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Gagliardi: Competent translator of classical Chinese or “ordinary mountain” snake-oil salesman?
on June 1, 2017
It’s clear that Mr. Gagliardi is extremely passionate about all things Sun Tzu. Through various repackaged books sold both here at Amazon and through the “Science of Strategy Institute” he set up to sell you Sun Tzu themed board games and videos, he has certainly created a virtual cottage industry of Sunzi-phernalia. In addition, he also offers personalized training packages for up to $1,500 to amp up your ability to unleash the power of Sun Tzu’s system of total and complete victory in all competitive endeavors you face, whether in the boardroom or the bedroom.
But all of this aside, how successful is Mr. Gagliardi at his most basic task: competently translating Sun Tzu’s original text, The Art of War? The answer: not very.
This book is a complete mess, with unforgivable errors in both translation and general knowledge concerning China and the Warring States era present in almost every verse. In lieu of a laundry list I will give you just a one line example where Mr. Gagliardi clearly shows that he is out of his depth in terms of translation competence. I maintain a database of 30 translations of The Art of War in English that I use to compare and contrast various efforts, and included the screenshot of the relevant verse so you can compare it to how others have approached the text.
In Chapter 11, Sun Tzu is concerned that his own soldiers might either break and run or else refuse to support the other flanks of his own army while in battle. To show how this can be remedied, Sun Tzu brings up the example of how a certain snake can provide a valuable lesson for his soldiers. As Gagliardi translates it, the line reads: “Act like an ordinary mountain snake.”
From a novice’s perspective, this could be a defensible translation choice. The original Chinese characters for this line are:
CHANG SHAN ZHI SHE
If you looked up each character individually via the internet you could definitely make a case that the line could read:
ordinary mountain (of) snake
The problem is that professional translation doesn’t work this way (a one-for-one translation of characters), and you have to understand all of the nuances applicable to how these thoughts are put together, especially when you are talking about a millennia old text written in a language vastly different than its modern equivalent. What a competent Sinologist would easily understand, but Gagliardi obviously didn’t, is that the character CHANG isn’t functioning as an adjective modifying the noun “snake,” but instead is the proper noun indicating the name of the mountain on which the snake resides. So the line should read:
“Act like the snake of Mt. Chang”
So while Gagliardi is perfectly content in his own ignorance that Sun Tzu is talking about an ordinary snake, what the text is really saying is that he needs his soldiers to be like an EXTRAordinary snake which possesses the magical ability to continue providing support to its endangered other half even after being cleaved into two separate parts.
Now if you are looking to really get beyond the basics of the translation (say like someone who is willing to shell out $1,500 for advanced personal lessons) and might be curious where this Mt. Chang is located and why it was relevant to Sun Tzu, you might be surprised. Sun Tzu never actually mentioned Mt. Chang, but instead was referring to a Mt. Heng, where this extraordinary snake supposedly lived (by the way, Sun Tzu gave the snake a name, the Shuairan, a fact that was completely missed by Gagliardi). It turns out that the oldest extant copy of the Art of War was transcribed during the Han Dynasty period. What professional Sinologists know but Mr. Gagliardi might not, is that in classical Chinese there was a prohibition on using characters that were the same as the personal name of the sitting emperor. At around the same time as we believe the earliest version of The Art of War was transcribed, Emperor Wen of Han was sitting on the throne and had a personal name of “Liu Heng” which means that “Heng” would need to be omitted from all texts. “Heng” actually means “Perseverance” and it turns out that “Chang” also carries the meaning of “Perseverance” so Mt. Heng was changed to Mt. Chang to get around this prohibition—an interesting tidbit for your next trivia night.
Of course the name change does nothing to impact your understanding of the Art of War, but does illustrate the difference between buying a copy of the The Art of War from a professional Sinologist who understands both the translation issues and can provide relevant historical and philosophical background, and the rank amateur who does this for a hobby and wants to pass off an inferior product hoping you won't know the difference. There are too many professionally done Sun Tzu translations available by qualified individuals (Ames, Griffith, Sawyer, Ivanhoe, Mair, Minford) to justify paying the same amount of money for Mr. Gagliardi’s lackluster effort.
You wouldn’t select a surgeon for your triple-bypass surgery simply because he was “passionate” about cutting people open and learned some things on the internet. You would want to select someone who has years of relevant professional experience under their belt, and just as important, board certified. Fortunately, the stakes aren't quite so high when choosing the best Sun Tzu translation, but the same principle should apply. Don't be an ordinary purchaser of this classic text, be an extraordinary one.