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In Chapter 111 of Records of the Grand Historian (史记), there is a famous quotation attributed to Qubing Huo:

骠骑将军为人少言不泄,有气敢任。天子尝欲教之孙吴兵法,对曰:“顾方略何如耳,不至学古兵法。”

I checked the translation from many Chinese websites, but all of them seem to be unsatisfactory. Can anyone give me a word-by-word translation for this quotation?

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as far as i search (ctext.org, 維基文庫 & 四庫全書薈要), the character "古" is missed in the question, which make great difference in translation. the relevant text ought to be:

驃騎將軍為人少言不泄﹒有氣敢任﹒天子嘗欲教之孫吳兵法﹒對曰﹒顧方略何如耳﹒不至學古兵法

p117

therefore, i would suggest in clause 顧方略何如耳:

顧 考慮 considering
方 方法 --> 戰術 military tactics 
略 策略 --> 戰略 military strategy
何如 如何 how to
耳 is a 虛字, served the purpose of ending a clause; and helping 句讀
靈活運用 to deploy flexibly

so, 顧方略何如耳 is roughly:

considering (顧) how to (何如) deploy military tactics (方) & strategy (略) flexibly (deploy and flexibly are inserted for easier comprehension)

in clause 不至學古兵法:

不至 不至於 or 不必 no need
學 學習 to learn
古 古代    ancient
兵法 the art of war / warfare

so, 不至學古兵法 is roughly:

there's no need (不至) to learn (學) the ancient (古) art of war (兵法)

the rationale of my attempted translation is:

at the time of 霍去病 (140 bc – 117 bc), 孫吳兵法 (5th century bc) is a few hundred years old. most likely, general 霍 had ideas that society, technology and enemy are changed, that, ancient books about the art of war were outdated. further he had talent in war, that, learning from these ancient rules of war is unnecessary for him.

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  • Good point! Thanks for your answer, it is helpful.
    – Zhanxiong
    Jul 17 '16 at 15:16
  • great :) may i ask where do you get the text? it's "strange" that the character "古" is missed :( Jul 17 '16 at 16:33
  • I missed typing one character, have edited my post. Good catch!
    – Zhanxiong
    Jul 18 '16 at 4:44
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顾方略何如耳,不至学兵法。

In general, it means (to fight a battle) you don't necessarily study warcraft, but to consider how to deploy strategy. To break that into word-by-word meaning:

顾: but to look at/take care

In classic Chinese the primary meaning of 顾 is to look back, but considering the context here it's more likely to be an adversative conjunction that has an emphasis of look at/take care/consider.

方略: strategy = 策略

何如: how = 如何/怎么样

It is an inversion phrase that has the same meaning with 如何 when using at the end of sentence.

耳: auxiliary word/Chinese particles

It doesn't have much meaning, but has an indication of nothing more than. So to better understand this sentence, you can translate it as but to nothing more than considering how to deploy strategy.

不至: no necessary/no need

学兵法: learn/study warcraft

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顾方略何如耳, 顾 - 2 possible translations [1] look back [2] to see 方略 - no word to word for these 2, together they roughly means "strategy" 何如耳 - also a phrase, appears in few other histrionic written sentences; i think it would translate to something like "how effective" 不至学兵法。 不至 - together could mean 2 things [1] don't yet have to [2] if not successful 学兵法 - you could guess this one yourself.

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