Challenges and Rewards

Translating and Working with Sources of Mare

By David Kite
ARMA Scholar
December 2012

Uniquely among the martial arts of the world, students of the martial arts of Europe have at their disposal numerous records detailing the application of close personal combat. These primary sources exist as both textual and pictorial documents, and while the number of surviving sources grows beginning about the 18th century, for our period (about 1300 to 1650 AD), they are much more rare. However, since many of these works have become available, either in print or online, the average practitioner has an unprecedented opportunity to study them on their own. Working directly with these materials provides many benefits to the martial arts student, but it also poses a number of challenges. This essay discusses some of those challenges, as well as illuminates some of the invaluable benefits gained from working directly with the source material.

Parallel to the availability of sources in general, for many years, one of the major challenges and limitations facing the martial arts practitioner was simply a lack of translations. Even the works originally written in English were difficult to understand, partly due to the archaic language, and partly due to the lack of a broader understanding of the art. Today, a large number of manuals are available in translation, but many important works remain untranslated. However, even available works can be difficult to find on the web, and even modern printed editions have limited print runs, so copies can be difficult to come by.

However, even the availability of translations presents its own challenges, particularly when they are ambiguous or inaccurate, which becomes apparent in the case of multiple translation of the same work. Every translation is inherently also an interpretation, so it is important to remember that no matter how literal or accurate a translation, it is still filtered through the lens of the translator. As such, it is subject not only to that individual's understanding of the art of fighting, but also the original language, the original author's intent, as well as the translator's ability to translate that meaning into his own language.

Translating a text is certainly no easy task. Reading often poorly legible scripts written in archaic languages is difficult enough. However, even when reading and understanding a text becomes fairly straightforward, deciding how best to render it in another language so that it is both understandable and remains faithful to the original adds quite a lot of complexity to the process. Often, words have different meanings depending on context, if they can even be efficiently translated at all, and when translating, choosing one word over another can drastically alter an interpretation or obfuscate meaning.

It is easy to assume that working with a source written in the native language of the reader (albeit an ancient version) would mitigate these problems, but this is not necessarily the case. Variations in spelling is the most obvious problem encountered, but is also the most easily surmountable. More difficult are archaic standards of syntax and grammar. English works specifically are, in a word, verbose. The written language, in many cases, was much closer to the spoken language than it is today, with the result that frequently labyrinthine sentences often span the bulk of a single page and more.1

The contents of our source materials can provide more difficult challenges. The completeness of a work, and even the level of detail either in the text or illustrations can have a dramatic affect on the reader's understanding. In longer technical works, such as master Joachim Meyer's Gründtliche Beschreibung, information and explanations of useful fighting concepts are not always presented in complete or discrete chunks. Because most fighting concepts are universally applicable across weapons, information introduced in one section may be further expounded upon in one or more later sections. As a result, it becomes important to read an entire work in order to gain a more complete understanding of an author's teachings, even if you are not interested in a particular weapon. This is problematic if a work is not available in its entirety, such as Paulus Hector Mair's manuscripts. Although scans of two of his entire treatises are available, translations of the whole work currently are not.

Further complicating this is the fact that not all of our surviving materials were intended to be instructional works, or include entire methods. The "Solothurner Fechtbuch," for example, provides numerous illustrations but no accompanying text, and seems to have been intended as a presentation piece, much like a modern coffee table book.2 Other works, such as MS Harley 3542 ("Man yt Wol") demonstrate somewhat the opposite problem; that of sparse or cryptic text with no illustrations. The 14th century verses of the master Johannes Liechtenauer could be included here if it weren't for the fortunate survival of several copies with accompanying glosses.

Finally, one of the most challenging, as well as potentially the most limiting, aspects of working with the source material is how to actually use them. These challenges and limitations can be manifest in how we view both the text and the illustrations. Swordsmith Peter Johnsson remarked in his lecture on Medieval sword design that a sword is a thing designed to be in motion.3 These martial arts are no different; they are an activity. Their texts describe motion. The illustrations are two-dimensional static representations of three dimensional figures in motion. It is very easy to approach these source works with false assumptions, particularly in terms of range and timing or leverage, and also the fluid nature of personal combat. How literally are we to interpret this material? When we see an illustration of a figure standing in guard facing an opponent at sword's length, should we assume we are also to "stand in guard" at a comparable length? If we see a technique illustrated with a certain foot position, range, or binding at a certain point on his opponent's blade, are we to assume our application must follow suit exactly? Or do we have room to maneuver? The same is true of textual descriptions. When explaining a technique or fighting concept, the authors often went beyond explaining just the technique or concept itself, adding important but otherwise extraneous material. It is often difficult to determine what are actually the important details of the technique or concept itself, and what is simply an action leading up to, or following from it.

Similarly, when two sources present a technique in similar ways but with dissimilar details, are we to believe the authors actually had different understandings of that technique or concept, or that the techniques are actually different? Or were their explanations simply two different applications? In other words, are we missing the forest for the trees? For example, what is it exactly that makes the strike known as a Krumphau a Krumphau, or what is the underlying concept of the duplieren explained by Sigmund Ringeck? Can we diverge from his example technique and still be faithful to the duplieren concept, or is the divergence a bastardization?

Despite these difficulties, however, there are many worthwhile benefits. Working directly with the surviving source material provides a much more intimate understanding of these martial arts. Any historian will laud the value of studying primary sources over secondary sources. While working with a secondary source certainly has merit, and can provide very detailed information about a subject, it can never be more than a study or survey. By contrast, the primary source is the history. In working with primary sources, we are therefore not limited to modern interpretations of historical context. In most cases, and in varying amounts of detail, the authors expound upon their own views and opinions. Reading primary sources tells us exactly what the authors said, and how they understood the art (supposing of course they were successful in clearly articulating their meaning).4

Working with original languages has similar benefits to working with primary sources in general. In doing so we gain a deeper understanding of the primary source itself, as well as the author's intent and the martial art in general, without having it filtered through the lens of a translator. Where most secondary sources such as history books tell us about a topic, even a translation of a primary source only gives us the translator's interpretation of the author's meaning, as discussed above. This remains true even when you yourself are the translator, but here there is no intermediary, and the transmission is more direct.

Building from this, working directly with more than one source will also deepen our understanding. As stated earlier, different sources provide different details, and in varying quantities and qualities. By studying more than one source, we can use one to inform our interpretation of another. Hans Talhoffer's early 15th century fight manuscripts, for example, provide little textual information. It is only after we have gained an understanding of the martial arts from other, more robust, sources that we can then appreciate what Talhoffer offers us.

Another benefit stems from the simple advantage that a written tradition has over an oral tradition. Unlike most Asian martial arts as they are practiced, we actually have written catalogs of our martial art. Instead of relying solely on our own memory, or even the memory of our instructors, we can use our source material as reference guides, which was certainly one of their original functions. As a result, we know we are practicing an authentic martial art. We don't need to take it on faith from someone who must admit they also are taking it on faith. Another advantage of this is that our art, in essence, is frozen in time. Provided, of course, that our interpretations are correct, we know that a given element or technique was used in a given area at a given time. We can also be reasonably certain that the materials have not mutated or deteriorated in their effectiveness due to the "living tradition" haunting many Asian martial arts. While the source material does not, and cannot, provide a comprehensive catalog of lessons, we can still be reasonably certain of what the Art comprised.

Speaking for myself, the greatest reward is the satisfaction I get from the study for its own sake. By working directly with the source material, I am able to see things for myself. I am able to pursue my own course, answer my own questions, make my own discoveries, and draw my own conclusions. When I find myself facing the many challenges this pursuit entails, overcoming the challenges becomes its own reward.


1 For a demonstration of what I mean by the difference between a spoken and written language, try reading aloud a paragraph or two from a book (scholarly works are especially illuminating), or even this essay, and listen to how it sounds. Then, record a conversation between you and a friend, or just you speaking freely about a topic, and then transcribe it exactly as spoken. The differences should be readily apparent. This may also explain why when someone reads a speech they have written, it often sounds stilted or incomprehensible when compared to someone who simply speaks while giving a lecture.

2 David Lindholm refers to these types of manuals as "books of splendor" in his article "Das Solothurner Fechtbuch: Giving it Voice," contained in Masters of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts (ed. John Clements). He includes "certain Talhoffer" manuals and the manual of Paulus Kal among them, and stresses that these manuals are "books first and manuals for fighting second." He further suggests that these manuals were commissioned as works of art and as aids to memory, as opposed to didactic presentations.

3 This was a fascinating lecture, is discussed on several forums, and as of this writing is available for viewing here:

4 Unfortunately, one major danger with taking primary sources at their word is the issue of copy errors, a problem which plagues both manuscripts and printed books alike. Even copies of a book within a single print run can have substantial variations, as errors were discovered and amended during the printing process, and earlier copies were not always corrected.

See Also:
Between Canon and Art


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