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So you want to do a translation-edition of a medieval text? -- Here are my tips for you from the trenches (updated May 2019):

Are you pondering translating a medieval work into English and, specifically, doing a state-of-the-art, scientific, facing-page (i.e. medieval-language edition on one side, line-by-line English translation on the other side) volume? Directly below are a few ideas, based on my own first-hand experience, that might make your work more enjoyable and which might save you a good bit of frustration and wasted time. I’ve written my comments assuming that you are translating a medieval German romance, but most of my remarks should be applicable to translating almost any secular work out of any medieval language into modern English:




COMPUTER EQUIPMENT: Invest in 2 large computer monitors, so that during the entire process you can display on 1 large screen both your Word document with the original medieval language (i.e., your edition) and directly next to it your Word document with your English translation. And on your second large screen you can display the main manuscript (i.e. the web-based facsimile) of your edition and any prior edition(s) that you might be using or consulting. --- Whatever screen that you use to display the medieval manuscript should be high resolution, so that you can see all its minute details. --- Personally, I like enough screen space to display yet another, additional text, namely, the document with my edition apparatus and content notes to the text. On an additional screen (which can be your laptop screen), you will display whatever online dictionaries you are using.


DICTIONARIES: Use the best dictionaries available and consult them in order of their usefulness. For Middle High German texts, your primary dictionary, and the first dictionary you should consult, is Beate Hennig’s Kleines Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch (I have the 2007 edition, but it is probably in a more up-to-date edition now.) Take my word on this; this is where you should start. Next down the line, you can and should consult the two large 19th-century dictionaries of classical Middle High German by Lexer and Benecke, which are accessible through the University of Trier’s dictionary website. Benecke is the standard, but in actuality both dictionaries are about equally useful. If you still have a pocket Lexer from grad school, don’t use it; it’s just not very good, is missing many important secondary meanings of words, and will lead you to make many easily avoidable mistakes. Another dictionary that is really helpful for especially tricky terms is Grimms Wörterbuch, which is also online; I use this all the time. Further, because the manuscript(s) that you consult will usually be late medieval, you should also have, for quick reference, a dictionary of early modern German; I use Alfred Götze’s Frühneuhochdeutsches Glossar. Lastly, don’t be shy to use the standard dictionaries of other medieval languages for terms that just don’t look quite German but, for example, seem more Old French or Middle Dutch or Latin.




DO YOUR MEDIEVAL-LANGUAGE EDITION AND YOUR MODERN ENGLISH TRANSLATION CONCURRENTLY: Take my word on this; this is the way to go. (If you are simply using a previous edition, this means you transcribe it concurrently as you progress with your translation and that, for instance, you change the German punctuation/capitalization as you go along to correspond, to the extent possible, with the punctuation/capitalization of your English translation.) I recommend, at least in the beginning, working in approximately 500-line edition-translation blocks. After you complete each 500-line draft, send that draft to your editor for a quick proof-read. You can assume that your editor—if that editor is any good—will object to something in your edition or in your translation style. It is best that you know what that objection is before you continue on with the next section, potentially causing you and your editor to needlessly lose a lot of time down the road in editorial corrections.


DO YOUR TEXTUAL NOTES AND EDITION/APPARATUS NOTES IN A SEPARATE DOCUMENT, filling that document in as you go. Identify/precede each note by the relevant line#. If you later want to make the notes appear instead as footnotes or to use a standard editorial apparatus at the bottom of the page, you can do that at the end of your project by simply cutting and pasting.


CONTINUOUSLY CONSULT PREVIOUS TRANSLATIONS!  After you have completed a translation of each small chunk (and indeed, sometimes even while you are translating particularly tricky passages), good thorough scholarship demands you check your work against all available previous translations. Even the very best recent translations of medieval works into English are marred by mistakes because their translators have not sufficiently done this. Thus, if I were to do a translation of Hartmann’s Erec, I would check my work first against the German translations by Thomas Cramer and Volker Mertens, then move to the best translation in English, i.e. the one by Cyril Edwards, hen I would go on to next best translations in English (not in any particular order) by David Resler, Kim Vivian/Richard Lawson, and JW Thomas. For a work like Hartmann’s Erec, with an Old French exemplar, I would also check the best Modern English-Old French edition/volume of Chrétien’s Erec (by Carlton Carroll), just to make sure I’m not missing anything. (Personally, I always consult also translations in other languages I read, like modern French or Dutch.) For most texts, however, there will usually be only one or two previous translations and no exemplar in another medieval language will exist. As a rule of thumb, recent (i.e. post-2000) modern-German translations are more accurate, and will be more useful to you, than available English-language translations. (Older, pre-1990 modern German translations are, however, in the majority of cases not very good and tend to be more like paraphrases than true translations.)  -- Especially if you are a non-native speaker of German (or whatever language tradition you are working in), you are going to make errors, but consulting other translations will keep these to an acceptable minimum. And besides, not consulting the work of previous scholars/translators is just shoddy, lazy scholarship, so don’t do that.


FOR MY FACING-PAGE EDITION, SHOULD I USE A PREVIOUS EDITION OR DO MY OWN, NEW EDITION?: It is fine to avoid reinventing the wheel if there is a good “standard” edition already in circulation. In such case, you should seek the rights from its publisher to use that edition for your volume. (Ask your editor for an example letter for how to request such permission.) Often, however, you will discover after doing about 500 lines of your translation that the edition is not as good as its reputation. (Indeed, in doing a translation, you might be surprised to find out how shoddy most published edition work is.) Therefore, you should have a copy of the original manuscript(s)—which will generally be online at—in front of you from the very beginning of your project so that you can assess regularly and, hopefully, early on if you want to do a new edition. Although editing can seem daunting if you haven’t done it before, it is actually pretty easy—indeed, much easier than translating a medieval work—and it is simply a lot of fun.


USE CONTEMPORARY, STANDARD, and REGIONLESS ENGLISH: Your translation language should be contemporary and straightforward and not reveal any regionalisms; thus, you will want avoid, for example, using an idiom that is in circulation in North American English but not in UK English, or Australian/New Zealand English, or vice-versa. And you should avoid anything that smacks of Dickens, or Shakespeare, the King James Bible, or Hollywood/Medieval-Times-speak. Such unacceptable anachronistic words and formulations include, for example, therewith, perchance, heretofore, thy, thee, forsooth, milady, etc. I love Game of Thrones language as much as the next medievalist, but don’t do that. --- My own personal imaginary audience member, for whom I design my translation language, is a smart 20-year-old student at a good Dutch or Swedish university who possesses superior English-language skills but who might not understand unusual or anachronistic English. In any case, we never want to send our readers to an English-language dictionary just so they can understand our translations. –- For those very few basic words that differ in UK and American English (e.g. amongst/among; towards/toward; etc.), it is helpful to choose at the outset of your project if you will observe UK or North American usage (and spelling) for those few cases where you must choose.


GO THE EXTRA MILE ON TRANSLATION OF MATERIAL- AND INTELLECTUAL-CULTURE TERMS: Although many of your readers will consult your work looking for what your text has to say about material culture and medieval intellectual and political practices, we don’t usually do a good job translating these. In your translation, therefore, be careful to get just the right, most precise word for things like clothing items, fine cloths, household items, etc. Medieval writers distinguish, for example, between many, many different kinds of silk, and your translations should also use just the right term. Further, medieval writers wrote for an equestrian aristocracy, and they therefore are not only very precise in describing the horses’ anatomical features and riding tack but also in distinguishing, for example, types of horses—chargers, palfrey’s, etc.—and your translation should also do so. They are also concerned with the latest developments in personal armor and weaponry and in the newest architectural features of castles; your translation should be equally precise. Since the meaning of all these material-culture terms changed and evolved during the entire course of the Middle Ages with advancing technologies and tastes, I recommend translating such terms in accordance with their specific meaning at the probable time of the writing of your text. And our medieval courtly writers also reflect the obsession of the aristocracy with decision-making by counsel and consent; your translation, therefore, should also capture precisely this relatively simple language that was so important to the medieval audience, even when it is used to describe the decisions of the heart or the mind or of other human faculties. – And one last and very important point: translating material culture items is super difficult. Therefore, don’t try to translate these items when you’re tired, and if you get hung up on a tricky material culture item, don’t pull your hair out and use up all your creative power for the day; instead, just move ahead and come back to it later.


WHO SHOULD PROOFREAD MY WORK AND AT WHAT STAGES? Your editor, who should be familiar with your medieval language, should proofread your work. Ask him or her to do this at regular intervals throughout you project and not just at the end of your project, by which time responding to requested changes (which could have been identified early on) can be a lengthy process. (I recommend submitting your work for a quick review about every 500 lines; 1,500 lines at most). – It is also a good idea, and before you send your work on to your editor, to have also someone who doesn’t know your medieval language, but who holds a PhD in the Humanities and knows how to write, read your English translation. (This is a great time to impose upon a partner or spouse or parent if that individual is also an academic!) Anything that they find unclear, you need to change into more accessible language.


DO NOT TRANSLATE TOO LITERALLY: Almost every first-time translator, including myself, translates too literally, and some poor editor—in my own case, the ever-patient Norris Lacy—is forced to tell the novice translator that it just doesn’t sound good and to require that translator to go back and smooth out the language. If you want an idea of how natural/unnatural a translation of a medieval romance should be, take a look at one of the best: my former professor William Kibler’s facing-page Yvain published with Garland back in the 1980s (and available also in his volume of Chrétien romances from Penguin in paperback with just the English text). I’ve been using it for over 2 decades and it still strikes me as achieving the perfect balance between accuracy/literalness and smoothness.


WHAT ABOUT INTRODUCTION/LINE NOTES, ETC. Many a translation (and especially those done by folks who are more historical linguists than literature schaloars) is marred by really inadequate intro’s, sparse notes, and outdated, incomplete bibliographies, etc. Do not take shortcuts here. That being said, however, the ideal extent of this supplementary material really depends on the work you are translating, and it behooves you to have a discussion with your editor at the start of your project about what might be most appropriate. Generally, if your romance is a work for which there is a good deal of recent, and especially English-language criticism, then your intro, notes, etc. can be less extensive. Conversely, if there is not much recent criticism—and especially English-language criticism—available, then you might be more expansive. Regarding the notes—that is, the line commentaries that follow your edition-translation portion—keep in mind that edition-translations have 2 very different, but equally important, audiences: 1) professor/literature-Phd types; and 2) novices, including undergraduates and beginning graduate students. Your notes, therefore, should address both audiences. For example, for the novices you’ll include basic things such as: what is a “bohort”; why is Arthur’s  capital Carduel here when one might expect Camelot: etc.? And for more advanced audience members, you will include notes on, for instance: how does changing theology around the time of this romance’s genesis about ‘words of consent’ in marriage influence how we interpret the marriage engagement in this passage; since we expect the author to use dative here, how does his choice of accusative influence how we may interpret this passage; etc.? With notes, I personally think “more” is better, but don’t overdo it.


HOW LONG WILL A TRANSLATION TAKE ME? This is just a guestimate, but if you are a first-time translator, a romance of standard length (i.e. 5,000 to 10,000 words) will require the same amount of work and as much time as a 150-page monograph. Of course, if you don’t do a thorough job—and not everybody does—it might take you less time. Don’t be that person.



AND BE HUMBLE, 2 points:


1. YOUR MEDIEVAL LANGUAGE: Before our first translation, most of us presume that we are relatively competent in our medieval language, but I can almost guarantee you that you will find out as soon as you start translating that your medieval language abilities are probably not particularly good. And medieval German is much, much harder, than, let’s say Old French, Middle English, or medieval Italian with those languages’ straightforward grammars and cognate words, so don’t feel bad if you discover that you are not as philologically adept at the beginning in Middle High German as the Grimm Brothers. The good news is that once you work through your first 1,000 verses or so, you will be well on your way to rapid improvement. And the more you translate, the more skilled, knowledgeable, and more rapid you become. In the beginning, however, take it really, really slow, learn how the language really works (you can forget a lot of the ‘rules’ about it you leaned in grad school), and get a feeling for all the vocabulary. And, yeah, never start your translation with the prologue, as it is the hardest part of any medieval text; instead, start whenever the actual action starts and come back to do the prologue after you’ve done, let’s say, 2,000 verses.


HOW GOOD DOES MY ENGLISH NEED TO BE TO DO A FIRST-CLASS TRANSLATION: The type of English competency one needs to translate fully idiomatically into English is generally a much more advanced competency than one needs, for example, to write a polished English-language article in a journal. This means that, yes, you probably should have native (or pretty darned close to native) competency in English. If you’re not quite there—and I have to admit, I’m not so adept in my second language, German, to think I could do a top-notch German-language translation—then think about working in a 2-person team with a native-English-speaker and native-German-speaker colleague. Indeed, this is an ideal situation, since the native German will inevitably understand the medieval German better than the native-English-speaking colleague, and the native-English-speaking colleague will typically be better at getting just the right phrasing in English. And you will have each other to proof-read your work, which can be really nice.