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Interview with Victor H. Mair, translator of The Art of War

Victor Mair, translator of The Art of WarVictor Mair's new translation of The Art of War offers a bold new rendition of a classic work of strategy and Ancient Chinese thought. In this interview, Mair discusses the enduring appeal of the work and what distinguishes his translation:

Q: Why is there so much interest nowadays in this small book of Chinese strategy that dates back more than two thousand years?

Victor H. Mair: There are basically three motivating factors that keep The Art of War in the limelight. The first, naturally, is the insights that it affords into traditional Chinese military thinking. Second, entrepreneurs and business-school professors value the tactical tips that it offers for those who are engaged in intense competition and delicate negotiations. Third, psychologists, therapists, and counselors appreciate its subtle advice for those who confront challenging personal situations. Of course, there are also those who are interested in The Art of War because it offers a direct glimpse into the life and mind of early China, but they are a decided minority in comparison with those who use it for contemporary applications.

Q: What prompted you to translate, annotate, and introduce a work that has been rendered into English before?

VHM: My first aim in translating an ancient text always is to achieve fidelity to the original. Having read the other translations that were available to the English-reading public, I simply felt that I could provide a more accurate version. My second aim is to convey a sense of the style that I am dealing with in a given text. Here, too, I thought I could do a better job of approximating in English the nuances and flavor of the Chinese work than had earlier translators.

Q: Aside from the quality of the translation itself, how does your edition of The Art of War differ from other versions?

VHM: There are many aspects of this new edition of The Art of War for Columbia University Press that set it apart from all other versions. To begin with, there is a magnificent foreword by Arthur Waldron, who insightfully compares the military thought of Sun Zi with that of Clausewitz, the preeminent military thinker in the West. Perhaps the greatest breakthrough in my own explication of The Art of War is the clear demonstration of how deeply Taoist a work it is. Equally important is showing how the military technology and thought of China during the Warring States period were intimately related to developments elsewhere in Eurasia and did not occur in a vacuum, as is so often wrongly imagined. Finally, I offer numerous commentaries on specific passages of the text that illuminate it in a way that has not been done before.

Q: Who do you think the most avid readers of your book will be?

VHM: I expect that scholars and students of early Chinese history will find it to be of value for their research on early China. Business persons and perplexed individuals will also turn to it for guidance. But my guess is that the largest number of readers of this book will come from the armed services, the very sort of soldiers and officers for whom it was originally intended.