Stephen Cheney: Translating the treatises on your own

People often criticize me for arguing too much online. But it is exactly because of this that I meet awesome and interesting HEMA people on the Web.

One example of someone with whom I’ve spilled much digital ink with is Stephen Cheney, HEMA instructor at the MEMAG Bucks Historical Longsword branch in Pennsylvania, USA and a translator of original sources.

Steve is one of those weirdos (:P) who did kendo first; he started with it in 2008, and by the time he found HEMA in 2015, he was 3rd dan. He started at the MEMAG Crossing branch in South Jersey under Nick Murro, but a year later he founded his own and current branch.

Image may contain: 6 people, people standing
Yep, he was a kendoka. And from what I hear, a good one.

In 2019, he has an impressive record as a fighter and two public translations on Wiktenauer.org.

As I myself try to work with the original old German in the sources, and I am currently working on a translation as well, I know how fruitful it is. Steve will tell us more.


I am pretty sure that when people hear about HEMA people working with the original language of the source, they either imagine Spaniards doing Destreza, or they wonder – how exactly did you learn High Medieval German, Steve?

I will start by saying I don’t have any academic background in this field, I am purely self taught. I had an interest in languages for a while, and started studying on my own a bit since about 2014. In early 2015, I started learning modern German, which is a great starting point for understanding the sources.

I then started HEMA in August of that year, and after a couple of months I decided to start looking at some original sources. At first it was completely unreadable, but looking at existing translations by people like Cory Winslow and Christian Trosclair was a big help in figuring out what was going on.

You might have guessed it, but this is what I wanted – for people to realize that an academic background is not needed, but learning is. Was it the fact that you had started learning German that pushed you to scroll right in Wiktenauer and check the transcribed words, or did you feel the need to understand more of your fencing experience?

A little bit of both I guess, I did want to better understand the sources for the sake of my fencing, but I probably would not have tried if I had not previously studied some German.

I’d like to add that I’m not fluent in German, I had some vocabulary and basic grammar understanding.

And that was enough? You have some translations online already, do you feel they are on par with others?

Hm, well, yes and no, not all sources are equal in difficulty.

The RDL (Ringeck, Danzig, Lew) longsword glosses are all pretty simple, they have a limited vocabulary, and a lot of repeating sentence structure. If someone were interested in starting, I would start there.

As for the translations I have online, I am more confident in the glosses of the mounted and armored pseudo-Peter von Danzig than I am with the Jörg Wilhalm Hutter. Hutter is a strange source with some weird stuff going on. The Zettel verses of the mounted I am also not as confident in, there is a lot of unfamiliar stuff there.

Hutter is a slightly strange, but interesting early 16th C Liechtenauer source.

As for if they are on par with others, I think that would be mostly for the reader to decide. They are not the worst but not the best. I would encourage people to read a variety of different translations instead of relying on just one, since a translator has no choice but to involve their opinion and bias into the translation. Or learn to read the original yourself!

So the complexity of early Liechtenauer comes more from the concepts and the method of description, than the language itself?

I would say so, but then again you can also go deeper into each individual concept and really dig into the meaning of a particular word, like “versetzen” or “indes.”

And you can also argue different ways of reading particular words or sentences, which has an effect on how one will interpret a concept or technique.

You are an instructor and tournament fencer. How does working with the original language affect these two roles?

As an instructor, I feel it better prepares me to answer questions about what the text says, since I can think about the actual word that was used rather than being reliant on someone’s opinion on what that word means in English.

I take 5-10 minutes each class to read a section of my own translation of the gloss. Since I know my translations are not perfect, I can explain what I meant if anyone has any questions or if anything is unclear.

As for tournaments, I don’t think it really changes much in that regard. It does matter insofar as a tournament is the culmination of all the fencing you have learned, but when you are in the ring facing down another person, the nuance of what a particular word means does not matter as much at that moment.

One of Steve’s latest gold medal fights. Well, the last one he won :D.

Still – has a translation or an interpretation “lightbulb” ever lit it up for you in a tourney? Like thinking “oh, that’s what they mean by this and that line” right after a bout?

Not that I can think of, those moments usually come to me either in friendly sparring or when I am not doing fencing at all. I have a different mindset during tournaments. I am trying to test what I have already learned rather than come up with new things.

That’s just me though, other people might find those moments during a tournament.

You are also one of the few people who read more of the Liechtenauer glosa than the unarmed longsword. What key things do you find there?

Tons of things. One of the key things that I have found there are clarifications about what some of the words and phrases from the long sword gloss mean. There are a few words or phrases that come up only once in the long sword gloss but appear multiple times later on, which give more context to how they are used in the long sword. One example that I can think of off the top of my head is “lass fahren”, which is unclear in the long sword, but means to let go, as in let go or release with your hand.

While some guards in the mounted gloss might look similar to blossfechten, they have completely different names.

It also gives a new perspective on the long sword gloss, and how it fits in with the system as a whole. A lot of people just look at the long sword gloss and see the 17 hauptstücke and think about that as the whole system, but the mounting and armored section are not structured like that at all. They have more of a “here are guards, here are things you can do from them” structure, along with progressing through the weapons that one would use in an armored duel or as a mounted knight.

Finally, it fills in a lot of things that are maybe not explained as much as they could be in the long sword gloss, like a lot of one handed attacks in the mounted section, and a much wider variety of wrestling options and ideas in both the mounted and armored sections. There are also concepts that appear in these sections that can potentially help one’s understanding of long sword fencing. This will be the topic of my class at Longpoint.

Why do you think these sections are structured differently?

Well this is purely personal opinion, and in reality there is no way to know for sure, but I think that the unarmored long sword is meant to form the basis of techniques and concepts that you would use in the mounted and armored lessons.

I think those sections would explain the things that a person is more likely to actually do, and people weren’t going around getting into unarmored longsword fights all the time. To some people this might seem like it cheapens the long sword art, but in my mind it makes it even more valuable than it already was, because this was the must-know material.

So the foundation of the system is presented through a weapon context that would actually be a less central part of their fencing experience?

Maybe not their fencing experience, because we know that they fenced with unarmored longsword for sport, but you would use that to learn the concepts that you would use in the later material.

I would love to go more in depth with you on this in the future, but I want to get back to translating. What is your process when starting to translate a play from a treatise?

I do it in iterations, first I go through and do a rough translation off the top of my head, and leave any tricky words or phrases untranslated. Then I go back and look more deeply into the ones that I missed and try to get something workable for them. Then I go back again and try to clean it up and make it more readable. Over time there are always changes that can be made, sometimes I’ll rethink something or change something due to a suggestion or question that someone else gives me.

What resources do you use besides other translations?

I use online modern German dictionaries, and also sometimes woerterbuchnetz.de, which is a good resource for non-modern German.

Do you think that martial arts experience helps with translation? For example, I certainly consider the translation of Musashi’s Go Rin no Sho by Kenji Tokitsu the best one, and I think his vast martial arts experience is a key part of that. Do you agree?

Yeah, absolutely, when I am translating something I am always thinking about how the particular technique will be done, and if it doesn’t make sense then I take a second look at it. It would be tough to have that sense if you don’t have any practical experience.

To this day Kenji Tokitsu’s book on Musashi has one of the best examples of a historical fencing treatise translations I know.

And you don’t see it as problematic that your already established interpretations may affect how you translate?

Well, I try not to let it affect how I translate, but there’s no way to prevent it. At the end of the day I need to make a choice of what English words to use. So whether or not it is problematic I feel is a moot point because it can’t be helped. That’s why I encourage people to read multiple translations and try to work towards reading the originals.

When teaching, do you prefer to use the German terms, a translation or both?

I use a combination, I explain what each thing is in English, but we say “zwerhau” and “feder” and “duplieren” and things like that. We also count in German, because in kendo we counted in Japanese, so I felt that we should count in German. I am not too strict on using German terms, but a zwerhau is a zwerhau and a schielhau is a schielhau, it would be more weird to translate into English because that is just its name now, just like it would feel weird for me to say “inner thigh” instead of “uchi mata” for the judo throw.

Do you think people should use German terms in international discussions and at events?

For the major things I’d say yes, so everyone knows what they are talking about. But as long as people understand each other I’m not too worried about it.

We have been talking for quite a while now. Thank you very much for this, Steve, and one last question – what advice would you give to anyone tackling learning a new language and trying to work with the original treatises?

My advice would be to start with something simple that has already been translated. You may be excited to start and tempted to tackle something that is in need of a translation, but it will end up leading to a lot of frustration, and the result will probably not be super useful. If you want to do German translation, start with one of the RDL longsword glosses, they are fun and informative.

Thanks for having me, Boris, this has been a lot of fun!

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