The Art of Translation, Part 2: The Myth of the “Literal Translation”

by Bill Grandy

“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.

dictionary-1172442An American woman was visiting Italy enjoying her delicious gelato. Her conversational Italian was quite good, and she complimented the store employees on how much she liked her frozen treat, informing them that in America, ice cream is full of preservatives. Everyone in the store turned to look in revulsion. It took a short discussion to figure out why they had reacted so strongly. She had used the Italian word, “preservativo”, which she correctly understood to literally translate into English as “preservative”. The problem, though, is that Italians don’t use that word to mean additives in food… they use it to refer to prophylactics. She had told everyone in the store that Americans put condoms in their ice cream.

This embarrassing story highlights a myth that has become more and more common in the HEMA community: The myth that translations are supposed to be as literal as possible. This myth goes back to at least the 1990’s in the community, and perhaps even earlier, but has become more prevalent in later years due to the ease in which people can share free translations on the internet. Such translations are often made by people who truly mean to be helpful, and many of these well-intended people might even speak the language, but this does not mean that they are trained in translation, which is its own separate skill.

One of the major reasons translation is a separate skill is because it requires the ability to make educated interpretation. There are many amateurs who argue that it is wrong to make any interpretations, claiming that a translation must be “pure”. The problem here is that all translations are an interpretation. Avoiding interpretation is not only impossible, but it also can force a meaning onto the copied language that doesn’t reflect the original text. If translating a text were as simple as finding a literal meaning to each word, then English-speaking Dante scholars would not read multiple translations of The Divine Comedy in addition to studying the original Italian.

Think about these following sentences:

“Head over to the supermarket and buy some milk.”
“Drive down to the store and get me milk.”
“Go out and pick up a carton of milk.”
“We’re out of milk. Bring some back from the shop, will you?”

Any fluent English speaker will understand that these four sentences mean the exact same thing. Despite this, each one is comprised of very different words and sentence structures, not even always being grammatically correct. Translating all of these into another language would mean that the translator needs to not only understand the literal dictionary definitions of the words themselves, but must understand the context clues of the sentences (“Drive down” versus “Go out” might literally mean different things elsewhere, but not in this context) and colloquialisms (“pick up” may not literally mean to purchase the milk or even to remove the milk from the store, yet any native speaker would instantly understand the meaning).

Context Clues

There are many words in which it is impossible to find a literal translation simply because a word can have multiple meanings based on the context in which it is used. For example, the word “point” has multiple definitions. When describing a sword, it may refer to the tip of the blade. (“The point of the sword is used for thrusting.”) When describing a tournament, it may refer to scoring. (“A competitor who strikes the head will score 3 points.”) When discussing the referee’s methodology, it may refer to a semaphore or gesture of clarification. (“When a referee awards the winning strike, he or she will point to the person that just scored.”)

In the above examples, there isn’t one literal definition of “point”, so a good translator must figure out the most logical way to convey the meaning based on the context. This, by definition, is an interpretation, and it is important that a translator accept this.


The judging of this HEMA tournament is a train wreck and is going to drive me to drink.”

The above sentence, by all rights, does not make any logical sense, yet any American will instantly understand that it is a complaint about the quality of judges of a competition. A translator would have a lot to break down when conveying the actual meaning to another language, however.

Certainly, the literal dictionary definitions of the words are important: The word “tournament” can safely be translated with an equivalent word that means an event where people are competing in a sporting environment. However, the term “train wreck” in this case does not mean a literal vehicular accident (and indeed, the word “train” requires context clues to interpret that it is not the verb by the same name). “Drive me” has nothing to do with operating an automobile, and the term “to drink” in this case implies imbibing alcohol specifically, even though the type of beverage is never referenced. These are colloquialisms: Non-formal phrases that are often unique to a particular culture. An interpreter must be skilled enough to cut through the literal meaning in order to make sense of the intended meaning.

"When I miss your lips, I'll put a fag in my mouth and think of you..." TV's "Arrested Development" reminds us that even English doesn't always directly translate into English.
“When I miss your lips, I’ll put a fag in my mouth and think of you…” TV’s “Arrested Development” reminds us that even English doesn’t always literally translate into English. (image courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

There is a line in Andre Lignitzer’s Dagger Techniques from the von Danzig fencing treatise. It describes a grappling technique, but finishes with a line that Christian Tobler translates as: “…and push his arm over your left arm and throw two, one, or seven.” (In Saint George’s Name, Christian Tobler, p.172) This would seem to be a very cryptic message. Thankfully, Tobler’s translation gives us an important footnote where he thanks Dierk Hagedorn for pointing out that in the original language, there is a pun here where the specific words refer to playing a game. A joke that occasionally appears in medieval German wrestling treatises involves pinning an opponent on the ground and then playing a game of dice or board game with someone else while the opponent is held helpless, and this is a similar joke. This type of reference can only be understood by learning about the culture of the people involved, not merely what the words literally mean.

A similar joke appears in Lecküchner's messer treatise, where we are taught a pinning action, and then told, "You can even play backgammon, eat, and drink beside him, for cannot stand up unless you willingly let him..." (The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Lecküchner, translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng, p. 183)
A similar joke appears in Lecküchner’s messer treatise, where we are taught a pinning action, and then told, “You can even play backgammon, eat, and drink beside him, for he cannot stand up unless you willingly let him…” (The Art of Swordsmanship by Hans Lecküchner, translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng, p. 183)

When there is no equivalent translation:

There is a German word, “Torschlusspanik”. It has no equivalent word in English. This literally translates to “gate-closing panic”. Despite the literal translation, a German does not use this word to describe a phobia of being trapped in a doorway. Rather, the word describes a fear of diminishing opportunities as a person ages. In this case, if a person was translating the sentence “Der Mann hat Torschlusspanik” into English, a translator has to make a decision on how to convey this correctly to the reader.

One correct method a translator could choose is to translate everything except the word in question, keeping it in the original language, but leaving a footnote explaining what it means. The translation here would simply say, “The man has Torschlusspanik.”, and the footnote could be referenced as needed. This method is ideal if the word is repeated multiple times within the text, and therefore the reader need-not reread an overly bulky sentence repeatedly. This method can be somewhat clunky to read at times, but sometimes it is the most efficient way.

If the word is only used once in the entire text, then another correct method would be to use an equivalent saying in English with an attempt to capture the voice of the author as well as the meaning. For example, a translation could say, “The man fears he will miss more and more windows of opportunity as he grows older.” The actual words used here are not what the sentence actually says, but missing a “window of opportunity” is an English figure of speech that captures both the intent of the original meaning as well as some of the flavor of the original author’s wording. A footnote should still be added to provide the original text and explain the translator’s decision. This is an example of how the translator must make interpretations for the sake of preserving intent. A so-called “pure” translation would actually obscure the meaning further.

When the original text might contain a mistake:

It is not out of the question for the original author to have made a mistake. One of the most common mistakes in describing physical actions is to accidentally switch the words “left” and “right”. For those of us who rely on historical treatises to recreate our martial arts, that is an easy mistake that can lead to ridiculous results.

This is yet another area where the translator must make an interpretation, but it is also one where the translator must be very careful not to accidentally mistreat the writing due to preconceived assumptions. The translator must already be familiar with the text as a whole, and must make an educated guess if the word is out of place based on the rest of the text. Even if the translator is absolutely certain that the original author made a mistake, the translator must always be honest and cite the decision to change the word so that the reader is aware of it.

So, why does any of this matter for HEMA?

Why is any of this an issue for those of us recreating historical arts? Because, at best, forcing a translation to be as literal as possible twists the meaning of the original writers, further masking their intent. It makes physical interpretation that much harder, and in some cases causes the modern reader to believe something that is completely false.

Translating a historical text is even harder than translating a modern one because the author is no longer among us to ask. A translator’s job is to bring this dead author’s meaning back to life. If the translation is broken and awkward sounding, then the translator has failed, unless if the original text is also broken and awkward. It is important as practitioners of HEMA, then, to be critical of reading someone’s translation. Many of the available ones, especially on the internet, are made by enthusiasts who truly have good intentions and the desire to share knowledge… but good intentions are known for providing the paving of a certain road, and this is important to keep in mind when interpreting historical martial arts, lest we create something that is neither historical nor martial.


About the author: Bill Grandy is the Director of Historical Swordsmanship at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, where he has taught professionally since 2001. His HEMA studies began in 1998 (back before anyone called it “HEMA”), though he practiced modern sport fencing since the late 1980’s, and spent most of the 1990’s practicing Aikido before eventually giving up both when he found his true passion with the historical western fighting styles. His specialties are the German Liechtenauer tradition of swordsmanship as well as the Renaissance Italian rapier, though he tries to find time to work with numerous other weapon arts whenever he can. Bill has traveled extensively to study both period fencing treatises as well as antique arms and armor, and he is also invited regularly to teach at major HEMA events.

One thought on “The Art of Translation, Part 2: The Myth of the “Literal Translation”

  1. I’d like to congratulate you on a very good article. As a person who has been taught translating in school I’d like to point out that this is THE way to treat a text you mean to retell in another language. Also, as a person who speaks several languages I would like to point out there is seldom such a thing as “equivalent words”. Consider for example the nouns smell, fragrance and aroma. They describe the same general concept but add different tinges of meaning. Two or all three could be interchanged in some contexts, but would sound awkward or add different meaning to the message conveyed e.g. sarcasm.

    That puts understanding the message behind the words in a different perspective. The message the author means to convey is a thought and a meaning he puts to words, but not the words themselves. Moreover no two people use all words in exactly the same way. They are a middle ground between the different things that go on in different people’s heads, and sometimes especially if you do not or cannot write with care about who will be reading your text your meaning may not be correctly interpreted from the words. For example when I’m explaining techniques to a group of people I usually stick to more universally understandable aspects like the aims, functions and placement which combined with demonstration are more or less enough for a start. Then when I see someone with good physical prowess doing some part of it incorrectly and I go explain to him, I may advise him with words like: twist; put your weight into it; use your core; step into it; etc. Just then happy with the help I’ve provided I see someone e.g. a mathematician (such as myself) who (unlike me 😉 has participated in little physical activity, and is having trouble coordinating his whole body, doing the exact same mistake. The same advice would be next to useless to him, unless I let him exercise several days until he feels what the concept behind “to put one’s weight into it” means with his body. To him I’d talk about how he should trajectorize his cuts so the tangents of the points the swords bind with are close to a certain angle, and how he should time a move with the sword with a push from that leg, or how that move should be a translation along that axis combined with a rotation around some other etc. The two would probably nearly mean the same things but it’s closer to the terms they think in most comfortably and understand readily without further help.

    Now imagine someone from the XIIIc. who has no clue about who you are, or how different your whole experience as a person in the XXIc. is from his, who can only tell you a few scarce centences in another language on any one technique, and cannot demonstrate anything, but one picture, none of which he really intended for you.

    Practicing HEMA a lot about rediscovering meaning that was lost, only you always have to assume you may not be understanding it correctly, or there could be some error in the text or depiction, because the only way to double check it is from another source which may or may not cover that topic explicitly, and the only thing you can certainly expect of the successful result of your effort is a technique that works well. And all those assumptions and years of mixed success are what make this undertaking very challenging both physically and mentally, and why my instructor foremostly and every other person who has undertaken this task have earned my deep respect.


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