Meaningful Words: Comparing Translations of Historical Fencing Treatises

With thanks to Robert Marks from Darksword Armory for his help with editing this article.

The business of translation is difficult at the best of times, and often under-appreciated. A translation is just one way of expressing an original text. If you are lucky enough to study a source that has been translated several times, then it is useful to compare each of the translations (even if you suspect some might be old and out-of-date) – this can only strengthen your understanding of your subject matter.

For this article, examples will be drawn from the longsword treatises in the Codex MS 3227a, also known as the “Codex Döbringer.[1] These treatises offer several interesting examples for comparative purposes due to the number of translations that have been released over the years.

The Translator’s Task

Translation is not as simple as finding the one-to-one mapping between words in different languages; rather, it is a game of subtleties of expression, and sometimes it can be very difficult to find the right words in a second language to express a very simple thought in the first.[2] A further complication in historical fencing manuals is that the translator may need to try some of the techniques or sequences and find a physical interpretation before he can understand or visualise what the original author has written.[3] The translator’s task is to understand what ideas the original author was trying to convey, and to express those ideas in the new language.

It is important to remember that the translations that we can read are not exactly what the original author said or wrote. They are merely a translator’s best representation of what the original author meant.

Comparing the words used to express an idea

Different words can be used to express the same idea, but sometimes one particular choice of wording can spark a new idea or avenue for study.

For example, the MS 3227a describes how to hold the sword: with the hands on the grip, not on the pommel. All the translations of the source agree on this point. However, where the translations differ is in the choice of word used to express why one should hold the sword in this fashion. The following passages from two separate translations illustrate this example, with the keyword italicised. The original text reads:

Auch wisse das eyn guter fechter sal vo[e]r allen sachen syn swert gewisse und sicher fu[e]ren und fassen mit baiden henden / czwischen gehilcze und klos / wen alzo helt her das swert vil sicher / den das hers bey dem klosse vasset mit eyner hant.[4]

And the two modern translations read:

Also know that a good fighter should before all else intuitively know his sword and grip it with both hands, between the hilt and the pommel since you will then be safer than if you grip the pommel with one hand.[5]

This is because this way one holds the sword much more surely than if one holds it with one hand at the pommel.[6]

Some translators prefer to say that it is “safer” to hold the sword by the grip and not by the pommel; others prefer to say that holding the sword only by the grip allows one to hold the sword “more surely.” Personally, I believe that it does give a surer grip,[7] especially if the sword has a large wheel pommel that is not so easy or comfortable to hold, but I do not think that it is any more or less safe than holding the sword with one hand on the pommel.[8]

Comparing multiple translations of the same passage allows for examination of the words used to express the ideas contained within, and can provide alternative ways to look at and understand the passage. In the example given above, it can only be a good thing to compare the two different translations, to think about it and work out why each translation might be valuable advice, and then to decide which translation makes most sense based on your own understanding of the material and its context. It is a useful exercise and results in a more solid understanding of how and why you do things as you do, along with the evidence from the sources.

Comparing and finding inconsistencies

In the previous example, the translations used different words that had slightly different meanings, but they were both trying to say the same thing and to express roughly the same opinion. However, sometimes the translations will take opposite points of view, leading to an impasse unless there are further translations available to provide a better sense of how to understand the passage.

For example, the MS 3227a contains a paragraph exhorting fencers to strike towards higher targets in favour of lower targets, but it also suggests that if a lower opening is close and easy to hit, you should be able to take the opportunity and strike to it. The original reads:

Auch sal eyner allemal liber den obern blo[e]ßen remen / denne den undern / unde eyme ober deme gehilcze yn varen / mit hewe ader mit stiche / ku[e]nlich und risch / Wen eyner irreicht eynen vil vas und verrer o[e]ber dem gehilcze / den dorunder / und eyner ist auch alzo vil sicher alles fechtens / und der obern rure eyne / ist vil besser denne der under eyne / Is wen denne / das ist alzo queme das eyner neher hette zu der undern das her der remen mu[e]ste / als das ofte kumpt.[9]

James Acutt[10] translates this as:

You should always prefer the upper exposures rather than the lower, and go over his hilt with cuts or with stabs artfully and lethally. For you have better reach over the hilt than under and so much safer in all fighting. And the upper touch one is much better than the lower one. But it may happen that you are closer to the lower opportunities and therefore seek that, as can often occur.[11]

A practitioner reading this translation might decide that striking to the lower openings is a reasonable action to practise. However, Thomas Stoeppler’s translation is a little different:

Also one should preferably aim for the upper openings and less to the lower openings, and also above the cross and not below. So all fencing is much safer and the upper openings is much better (to reach) than the lower openings – except that it occurs that the lower opening is closer and then one should aim for the lower opening, but that doesn’t happen too often.[12]

A practitioner reading this translation might be happy to ignore the skill of striking to the lower openings and practise only the strikes to the upper openings, since the skill is not so relevant or useful to learn as other skills and techniques. Practitioners tend only to have limited amounts of practice time every week, so instructors tend to focus on the more important techniques and sequences, teaching the skills that are likely to be of most use in sparring. If the lower openings do not present themselves very often, as per this translation, then perhaps it is not a skill to which it is worth devoting much training time.

Depending which translation the instructor chooses to read and use for planning his lessons, his students may receive lessons on how to strike at the lower openings and develop this ability to the point where it is useful in sparring, or they might receive only the barest acknowledgement that this skill could be useful sometimes. Therefore, an instructor making this particular comparison may decide that in fact striking to the lower openings when the opportunity presents is a skill worth training, since it is most likely that the original author of the treatise believed that the situation was common in fencing.

Which translation is correct? The translations of Lindholm, Zabinski and Hull state that that this is a situation which can occur often, agreeing with Acutt’s translation; Stoeppler’s translation is the “odd one out” for this paragraph. Deciding whether or not a translation is correct may be a task beyond most practitioners, who often lack the skills and knowledge to discuss the subtleties of Middle High German, so the ability to compare several translations can be a helpful substitute.

Comparing the development of understanding over time

As practitioners develop more skill and knowledge, their ability to understand and visualise the original author’s ideas and instructions also improves. By comparing translations and looking at the specificity with which the instructions are rendered, we can see how this understanding has improved over the years. For example, the description of the Krumphaw in the MS 3227a has been rendered differently, but more confidently, as time has passed. The original manuscript reads:

Doru[e]m meynt lichtnawer der den selben haw wol wil furen / der sal wol beseitz aus schreiten czu der rechten hant / danne her den haw brengt / Und sal wol krumphawen und behendlichen und sol synen ort / werfen / ader schißen / ieme aber syn gehilcze of dy hende / und sal mit synen flechen hawen / wen her denne trift / zo sal her stark dor of bleiben und vaste drucken / und sal sehen / was her denne am endlichsten und geradsten / dar brengen mag / mit hewen stichen ader sneten / und sal mit nichte czu korcz hawen / und sal des durchwechsels nicht vorgessen / ab sichs gepu[e]rt.[13]

David Lindholm produced the first English translation of the MS 3227a in 2005, and he rendered one of the Krumphaw instructions as follows:

Therefore Liechtenauer means that if you wish to do this strike well, you shall step well out to the right side as you strike. And you shall throw or shoot your point in over the cross guard at the (opponent’s) hands. And you shall strike with your flat, and when you hit the flat (of the opponent’s sword?) you shall remain on it with strength and push firmly and see were you can easiest and straightest hit him with strikes or thrusts or cuts and you shall not strike too short and not forget the changing through [Durchwechsel], were it is suitable to do it.[14]

Comparatively, Thomas Stoeppler released his translation on the Wiktenauer in 2013, and he rendered the passage as follows:

This is why Liechtenauer says whoever wants to execute this strike, should step well to the right side while striking and shall throw or thrust the point over the hilt of the adversary onto his hands. And he should strike with the flat if he hits the blade and should stay strong against the sword and press forcefully. From there he may see what he can do best, in the most direct and surest manner, be it with strikes, thrusts or cuts. And he should not strike too short and should not forget the changing-through if it is appropriate.[15]

The instruction to strike with the flat is expressed more confidently in the more recent translation. It is possible that Lindholm was struggling to understand the idea of the technique when he prepared his work, hence the hesitation in his translation, while Stoeppler had become much more confident in his understanding of the material by the time he made his translation.

This sort of comparison might not be very useful for the new student, but it can be interesting for an instructor who would like to see how the understanding of the art and the source has developed over time. It can also suggest when one translation might be more useful than another, because of the translator’s greater confidence in his own understanding of the material; clearly, it is better to use a translation where the translator has a solid grasp of the ideas that he needs to communicate, rather than a translation where the translator was struggling to come to terms with the ideas. If an instructor performs this kind of comparison between translations, then he will be able to recommend the most confident translations to his students, or will be able to warn about issues or problems with the expression of ideas and concepts therein.

Bringing it together

The translator does his best to render ideas from one language into another language, often without perfect knowledge of the subject. He will tend to work within parameters, such as remaining close to the original meaning of words, producing flowing prose, including his own interpretations or trying to make it as neutral and uncoloured by interpretations as possible. These all have an effect on the resulting translation.

When a practitioner quotes a translation, he is not necessarily quoting the original author’s intention; rather, he is merely quoting the translator’s best guess at the author’s intention, expressed within the limitations of the new language and the parameters of the project. Therefore, it is not sensible to debate what interpretation makes most sense because of the meaning a single word in the translated text; the word in question may have been used for a particular reason, or it may simply have been most convenient for the translator to use that word instead of three or four others. It is only sensible to debate the meaning and intent of a given word in the original text, for the purpose of producing the most accurate and helpful translation to aid an interpretation.

Due to the imperfect nature of translations, we cannot always say for certain that a translation says exactly what the original author meant to convey. However, by collecting several translations, we can approximate a better idea of roughly what the original author meant to suggest. The more outlines we can add to our picture, the more defined and helpful it becomes, even if the precise details remain fuzzy.


[1] Anonymous. Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Codex MS 3227a. C.1389. Folios 13v-17v, 18r-40r, 43r-52v.

[2] Keith Farrell and Reinier van Noort. “A Primer to Translating Historical Martial Arts Treatises.” Academy of Historical Arts, 28th August 2013, accessed 21st March 2015. Pages 3-4. Treatises.pdf

[3] Keith Farrell. “Research into Historical European Martial Arts.” In: Keith Farrell (ed.). Encased in Steel Anthology I. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2015. Pages 65-85.

[4] Anonymous. MS 3227a. Transcribed by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 15r.

[5] James Wallhausen. Knightly Martial Arts. 2nd edition., 2010. Page 302.

[6] Grzegorz Zabinski. “Unarmored Longsword Combat by Master Liechtenauer via Priest Döbringer.” In: Jeffrey Hull (ed.). Masters of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 2008. Page 64.

[7] And this is also the translation suggested by: Joseph Wright. A Middle High German Primer. 3rd edition. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1917. Page 198. Hosted on Project Gutenberg, accessed 24th March 2015.

[8] Keith Farrell and Alex Bourdas. AHA German Longsword Study Guide. Glasgow: Fallen Rook Publishing, 2013. Pages 30-31.

[9] Anonymous. MS 3227a. Transcribed by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 16r.

[10] James Acutt has published under the pseudonym James Wallhausen.

[11] Wallhausen. Knightly Martial Arts. Page 303.

[12] “Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a).” Wiktenauer, accessed 21st March 2015. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler, 2013.öbringer_(MS_3227a)

[13] Anonymous. MS 3227a. Transcribed by David Lindholm, 2005. Folio 25v.

[14] David Lindholm. “Cod.HS.3227a or Hanko Döbringer fechtbuch from 1389.” Göteborgs Historiska Fäktskola, 2005, accessed 21st March 2015. Page 26.

[15] “Codex Döbringer (MS 3227a).” Wiktenauer, accessed 21st March 2015. Translated by Thomas Stoeppler, 2013.öbringer_(MS_3227a)