The Art of Translation, Part 1: What Makes a Good Translation?

by David Rowe

“The Art of Translation” is an ongoing series of articles covering translation as it pertains to HEMA source material. It will feature tips, resources, original translations and more.

At least it’s better than Google translate.

Scholars and practitioners of Historical European Martial Arts, unlike other forms of martial arts, are reliant on the historical treatises which document the fighting styles that we study. For most of the arts that are practiced within HEMA, we lack the direct, extant living tradition handed down over generations, passed on from master to student as you can find in classical Asian sword arts. Because of this, HEMA practitioners are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the arts that we study, as most HEMA treatises appear to have been intended not as how-to guides for beginners, but as study aids, teachers’ notes, or advanced instruction for competent fencers.  Attempting to learn to fight solely from a book is already nearly if not entirely impossible, and most practitioners will find it necessary to borrow from living traditions to fill in or inform the gaps that exist within the treatises. While that topic is worthy of its own article, the goal here will instead be to discuss what qualifies a translation as being an accurate representation of the original text in the study of HEMA.

The average HEMA practitioner is not fluent in the languages of the texts that we study, so it is impossible to downplay the importance of good, quality translations.  There’s  no “HE” in HEMA without adhering to the textual sources. Thankfully the past few years have seen a surge in the number of translations that are available, which is absolutely wonderful for those practitioners who do not possess the skills to read the sources in their original languages.  Having a readable translation can make all the difference in one’s ability to understand and interpret the actions that the author is attempting to convey.

So what sets apart a good translation from a poor one? Good translations should possess these qualities:

  1. Accuracy: The translation should convey as accurately as possible into the receiving language the original text without unnecessary modifications. If the original text says “Thrust to your opponent’s face”, the translation should say “Thrust to your opponent’s face”, not “Thrust to your opponent’s head”, or “Thrust at your opponent’s upper body”.
  2. Precision: Precision is closely related to accuracy, but takes it a step further. The translator should attempt to find the most precisely equivalent vocabulary in the receiving language to the original language. To repeat the previous example, if the verb for attacking in the language means to stick the pointy end in the other guy, then the translator should use the closest equivalent verb; in this case thrust or stab more precisely convey the intention than strike or hit or wound. “Hit your opponent in the face” may accurately convey the general idea, but it does not do so as precisely as “Thrust to your opponent’s face”.
  3. Economy: The translator should attempt to render the translation economically and without unnecessary modifications, flowery language, or additional explanation not present in the original, unless required.  “Extend your arms forward pointing the tip at the opponent so that you stab him in the face” may be a correct explanation of how the technique works, but it is not what the original language necessarily says.  The additions may or may not reflect what the original author intended; perhaps your arms are supposed to be slightly bent as you deliver the thrust, or they are already extended and you are supposed to step in order to hit; because the original does not specify, the translation should not either. Additionally, once a translator makes a choice to translate a certain word in a certain way, the translator should be consistent in that usage. The translator should not translate the word as “thrust”, and then in the next sentence translate it as “stab” or “pierce” unless there textual justification that a different usage is required. In that case, the translator should add a footnote clarifying that it is the same word, but is being translated differently in this particular case, and provide the justification within the footnote. The same process should be followed in the case that there is no clear or simple way to translate the word or sentence, or if the translator has to make a judgement call on how they will translate when there are multiple possibilities.
  4. Clarity/readability: If a text is being translated from German, Italian, or Latin, etc. into English, then the translation needs to be good English. It should read clearly and fluently and be in grammatically correct, modern English.  Archaicisms and anachronisms should be avoided. Sentence structure may need to be adjusted to reflect English word order and syntax. As much as possible, the translation should read as if the original were written in modern English.

Being able to balance all of these qualities at once is a difficult task, and requires long hours of dedicated study filled with frustration.  Good translations go through multiple revisions before they are published, as the translators gain a better feel for the texts the more they work through it.  If they encounter a difficult passage, they should do their best to translate it, and then move on.  Each text should be treated as a whole, as often times the way a word is used in a later passage will shed light on how an earlier passage should be translated.  Most importantly, the aspiring translator should remember that a good translation must be a scholarly work, and that they should hold themselves to the same rigor and standard that would be expected in an academic publication.


 About the author: David Rowe is a senior instructor with the Virginia Academy of Fencing where he has trained in various HEMA traditions since 2001 and taught professionally since 2005.  His main area of focus is on the early Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship and the associated weapons, as well as medieval and renaissance Ringen (German wrestling) traditions.  He is currently undergoing his graduate studies at Catholic University with a focus on transcription and translation of Medieval manuscripts. In addition to teaching at VAF, David has been invited to teach at various national and international HEMA events.

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