. Granted it is archaic, but it was good for its time and was worked on by a scholar similarly trained to Griffiths. As for his statement that the commentaries form a part of the original, I must say that I do not think so. The commentaries are addenda added by later personages, doodles, as it may be, by great generals of later ages adding their two cents worth to the book. The original is nothing more that 13 short chapters, and possibly several discourses.

    1. Alvin:
      It would be going too far to say that I am “condemning” the Giles translation. It was fine for its time, but it lacks the depth of interpretation that Griffith’s military experience imparts. Giles is an improvement over what preceded him, but Griffith’s is superior, in my view. Just look at the two and you will see.
      I should say that I am ignorant of Chinese, so I am unable to comment on the philological nuances of each version. But I can recognize quality when I see it, and am a translator myself.
      Judge for yourself. Lay the two versions side by side–as I have–and you will see.

    1. It’s either a bot or a poor sod working for peanuts in India. No point replying to it.

  6. Dammit. I wish this article came out earlier. I bought a cheap ass version of The Art of War from Amazon just last week. Oh well, no harm in looking at this one recommended one as well I suppose.

  7. Nice work. Quintus. I like wise prefer this translation, and it’s the annotations that really make it to really provide the context and further understanding. I hadn’t known about the background of the translator and knowing this provides me greater comfort because military texts often needs a strong understanding of combat to make sense and call into question details that historians and linguists can rarely provide
    Not enough discussion on classical Chinese thought around here so this is nice to see.

  8. I would also submit Robert Greene’s book The 33 Strategies of War, which is a historical review of the concepts in the Art of war as a good read. Really any of Greene’s books (48 Laws, Seduction, War) are well written and documented with historical examples of the subject matter at hand.

  9. What an interesting article that illustrates the profundity of the of the thought of the great military thinker Sun Tzi 孫子 【in chinese】.
    I am impressed by the scholars from the West that are interested in chinese philosophy and I am much indebted to the help from such studious foreigners who want to study classics in my own country, China.
    I appreciate how the Westerners love Chinese culture more than the communist party right now, which has been very brutral in destroying anything chinese during the cultural revolution, and now even at this very moment in 2015, the Hong Kong people, a people of whom I am a member of, is being persecuted by the mainland communist government through supplanting the cantonese language with mandarin language.
    We, the cantonese chinese, have kept the chiense philosophy intact given that during cultural revolution, many people have escaped to Hong Kong. I believe it is only through the resurrection of a elite class that would be obliged to serve the interest of the people that the elite class that it represents could save the chinese philosophy from being destroyed under the current communist party, who is trying to even destroying the remaining portion of traditional chinese ideas found in Hong kong, a place where the East meets the West.
    Under democracy, the elite class is the liberal, and under communism, the elite class is the communist. It is just a lie when people speak of giving power back to the people, like in U.S. when basically we have black supremacy under the black dictator Obama who supports the black against the pathologically altruistic whites. In communist China, the corrupted officials would speak about class struggle, and through destroying the originally pro-chinese elites through class struggle, the communists become the new elite, and the thing that is different is just that the current new communist elite is anti-chinese, trying to destroy every remnant of chinese history that could threaten its rule, including but not limited to Hong Kong.
    I feel that it is only with the monarchical elite that can again bring light to this time of darkness, when we need monarchs that are obliged by the problem of legitimacy as the son of Heaven, whose title is acknowledged by the people through the granting of the mandate of heaven, such that however brutal and bad the monarch may be [just in the same way the communists in power are bad, and black Obama against the white people being governed is bad and anti-whties] restrained by this problem of legitimacy.
    Therefore, I hope that people would be waken up to the monarchical cause, something that is also found in the West in the history, especially in Europe, though with the French revolution, the French nation [or france] was the first to depose their king, with other neigbouring countries one after another turning into a republic. The problem is that democracy allows the money-greedy elite [the new elite under democracy are those who have money, because of the doctrine of capitalism] to control the people, all the while without being constrained and obliged to protect the people being governed.
    This is why, in light of the love that people have for the military thinking Sun Tzi, I would propose monarchism here, such that the love for the preservation of chinese culture and tradition can be continued in times of a monarchy, and not completely obliterated during times of a democracy or communism, where the past effort of all of our ancestors is used to fuel those immoral and degenerate activities like gay parade and feminism leading to depression through social isolation of people and professional females not getting a husband, leading to suicidal thoughts arising from the inability to mother a child.
    My sincere thanks to anyone who would go through my comment,
    Qing royalist of the yellow race from Hong Kong
    A project on pro-whites and pro-yellow ideas that emphasises the preservation of racial purity and mutual respect of difference and strength of the asians and the whites.

  10. Depends on what you’re looking for – accessibility and readability or scholarly work. Griffith established probably the best all-around, non-scholarly translation; which is remarkable because the work itself is at a much higher standard than much of the academic trash East Asian “specialists” put out. That’s what I admire about Griffith, the man is an academic but wrote like a laymen.

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