Why do we use the original and potentially foreign terminology when studying HEMA, instead of translating everything into English? This was a question asked through a video on YouTube a couple of weeks ago, and I would like to propose an answer.
Why not translate everything? This is a good question. A number of years ago, I used to share the point of view that there was no harm in translating everything, but then I came to realise just how much that was limiting my thinking, and so I now make a point of keeping at the technical terms in the original language.
I think it is sometimes really important to keep using the original term, because by translating it, we might lose some of the original meaning, and we might even add some additional baggage. Even if the dictionary suggests and 1-to-1 translation between a word in German and English, the words still come with “baggage”, and it’s more important for us to understand the baggage and the meaning than the term itself.
If the word is not really a technical term then sure, go ahead and translate it, but make sure you are conveying the meaning of the word and not just the word itself. I will talk about “longsword” quite happily, for example, I don’t feel the need to talk about the “langes schwert”.
However, if the word is a technical term, then translating it means we strip the concept of its original meaning and instead impose whatever meaning comes with your chosen translation. This then leads to people coming up with very peculiar ideas of what it is supposed to mean.
In fact, if people don’t know the original language, then by leaving the technical term in that language, even if people do not understand the original meaning, at least there is a neutral situation where no one misunderstands the concept by imposing a wrong and inappropriate meaning from another language. This is a better situation than getting it wrong.
Let’s take an example. The Zwerhaw is often translated as the Thwart-cut (also sometimes as Cross-cut, Crosswise-cut, Transverse-cut, or Dwarf-cut, and all of these translations suggest different meanings and come with different baggage). If we go with Thwart-cut, what comes to mind immediately for most people is the idea of thwarting by getting in the way of something (e.g. the “ah, you thwarted my evil plans” sort of thing), and it might be tempting to link that with the part of the Zedel where Liechtenauer suggests that the Zwerhaw takes away what comes from above. You are thwarting every Oberhaw, right?
And yet the meaning of thwart that we should be using is that of going across, like the thwart of a boat. When you ship your oars at the end of rowing somewhere, and maybe you set them across the boat from side to side, you are lying them athwart the boat. This is the general sense of the word “thwart” when we look at documents written in the English of the 1500s, but it is not so common anymore.
So, the meaning of the Zwerhaw (which aligns with every translation except Dwarf-cut) is one of “the cut that goes across”, and that is the sense that we should be trying to communicate to people. If we use the term Thwart-cut and do not explain the baggage and meaning that comes with Zwer/Thwart then people will misunderstand the concept and will interpret it awkwardly in an attempt to achieve something that isn’t there in the original instructions. We make everything so much easier for everyone by sticking to the original term and by explaining the sense of that term, rather than trying to “sanitise” it or simplify it by translating it without any of the original meaning.
But to extend the example a bit further, if the Zwerhaw is “the cut that goes across”, what is the difference between a Zwerhaw, a Mittelhaw, a Wechselhaw, and a Prellhauw or Schlaudern? These all “go across” in some fashion.
Well, the Zwerhaw is a strike performed with the edge, with your thumb underneath the blade on the flat. There is a “turn” (verkehr) that has taken place to make this happen, that doesn’t take place with the Mittelhaw or any of the other techniques. So, if we want to describe the sense of the cut more completely, we need to call it “the cut that goes across, with the edge, turned with the thumb underneath the blade”.
Or we can just call it the Zwerhaw and make sure that everyone understands (at the level of experiencing it for themselves physically) what that concept entails. This is by far the better option, both for using the technique in our own fencing, and for transmitting the information to others with effective pedagogy.
In a similar fashion, the vast majority of technical terms will carry this kind of baggage of meanings, and it is better for people to learn and to experience those meanings and concepts rather than trying to simplify things by translating them and then accidentally helping people come to incorrect and unhelpful understandings of the concept. It is the same reason why the study of karate (or similar arts) often retains technical terms in Japanese without translating everything – this is not an issue affecting only practitioners of HEMA.
If you consider your own studies of historical fencing, then what baggage and meaning do you understand for each piece of technical terminology you use? And if you could think about it further, how much of that baggage and meaning comes from the original terms and how much of it comes from the translation or convenient conversational short-hand terms that you tend to use most often when talking to people? Could you possibly have suffered a little “drift” in your understanding of things by trying to impose new meanings on these technical terms?
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Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.