Translator’s Problem: a “Stück” of Fencing


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When we come to the translation of fencing books we will find that there are sets of combined body motions mostly done solo or together with a partner. But how are those sets of motions described by images and text are to be translated? In German they are named “Stück” which is a very flexible and vague term. In this article you find the answers, and it’s plural because there cannot be one as you will see.

The PIECE: a Part of a Whole

A “Stück” is a very flexible term in German language and it is quite old. We find that nearly everything that is a part of a larger thing can be named as a Stück as long as it is not a fluid. So you won’t find a Stück of water, but a Stück of ice. Another semantic rule of the Stück is, that a Stück is an object of itself. On the precondition that everything is alright – a Stück is a complete instance that works on its own, while it is a part of a larger collection that has a term of its own. Thus if you get a Stück of an object, which functions only as a complete thing, you signal that the complete object is broken. The collection itself could have a variety of meanings. A collection could have an abstract term that holds the features of many items like a “Stück Metall”, a “Stück Schrott” a “Stück Schmuck”, but also a “Stück Kuchen”. While in English the relation between the single piece and the whole is marked with “of” – like a piece of metal, a piece of crap, a piece of jewelry, and a piece of cake – in German the words could be combined in a reversed order to “Metallstück”, “Schrottstück”, “Schmuckstück”, and “Kuchenstück”. This allows words like “Meisterstück” of a craftsman, by which the complete object – the collection of all the pieces the craftsman has created so far – is only implicit. Only the masterful piece of work is named. This word found its way into English as the masterpiece.

Looking at the fencing books as a collection of texts or images describing “fencing motions”, we can safely translate the term “Stück” as “piece” of a larger whole. This is covered by the author of the I.33 fencing book translating the “Stück” as “pars” in Latin. Without knowing what is the content and the intention of the authors, the term piece is by far the most useful one. It is completely neutral and does not set a dedicated path of interpretation. As long as we do not know if the fencing motions in the collection are techniques, plays, or simply motions without further use.

Conclusion: the most recommendable translation for textual or pictorial description of fencing motions in a collection of such is “piece”.

The Play: Interpretation as a Lecture or Exercise

Translation includes interpretation as the words we use in the other language (including from historical to modern) carry different meanings. We can try to avoid interpretation but this will do the translation no favor. If we understand the intention of the author we should use terms that will transport the intention. If we decide to translate the “Stück” with the word “play” there are indications to identify the intention of the author.

These sets of motions described in text and/or image follow a strict script. Either done in a way of a solo form chaining one following motion to the previous; or as a partner drill, in which one participant must act on the input of the other, like an actor on stage waiting for the keyword. The association between the theatrical play and the fencing is strong. Not only in the way a script (the text describing the motion) is used, but also in the way the script is built up:

  • The script starts with a scene description like “Your partner is in {POSITION 1} and you are in {POSITION 2}”.
  • The script utilizes keywords in a descriptive form, like “when A is doing {KEYWORD}, you do {ACTION}”.
  • The script often tells when the scene has been completed.

Tradition: Gladiators, Swordplay and Stagefighters

The correlation between the German “Spiel” and “Stück” is still in modern times. We go into the “Schauspiel” to see a “Theaterstück”. Where the actors as “Spieler” present a “Stück”. The term “Spiel” is as well used for games, but does not share any meaning beside the game following script named “Regeln”. While we are reminded on masters like Joachim Meyer calling to us “merck dise Regel”, this may stretch too far.

If we look at the fencing masters and their perception they had been often associated with the “Spielleute”, especially in Alfred Schaer, Die Altdeutschen Fechter und Spielleut, 1900. His works are seen critical today, but the upkeeping or reenacting of “Roman tradition” was immanent to the medieval and renaissance culture. What is most striking are the similarities between the knightly and the judicial duel and the spectacular show of a gladiator fight. All offices in the duels are reflections of the fights in the Roman arena.

  • The Latin “[h]arena” was a barred place filled with sand called “Gries” like it was set in the German laws.
  • The Latin “campiones” were called “Kämphen” in German (the term Gladiators is misleading, as not all fighters in the arena were to fight “ad gladius”).
  • The seconds “secunda rudis” (called in German later “Sekundanten”) were the called “Lüßner” and “Warner” (not always both seconds were in place as one was the shieldbearer and the other the swordbearer).
  • The “summa rudis” were the “Grieswarten” (keeper of the sand-place) holding the “Rute” (staff).
  • The “doctor” was the “Fechtmeister” training the fighters.
  • The “emperor” was a highest noble who was to witness the fight.
  • A religious act took part before and after the fight.

Current historical position is that since the 4th century the gladiator fights vanished from earth, while judicial duels came up not before 500 in the Burgundian Law. But it seems that only the large spectacular attractions did completely disappear, the small travelling fight-shows continued in their traditions. Those stage-gladiators (German “Schau-Bühnen-Fechter” in Adam Gottlieb Weigen: De jure Hominis in Creaturas, Metzler, 1711) fought sharp and not sharp for money all over Europe but especially in English and German regions. In the latter they were part of the “Schausteller” and “Fechtschule” tradition. Death was officially banned from the bloody attractions by the selection of arms and protection, but it is reported that fatalities happened.

Another “blutiges Schauspiel” (as gladiator spectacles are called in German) is the killing of animals by stage-fighters. This did not stop with the downfall of the Roman Empire. It was continued and we have many reports in places all over Europe up to the 18th century. The prominence of the stage-fighters were so strong that early researchers of the fencing books put all the medieval fencing masters in the category of stage-fighters at the lowest rank of medieval society. That this is wrong does not deny the strong link between the fencing and the stage.

Conclusion: the translation of the “Stück” with the term “play” would be suitable and in most cases compelling from the perspective of tradition.

The Technique: Interpretation as a method or device to overcome a certain problem

In the fencing books we find exclamations of praising certain “Stücke” as very helpful in certain situations. We find that quite often with Johannes Lecküchner but as well with other masters who essentially authored the original text themselves:

  • die ansetzen ist ein gut gantz erntstlich stuck
  • Einn gut stuckh Inn Dem pogen
  • Item aber ain gut stuckh
  • Item aber gar einst guz stück für, wen dir einer will aus prechen deinen lincken arm
  • Item ein guz stuck einem starcken

In this case the author uses (probably unconsciously) the ambiguousness of the word “Stück”. He is praising a martial arts technique. This technique is in the viewpoint of the author the best solution to a problem. It is obvious that the author does not talk about a scripted play for training/education or refers to the tradition of sword fighting. Her wants to tell the reader what he thinks is best, or maybe he likes best.

Conclusion: if the author praises a certain “Stück” the translation as a “device”, “technique” or “method” is most suitable.

The “Hauptstück”, the “Meisterstück”, and the „Meisterhau“

The excessive usage of compound words in German is historical. If those words are old enough or have a transregional relevance they may even get transferred or found in other languages as well. One of the oldest compound words is “Meisterstück”. This is found nearly 1:1 as “masterpiece” or chef-d’œuvre because it is based on the classical tradition that the artist creates a unique piece of art, or that the craftsman creates a unique piece of his craft. These pieces excels him – if presented and approved by other masters – from being a journeyman to a master himself. So what was the masterpiece of a fencer?

Like a doctor in university needs to defend his masterpiece in the doctorate examination, the fencer needs to defend himself against all common techniques of fencing applied by approved fencing masters. The meaning of “meisten” as common may even be based on this. A “Meister” must excel from that what is “meisten” – common. In the examination a master in approval must overcome other masters by his own unique masterpiece of fencing. To be sure that all common fencing was covered in the examination and that there is a proven standardized process of testing, the lore of fencing was categorized and separated in named or numbered pieces. These numbered pieces are called “Hauptstück”. The meaning of “Haupt” itself in the compound word is ambiguous as well. It means the “major” plays and while the word “major” has a strong civil meaning today, it is no coincidence that it has a strong link connection to “Hauptmann” (captain/major), which by itself was not a military rank but the head of the “company” (“Gesellschaft”). An approved “Meister des Langen Schwertes” was often to become the “Hauptmann” of a horde of soldiers by appointment or by election. Thus to know and overcome the “Hauptstücke” could make a fencer a “Hauptmann”.  The civil counterpart to the “Hauptmann” is the “Meister”. To know and overcome the “Meisterstücke” by your own “Meisterstück” could make you a “Meister”.

This knowledge may help us to understand another term “Meisterhau”. Because of the ambiguous meaning of “Meisterstück” and the categorization of fencing into strikes, the term  “Meisterhau” is used in the meaning of classification and as masterly piece (to overcome in the examination). The most common usage in the fencing books is the categorization. But the idea that you must overcome the fencing in the examination done by other masters, swings always with the term.

Conclusion: the process of becoming a fencing master or captain/major by overcoming the common major techniques applied by other masters is the root of the terms “Hauptstück”, “Meisterstück”, or “Meisterhau”. The usage of the term “major piece” will cover the most cases of usage in the sources. If the German text refers explicitly to a scripted exercise the usage of “major play” would be more suitable.

Overall Conclusion

A translation should try to meet the intention of the text/author. So we look at how the author wanted to see his “Stück” understood:

  • The “Stück” as a part of a whole: translate as “piece”
  • The “Stück” as a scripted exercise or as a reference to tradition: translate as “play”
  • The “Stück” as a technique or solution to a problem: translate as “technique” or “device”
  • The “Stück” as a part in the path of becoming a master: use “major piece” or “major play”