Review: Peter von Danzig

A new translation by Harry R.

At a Glance

With the advent of Wiktenauer fencing manuals have become easier to come by, but there is still plenty of room for printed translations.

One such book by Melbourne’s Harry R. has been released in recent weeks, and provides a fresh new look at Codex 44.A.8 (better known a von Danzig).

The result is an excellent version of this well known gloss and a worthwhile addition to the library of any Liechtenauer practitioner.

The Good:

  • Handy Size – perfect for carrying and referring to between fencing
  • Easy to Read Typeface – no eye-squinting tiny fonts here thankfully.
  • Plain English – translation is contemporary English, ideal for those who find classical style translations confronting.
  • Complete – All text, illustrations, and a glossary in one handy volume, and this is everything you need to get you started down the dark path of Liechtenauer.
  • Inexpensive – my own copy was $25 Australian (on demand is probably pricier, but still reasonable)

The Not-so-good:

Actually there’s nothing really to say here: there are no significant criticisms that I can think of. Though since I should say something constructive:

  • A few more translators notes would be nice for word-nerds: it would be interesting in certain areas to know why certain choices in translation were made, though this by no means detracts from the work and I can see why the choice was made not to have them and to prefer clarity and a streamlined read over excess detail.

The Full Review

Many people in the world of HEMA now scarcely recall the “bad old days” where hours of scouring the internet would yield a handful of (often poorly) translated fragments of a text without any context or useful notion of how it fit into the bigger picture of historical fencing. I remember only too well puzzling over a low resolution scan of a partial translation of what was simply entitled “Dobringer” (which we would all now more typically recognise as MS 3227a), knowing that there was more to this text, but not knowing where to find it.

Fortunately newcomers to the HEMA world may never know this struggle thanks to Wiktenauer, which is without doubt the most complete and comprehensive resource when it comes to trawling the fencing texts of long ago. This isn’t to say that the situation is perfect, however, and even the esteemed Wiktenauer has translations which are incomplete, partial, or less than ideal in their readability, not to mention the fact that it’s not all that easy to scroll through pages of online text while wearing sparring gloves.

Codex 44.A.8 (von Danzig) was my own entry-point to the world of Liechtenauer’s fencing, and came in the form of Christian Henry Tobler’s translation in his anthology book “In Saint George’s Name” (Freelance Academy Press, 2010). In truth I’ve worn through my original copy through much thumby with sweaty fencing gloves, and am well into wearing out my second.

The other popular option is the Corey Winslow translation which is freely available on Wiktenauer. This version has the advantage of being easily searchable and also being accompanied by a transcription of the original German (provided in this case by Dierk Hagedorn).

Content

The full version of Codex 44.A.8 includes sections on unarmoured, armoured, and mounted fencing, and includes Liechtenauer’s verses, their gloss, and a handful of accompanying diagrams/illustrations.

The version on Wiktenauer contains only the unarmoured section, while the Tobler version translates all of the sections.

The new translation by Harry R, a Melbourne based HEMA practitioner and translator, was released in recent weeks is intended to be complete and practical – the kind of book that is equally at home in a scholarly library as it is being thumbed through frenetically in a fencing hall. The author has spent considerable time refining the translation and the resultant text is unsurprisingly very good

Highlights of this new translation include:

  • Foreword by Martin Fabian
  • Full translation of the Zedel/markverse rendered as rhyming English.
  • Gloss of the Unarmoured Fencing section
  • Gloss of the Mounted Combat section
  • Gloss of the Armoured Dueling section
  • Glossary of terms
  • Accompanying illustrations

The translator’s goal in this text was not only to translate the original gloss, but to render it in simple to read English that would be more accessible to a modern audience.

I confess that for many years it hadn’t occurred to me that the text of other translations was anything but straightforward. Neither the Tobler version nor the Wiktenauer translation seemed intentionally opaque or inaccessible, and I’ve found them perfectly serviceable for nearly a decade.

However, my own experience differs from the reported experience of many people in HEMA. This is likely the result of the kinds of things the reader is used to. Like many lovers of history I’ve grown up reading older translations of the likes of Homer, Beowulf, and the Mabinogion, as well translations and adaptations of stories penned in the 19th and early 20th century, and the extant translations of von Danzig seem no more insurmountable than Tolkien insofar as prose.

On reflection, I can see why fencers more interested in just getting to the point might appreciate a more streamlined, modern version of the text without all of the “Mark”, and “Thusly” nonsense. With that goal in mind the simple and often quite subtle changes made by the author actually make a good deal of difference, and to a person unfamiliar with more classical cadence and wording this could make life easier.

For example, consider the three excerpts below which were selected entirely at random.

“Understand the Weak and the Strong thus: On the sword from the hilt to the middle of the blade is the Strong of the sword, and further above the middle to the point is the Weak. (And how you shall work with the Strong of your sword after the Weak of his sword you will learn hereafter.)

Winslow

“Understand the weak [Schwech] and strong [Sterck] of the sword thus: from the hilt to the middle of the blade, is the strong of the sword. And then from the middle of the blade to the point is the weak. And how you should work with the strong of your sword to the weak of his sword you will find explained afterwards.

Tobler

“As for the weak and strong, you should understand that the part of the sword from the hilt to the middle of the blade is called the “strong” of the sword, and the remainder from the middle to the point is the “weak”. How you should apply the strong of your sword to the weak of your opponent’s will be explained later on.”

Harry R.

While none of the translations is particularly difficult to understand, there is still a noticeable improvement to many contemporary readers in the third. Where the first two contain anachronistic elements: beginning sentences with “And…”, and use of terms like “thus”, the new translation is much more contemporary “simple” English, and likely flows much more smoothly to most readers.

In this particular case we also have the nice addition in the new translation of the term “opponent’s” instead of “his”. This removal of gendered language making a small, but important, difference, and while not present throughout every part of, the book is a nice step in the right direction.

Just as the gloss has been translated into simplified English, so to has the Zedel undergone improvement. Harry R’s new Zedel has been rendered in a new (or perhaps more traditional) way, not simply as a translation but as rhyming couplets.

Consider Tobler’s translation of the verses on the four openings:

Four openings know,
aim: so you hit certainly,
without any danger
without regard for how he acts.

Meanwhile in the new translation we have

Four openings know,
To truly guide your blow.

Without fear or doubt,
For what he’ll bring about

This almost “doggerel” style rhyming was doubtless an important part of remembering the original verses and while some vagaries of technical translation are doubtless lost by this new take one the verses, it does bring an important element back to the text which was missing from previous versions.

As for the complete text, having now read the whole book through a couple of times it is certainly completely consistent with my readings of the other translations. For me it will certainly be used alongside my venerable Tobler translation for future fencing.

The only minor nit-pick is a technical one, and does not affect my opinion of the book as a whole. In fact, given the goal as a simplified book it should barely be mentioned at all.

It would be nice to have a few translator’s notes in certain areas, particularly when a particular word has been chosen which differs slightly from the “consensus” with existing translations, or better yet when the original transcript itself has been unclear. With the text being aimed at lowering the bar for newcomers I can see why the author excluded such notes in favour of simplicity and readability, though the word-nerd in me would love a few more insights into choice of particular terms.

As I mentioned, though, the translator doesn’t wish to bias the reader with additional notes, and so this is less a criticism and more of an “optional nice-to-have feature”.

Form Factor & Finish

Finish is excellent, especially for a book intended for publication on demand. The cover is handsomely coloured in dark tones and makes no attempt at garish artwork, neither does it pretend to be other than the solid practical translation that it is.

The volume itself is a convenient “novel-size” form factor that fits easily in a large pocket. This makes the book very handy to use practically as a reference in the fencing hall, and a size which can be easily flipped through and consulted is much more useful than the more scholarly form factor seen in some other publications

Internal layout is neat and clean, and the pages are not overcrowded thanks to the choice of a larger typeface. Again this is a nice feature in a practical fencing book as it can easily be read while training and doesn’t require close scrutiny.

The reproductions of diagrams are clear black and white reproductions of the originals, with the tree figures for the mounted fencing section being attractively recreated on two full pages.

Conclusion

If you are a serious practitioner of Liechtenauer’s fencing or simply looking for a convenient prĂ©cis of the art, this book is an excellent purchase and well worth having. While it won’t be entirely replacing my Tobler translation it will certainly be an equally placed adjunct to it, and I can see it becoming a go-to book for future fencers.

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