John Minford is a world-renowned British sinologist and literary translator, whose translations into English of Chinese classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber (the last forty chapters), The Book of the Deer and the Tripod, The Art of War, Liaozhai Zhiqi (excerpts), The I Ching, and The Tao Te Ching, have attracted widespread attention overseas and have made a significant contribution to the dissemination of Chinese culture abroad.
Born in Birmingham in 1946, Minford lived and grew up with his diplomat father in Venezuela, Argentina and Egypt, and studied Ancient Greek and Latin Literature at Winchester Public School from 1958 to 1963, when he became interested in translation. Winchester was a very traditional school where students were required to do a lot of Latin and Greek translation. Minford had a brilliant teacher who required the students to translate every day, and he grew to love this exercise so much that he was excited whenever he sat down to translate, and since then he has taught Chinese and worked as a Chinese translator, with a passion for translation that has never waned. 1964 he went to study at Balliol College, Oxford, majoring in Western Philosophy, and then switched to Chinese Classics under his father-in-law, Prof. Hockes, and in 1968 received a degree in Chinese Classics. In 1970, he collaborated with Hawkes on the translation of Dream of the Red Chamber, the last forty chapters of which became the most widely accepted and influential translation in the English-speaking world, and in 1980, he went to the Australian National University to further his studies under the Chinese Sinologist Cunren Liu, where he received his PhD.
After teaching in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, Min joined the Center for Translation Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1982, where he became a close “comrade-in-arms” with Sung Ki, and eventually succeeded him as editor-in-chief of the Translation Series. He then took up teaching positions at the University of Auckland, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the Australian National University, and is now Professor Emeritus of Chinese at the Australian National University, and Chan Sin-wai Professor of Excellence in Chinese Culture and Translation at the Hang Seng University in Hong Kong.
In 1966, Minford was an undergraduate at Oxford University when he first read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He found it to be a book of proverbial wisdom, a “book of life,” containing strategic ideas that could be applied to areas other than war. He believes that Sun Tzu’s simple, general (almost abstract) language reveals the interactions of nature, humans, and people in a way that is valuable to all people in all times.
Minford initially focused on translating literary works, but when asked by Penguin Publishing in New York if he would translate The Art of War into English, he found it an interesting challenge, and he did so over a period of three years, from 1999 to 2002, when it was published in November 2002 as part of the Penguin Classics series. Most of the translation was published in The New England Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer 2002, prior to its release. Minford’s target audience is the general reader, and the translation adopts a “one-part, two-wing” structure, with the first part consisting of only the translation, which allows readers to freely and unobstructed read the translation close to the original language, and the second part consisting of the translation with notes, which allows readers to savor the original language with the help of the notes.
Minford’s English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War draws on the Eleven Commentators’ Commentaries on Sun Tzu, Guo Huaruo’s modern Chinese translations, as well as the bamboo slips from the Yinquashan Han Tomb. He attached great importance to the commentaries of the eleven commentators as indispensable to the understanding of the original text, and he also emphasized the important translations of his predecessors, such as those of Zhai Linnaeus, Anleger, Griffiths and the French missionary Chien Teh-ming, as well as the related works of the Chinese scholar Li Zero. Minford spent most of his life translating Chinese literature, including ancient and modern novels and poems, and his outstanding achievements are fully reflected in his English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. His efforts to reproduce the “literary qualities” of the original text, the aphoristic language, which sometimes seems to be semi-rhyming poetic language, the careful choice of words, phrases and rhymes, and the structure of the translation as close as possible to the original text have become the most distinctive features of his translations.
While praising the value of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Minford also misreads some of its ideas, stating, “There are certain ‘dark sides’ to this canon, which are disclosed in the preface and notes to my translation …… I remind the reader from time to time to adopt a critical attitude towards Sun Tzu’s thought.” According to his description, in the course of his English translation, he found that the text depicts the “ruthless” side of traditional Chinese culture, so he encourages readers to think independently and critically. Minford compares Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with the Tao Te Ching and finds that both express profound ideas derived from traditional Chinese wisdom in catchy language, but that Sun Tzu’s approach to human relationships is one of “counting on others,” which runs counter to his own humanistic values.
In our view, Sun Tzu is a military strategist who advocates prudent warfare, unlike the Legalists who are militant and war-mongering, or the Confucians, Taoists, and Mohists who are anti-war and war-abolitionists. What he sought was not to win the war by destroying his opponents, but to optimize symbiosis and achieve the most harmonious state among people. Sun Tzu advocated the “war of war”, with the goal of resolving human conflicts at the least possible cost. If war is unavoidable, he teaches how to minimize the damage – not just to the winning side, but to everyone. Thus, Sun Tzu’s Art of War is not a doctrine for destroying one’s enemies, but a methodology of thought for controlling a situation and achieving a win-win situation.
Minford has studied, translated and disseminated Chinese literature and culture for more than 50 years, helping to bring Chinese culture to the Western world, and in November 2016 he was awarded the inaugural Australian Academy of Humanities and Sciences Award for Outstanding Contribution to Translation for his English translation of The I Ching (2014 edition). Minford’s ideas on translation and the training of translators are inspirational and useful to us in our quest to tell China’s stories and spread China’s voice.
First, translators should be reader-conscious and pay attention to reader acceptance. Minford points out that a truly good translation should be faithful to the original text, but also readable and pleasing to the reader. If a translator is very faithful and at the same time very “free”, then he can achieve a beautiful translation and it will be readable. He can reach a state where both faithfulness and readability can be achieved, and reach the ideal state of “the state of transformation” mentioned by Mr. Qian Zhongshu. According to Minford, the translator should first understand the original text in its historical context, and then convert the original text into English in a way that is easy to be understood by contemporary English readers. The terms and culturally loaded words in the original text should be translated in this way so that the readers can understand the deeper meaning of the original text, the meaning beyond words and the cultural context.
Secondly, translation is a kind of literary re-creation. Minford points out that the translation of Chinese classics should be vigorous and creative, not dead, academic and obscure. Translation is a kind of literary endeavor. Translators should learn from Hawkes’ method of English translation of Dream of Red Mansions and integrate academic research with literary creation, so that the translation is both faithful to the original work and creative, making translation itself a form of literary art and an art of conversion.
Thirdly, English translations of Chinese canonical books should use paratexts. Minford points out that ancient Chinese texts come from specific cultural contexts and historical periods, which are far away from contemporary English readers, and translators need to help them understand the original texts by adding subtexts such as prefaces, notes, bibliographies and other contents in the translated texts.
Fourth, publishing organizations should cooperate with translators. According to Minford, translators of Chinese classics should choose well-known overseas commercial publishers, and translators should enjoy complete freedom in the translation process, but they should work together with the publishing company to design the arrangement and structure of the translation. In addition, the printing quality and cover design of the translated books also affect the overseas acceptance of the translated works.
Fifth, focus on cultivating translation talents. Minford believes that this is a complicated process, he once mentioned, “I am not a translation theorist, translation theory is not helpful to translators, simple theoretical discussion may be interesting, but there is no application value, I don’t use translation theory to train translators”. Minford summarizes translator training as cultivation improvement, i.e., cultivation of the whole person. Translators should have an open mind to engage in various cultural phenomena, and actively experience different things and accumulate various experiences. For example, in order to translate a French novel, the translator should first taste different kinds of French wine, because wine is very important in traditional French culture. This kind of experiential learning is more effective than letting students search the Internet, and it emphasizes long-term comprehensive development, including a lot of reading, cultural experience and inner self-reflection, because in the final analysis, translation takes place within the translator.
Minford’s English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War combines in-depth academic research and literary creation to provide a precise understanding and reproduction of the original text. He emphasizes the readability of the translation so that readers can easily understand the profound connotations of the original text, and provides detailed annotations to help readers better savor and understand the ideas of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. This “one body, two wings” structure allows readers to read the translated text and at the same time explore the cultural background and meaning of the original text more deeply with the help of the annotations.
In the process of translation, he has respected the commentaries of eleven commentators and referred to the important translations and related works of many predecessors, and is committed to reproducing the literary qualities of the original text in the translation. This attention to detail and to the rhythm and rhyme of the language have made his translations popular among English-speaking readers.
If you are interested in traditional Chinese wisdom, the art of war or the art of translation, Minford’s English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War will be a good choice.