Queens and Vassals: Lost in Translation

I’m currently researching nineteenth-century Anglophone responses to medieval German literature. This is a postdoctoral project at Maynooth University, funded by the Irish Research Council. I thought I’d post a taster of what I’m doing at the moment, which is looking at English-language versions of the Nibelungenlied. Although I’m considering the long nineteenth century (ending in 1914), I’m using 1900 as a cut-off point for this post, to stop it getting too long – although that won’t stop me using this image from Fritz Lang’s 1924 Nibelungen films as an illustration.


I want to focus narrowly here on the various ways in which the following strophe is rendered in English by my nineteenth-century translators:

Ze samne si dô kômen vor dem münster wît.
ez tet diu hûsvrouwe durch einen grôzen nît,
si hiez vil übellîche Kriemhilde stille stân:
“jâ sol vor küneges wîbe nimmer eigen diu gegân!”

Hermann Reichert, Das Nibelungenlied (2 edn., 2017), strophe 835 (Bartsch 838)

As a starter, I’ll put my hands up to the fact that there is no such thing as a single ideal translation, and give you excellent two baseline translations: Arthur Hatto’s (1965, repr. 1969) and Cyril Edwards’ (2010). Although these are both prose translations, I’ll lay them out with the same line divisions as the Middle High German text above, to make the correspondence clearer.

The two processions met before the minster
and the lady of the land, prompted by great malice,
harshly ordered Kriemhild to halt.
‘A liegewoman may not enter before a Queen!’

Hatto, p. 113

They then arrived together outside the spacious minster.
Maliciously, the lady of the house,
out of great enmity, ordered Kriemhild to stop:
‘No bondsman’s wench shall ever walk ahead of a king’s wife.’

Edwards, strophe 838

To give you some brief context for a rather complex situation, the two queens (and sisters-in-law), Kriemhild and Brünhild, are in the midst of, let’s say, a disagreement, which has been brewing for a decade. Kriemhild is married to the legendary hero, Siegfried, and Brünhild is married to Kriemhild’s brother, Gunther. Gunther did not go about finding a wife in the most ethical fashion, engaging in an elaborate deception of Brünhild, which included (amongst other, more troubling things) presenting Siegfried as his vassal. Brünhild has been stewing over the mystery of why Gunther married his sister to a vassal ever since, and things are about to come to a head in a way which is best summed up by this image from Mean Girls:

mean girls

I won’t introduce each of our nineteenth-century translators individually – that’s a subject for a later post. And in some ways it’s quite useful to consider them without context, although we are starting off with one particularly famous name.

1: Thomas Carlyle (1831)

Brunhild, quite outdone in splendour, and enraged beyond all patience, overtakes her at the door of the Minster, with peremptory order to stop: “Before king’s wife shall vassal’s never go.”

2: Jonathan Birch (1848)

Yet, stood before the minster-porch the twain of queens, in state;
When the proud hostess, fair Brunhild, with rudeness passing great,
Commanded Chriemhild, ‘stand aside!’ in tone with rancour rife:
‘The queen of Burgundie must pass, before the liegeman’s wife.’

3: William Nanson Lettsom (1850)

Both met before the minster in all the people’s sight;
There at once the hostess let our her deadly spite.
Bitterly and proudly she bad fair Kriemhild stand;
“No vassalless precedeth the lady of the land.”

4: Auber Forestier (Annie Aubertine Woodward Moore) (1877)

Both royal trains reached the sacred edifice. At the door, Kriemhild made a movement to enter first, and Brunhild gave a peremptory order for her to stop. “Hold!” exclaimed the infuriated woman. “Before king’s wife vassal shall never go.”

5: Lydia Hands (1880)

Brunhild, utterly outdone, and enraged beyond all patience, overtook her at the door of the Minster, and putting herself in the way, peremptorily ordered Criemhild to stop, telling her that a vassal’s wife should never go before his lord’s.

6: Alfred Foster-Barham (1887)

Now came they both together before the Minster gate;
Then did Gunther’s lady, in anger and in hate,
Call on Chriemhild to tarry, in scornful words and slow:
“Before wife of a Monarch a subject shall not go.”

7: Margaret Armour (1897)

So they met before the minster. And Brunhild, with deadly spite, cried out to Kriemhild to stand still. ‘Before the queen shall no vassal go.”

8: Alice Horton (1898)

The two queens came together before the minster wide,
And thereupon the hostess, by hatred moved and pride,
With evil voice and gesture Kriemhilda bade to stay:
“Before the queen a vassal shall ne’er take right of way!”

I want to pause here to stress that I am not making value statements about these translations. I’m interested in what choices the translators make and why, and I just want to pick out a few representative points.

Der Streit der Koeniginnen

Der Streit der Koeniginnen (Hundeshagenscher Kodex: Ms. Germ. Fol. 855)

We can see some of the same issues coming up again and again in these extracts, despite the fact that some are verse, some are prose, and some are paraphrase. Carlyle’s ‘peremptory order to stop’, for example, makes another appearance in Forestier’s translation, and is echoed in Hands’ version three years later. It’s in the verse translations that we see more conscious archaisms (‘No vassalless precedeth’; ‘Burgundie’; ‘twain of queens’, for example). When dealing with verse translations, we also need to be aware that some alterations are made in service of rhyme and metre, rather than in order to add or remove information that the translator feels strongly about, and word order can fit into this category. Verse translation is hard! But that’s not to say that we can’t ask these ‘why’ questions about verse translations – it’s crucial that we do. We just have to accept that sometimes the answer won’t be terribly exciting.

I want to spend a little time with the final line. The term eigen diu (feminine) is pretty derogatory. Dictionaries (e.g. Lexer, BMZ) tend to give Leibeigene (female thrall, serf, bondswoman) as a definition. M. O’C Walshe clarifies eigen as ‘unfree, of servile condition’. The point is, it’s worse than vassal – the word chosen by six of our eight (and worse than subject and liegeman as well). Half of our translators choose to bring across the gendered nature of the term, and half don’t.

We can see a similar split between those who echo the ‘king’s wife’ construction of the medieval text, and those who highlight Brünhild as queen (rather than as the wife of a king). That may seem like a minor point, but in a text in which women’s actions are often dependent on the status of their husbands, it’s perhaps worth investigating further whether there is any kind of pattern here. And it’s also worth noting that this isn’t divided along gender lines. Birch gives us ‘The queen of Burgundie’; Lettsom ‘the lady of the land’ (in itself worth discussion), and Armour and Horton give us ‘the queen’, whereas we get ‘king’s wife’ from Carlyle and Forestier, ‘his lord’s [i.e. wife]’ from Hands, and ‘wife of a Monarch’ from Foster-Barham.

There is plenty more that could be said about the translation decisions within these four lines, but I’ll draw it to a close here. Despite my reservations above about verse translation and word order, that’s actually where I’d like to finish. The medieval text echoes Brünhild’s command through word order:

“jâ sol vor küneges wîbe nimmer eigen diu gegân!”

Painfully literally, word-by-word , that means:

“Indeed should before king’s wife never bondswoman go!”

Now there’s a value judgement about extremely literal translation…

In other words, the construction of the sentence means that the king’s wife precedes the bondswoman, just as Brünhild desires. Six of our nineteenth-century translators copy elements of that construction; only Hands and Lettsom do not. Again, Forestier’s translation seems to owe a lot to Carlyle’s. Arguably some solutions sound more natural than others, but I promised no value judgements today (at least about the published translations).

This was just a small taster of my current project. It’s by no means all close-reading. It’s early days for the Nibelungenlied part of my research though, and it’s certainly providing me with all sorts of tangents and lines of research to follow.


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