Humor and Translation: Das Nibelungenlied

By Mark Herman

In the introduction to his recent translation of the largely fictional late 12th-century/early 13th- century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied,William Whobrey briefly discusses the actual historical events on which the poem is based:

The Burgundian chieftain, or king, in the early fifth century was named Gundahar (modern Gunther), and he led his warriors on numerous raids into Roman Gaul from their settlements in Worms and Speyer. The Roman general Flavius Aetius put an end to this in 436-37 with an army consisting largely of mercenary troops, including Huns and other Burgundians who had previously remained in the east. The (western) Burgundians were decisively defeated and their king, Gundahar, killed. … The rise and catastrophic downfall of the historical Burgundians found its way into later stories and eventually into the Nibelungenlied, where Burgundy’s capital is Worms and its king’s name is Gunther.


What we know about Attila, or Etzel in its Germanic post-second sound shift form, has little to do with what we read of him intheNibelungenlied. … Attila ruled for almost twenty years from 434 to his death in 453. … The Huns were a Eurasian nomadic group that expanded beyond the Volga River in the late fourth century CE. As their mounted archers pushed farther to the west, they dislocated those Germanic tribes that stood between them and the Roman Empire, causing great upheaval throughout central Europe. After Attila inherited the kingdom from his father Mundzuk, he soon began a number of military campaigns both east and west, against the Persians, into the Balkans all the way to Constantinople, and finally to the west of the Rhine, where he was decisively defeated in 451 by the same Flavius Aetius, … [To place him in the Nibelungenlied] Attila’s [defeat] in 451 could have been conflated with [the Huns’] earlier defeat by Aetius, with the help of Hunnish troops, in 437. (x-xi)

The tale was told and retold, altering with each re-telling and acquiring many non-historical characters such as the mythical Siegfried. It was finally written down about the year 1200 in Middle High German, some 750 years after the historical events that inspired it, somewhat reconfigured to be compatible with then fashionable late medieval courtly romance. And then, 650 or so years later, Richard Wagner made his own version from much of the same source material for the four operas of the Ring cycle, again reconfigured to be compatible with then-fashionable 19th-century Romanticism. Though this seems to me merely to be a continuing evolution of the saga, there are those who would freeze the story in a particular incarnation. For example, Arthur Thomas Hatto, in the foreword to his translation,states:

Modern poets and poetasters have often returned to its subject, prominent among them Richard Wagner with his gigantic music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen with which (as with his Parsifal and his Tristan – whatever their merits as modern works of art) he has unfortunately harmed the cause of medieval German poetry by intruding reckless distortions between us and an ancient masterpiece. (7)

Oh really?! Is the Nibelungenlied ancient? Not compared with the historical events on which it is based. And which Nibelungenlied is Hatto talking about? In addition to fragmentary portions in many manuscripts, there are three fairly complete extant manuscripts termed A, B, and C by scholars. B is usually taken as the standard, but the other two, especially C, show significant differences. Only Whobrey includes the significant variants in an Appendix, and clearly states, “The search for an ‘original’ version of any medieval work is usually futile” (xv-xvi).

Manuscript C ends with the word liet, taken by Whobrey to have a meaning in Middle High German closer to “epic” than “song” (xvi), which gives the whole work its now generally recognized title of Das Nibelungenlied. Manuscript B, despite its being the “standard,” ends with a different word, nôt (“destruction”). Manuscript A also ends with nôt. And all three manuscripts include another poem, Die Klage [The Mourning], a sequel omitted by Hatto (and most others) because it is an inferior poem, though Whobrey includes it. And both are poems, probably meant to be sung (as is Wagner’s version), despite Whobrey’s not translating liet as “song” and Das Nibelungenlied being a written, as opposed to an oral, work. Both Whobrey’s and Hatto’s translations are in prose, which some might consider a greater distortion than anything done by Wagner. Though both translations also include extensive footnotes, Whobrey’s is the more scholarly, including a long discussion of the poetical form, a listing of place and personal names, a discussion of the extant manuscripts, a bibliography, and, as mentioned, a discussion of variants and a translation of Die Klage.

So, is Whobrey’s a viable translation in its own right, or, being prose with scholarly footnotes and appendices, is it merely a good starting point, together with the original Middle High German text, for a poetic translation of the work? That depends on your point of view.

Consider the fact that the sensibility of the work is reminiscent of Garrison Keillor’s description of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” In Das Nibelungenlied, all the women are beautiful, though some are more beautiful than others, and all the men are handsome and strong champions and heroes, though some are more handsome, stronger, and more heroic than others. Being a champion largely depends on how many other men a man can best in battle, and preferably kill. “Honor” is also obtained by being able to give, and receive, extremely costly gifts. This is a story about a warrior society populated, given the short life spans, mainly by impulsive adolescents. Also, hierarchical distinctions are rigidly maintained upon pain of death. Children are not mentioned very much, and, unlike in the tales about Lake Wobegon, “heroic deeds” are not meant to be funny.

Consequently, one criterion for a good translation may be the ability to capture this sensibility without inducing giggles.

A case in point is the story of Siegfried and the Nibelung treasure as told by Hagen in strophes 88 to 98. It is a portrait of the hero as homicidal maniac: a champion of champions who single-handedly slaughters 714 others. The teller is the same Hagen who, at a later point in the saga, murders Siegfried.

Here are the relevant parts of strophes 88 to 98 in Whobrey’s translation:

I have heard tales of how he [Siegfried] went out into the mountains completely by himself and came upon Nibelung’s treasure, guarded by a strong army. He had no idea who they were until he met them face-to-face. Nibelung’s treasure had been carried out of a cavernous mountain, and, believe it or not, the men of Nibelungen had decided to divide it up as Siegfried looked on with amazement from afar. His curiosity got the better of him. So he crept up closer to see these warriors, and they caught sight of him.

One of them proclaimed, “here comes mighty Siegfried, the hero of Netherland [sic].” He was to experience strange adventures there with the Nibelungen. Schilbung and Nibelung welcomed the warrior courteously, and after discussing the matter amongst themselves, the young noblemen decided to ask Siegfried to help them divide the  treasure evenly. It took a bit of convincing, but Siegfried finally agreed. … As a reward for his trouble they gave him Nibelung’s sword. But it turned out that they were ill served by Siegfried, and in the end he gave up in failure. They were not at all happy.

Among their followers were twelve men who were giants, but this did them little good when faced with Siegfried’s wrath, and he killed each one along with another seven hundred of the land of Nibelungen’s best soldiers. … On top of it all, Siegfried killed the two mighty kings [Schilbung and Nibelung]. … Siegfried was then the uncontested owner of the treasure. Anyone who dared to fight him lay dead. (9-10)

Siegfried’s slaughter of the Nibelungs because “they were not at all happy” makes little sense unless it is assumed that Siegfried’s real motivation was his desire to keep the treasure for himself. However, Manuscript C does gives Siegfried a motive, stated in Whobrey’s Appendix:

He left the treasure undivided, and as a result the companions of the two kings attacked him. (242)

However, even with this motivation, an incident in which one man defeats an entire army is a stunt best left to a James Bond fantasy film. And, as indicated, even this motivation is not in Whobrey’s main text.

Here is Hatto’s version of the same strophes, in which “they were not at all happy” is rendered differently enough to perhaps become a motive:

Riding unaccompanied past the foot of a mountain (as I was truly told), he [Siegfried] chanced upon a host of valiant men whom he had never seen before, gathered round Nibelung’s treasure, all of which they had borne out from a cavern. Now hear the strange tale how the Nibelungs were intent on dividing it! – Siegfried marveled as he watched them, for he came so near that he could see those warriors and they him. “Here comes mighty Siegfried of the Netherlands,” said one of them; and mysterious were the things which he experienced among them. Siegfried was well received by Schilbung and Nibelung, and these noble young princes begged and implored the handsome man by common consent to make division of the treasure, and this he promised to do. …They gave him Nibelung’s sword in payment, but they had scant profit from the service which the good warrior was to render them. He was unable to finish his task, so enraged were they. But although they had twelve brave men among their friends there – mighty giants they were – how could it avail them? Siegfried slew them in a fury and he also subdued seven hundred men of Nibelung-land. … Furthermore, he slew the mighty princes Schilbung and Nibelung, … Thus Siegfried, terrible man, was now lord of all the treasure.

All who had dared fight lay slain there (27-28)

Burton Raffel’s poetic translation uses variants of the proper names closer to those in the original Middle High German, and is explicitly sub-titled Song of the Nibelungs.Here is Raffel’s translation of the same strophes, including breaks dividing each line into two half-lines as in the original:

He was going along, one day,       at the foot of a giant mountain,
riding completely alone    (or so I’ve heard the tale),
when he found the Nibelung treasure,       and around it many men.
At first they were total strangers,       but strangers they did not long remain.

They’d hidden this Nibelung hoard       in a cave, buried it deep
in the mountain. And now they’d carried       it out. This is hard to believe,
but they clearly meant to divide it,       share and share alike.
Sifried could see their intention,       but did not understand just why

they’d do it. He rode up closer,       wanting to learn who they were,
but then they saw him approach.       One of them said to the rest:
“Here comes Sifried the strong,       from the Netherlands, best
of heroes.” His strange adventure       with the Nibelungen began right there.

Shilbunk and Nibelung       gave him a hearty welcome.
Then they, and all the others,       begged the hero to assist them,
asked the hero if he        would help them divide their treasure,
which Sifried swore he would do,        and truly with enormous pleasure.
They gave the prince [Sifried] their Nibelung        sword to pay for his work.
Yet the gift accomplished nothing,       brought them no good return,
for Sifried the noble hero       used this weapon in earnest,
after he could not complete       his labor and Nibelung anger was fired.

Among the Nibelungs’ allies were twelve courageous men,
bold and powerful giants.      But what good were these mighty friends?
They made bold Sifried angry       and died at his furious hands,
along with seven hundred       warriors from other Nibelung lands.

After those wealthy Nibelung      kings had both been slain,
Those who’d fought with Sifried       were stretched on the ground and dead.
Those who hadn’t fought       were ordered to bring the treasure (15-16)

Even though, in Raffel’s translation, “Nibelung anger was fired” is no more of a motivation for Siegfried than those given by Whobrey and Hatto, somehow, to my mind at least, Raffel’s poetry, with its occasional end and internal rhymes and its meter, sets the story in the realm of legend, make-believe, and is therefore less risible than matter-of-fact prose. And this is true even if one adds the motive stated in Manuscript C, that Siegfried was attacked first.


  1. The Nibelungenlied with The Klage. Edited and translated with an introduction by William Whobrey (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2018).
  1. The Nibelungenlied. Translated by A. T. Hatto (London: Penguin Books, 1965 – revised 1969).
  1. Das Nibelungenlied: Song of the Nibelungs. Translated from Middle High German by Burton Raffel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to mnh18@columbia.eduDiscussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

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