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More Hema geekery: discussing the term “piede fermo”

Last week I checked Piermarco Terminiello’s translation of Giganti’s Second Book, published in 1608. I took issue with his translation of tirar di punte di piede fermo as “delivering a lunge”. I would render it as ‘thrust with the fixed foot”.

This sparked a very useful discussion thread on Facebook, which was far too interesting to be left there so I have the participants’ permission to post it here (I’ve edited their words slightly for clarity, and I have left out all the digressions, requests for clarifications by beginners, and statements of opinion unsupported by evidence). It began with Mike Prendergast (a long-time friend and serious rapier practitioner) writing:

Loving this already, Guy. To niggle on your niggle about ‘lunge” versus ‘thrust with the fixed foot”, I would say that that several rapier masters of this era seem to distinguish a thrust executed with a pass, from one executed with an increase of pace of the lead foot, by using the term fixed footed thrust for the latter (it's the rear foot that is fixed). So while Piermarco Terminiello has not literally translated this word-for-word, I would consider the terms functionally equivalent. This is off the top of my head.

Piermarco himself chimed in:

When I translated Alfieri in 2011, for what it's worth I translated “pie' fermo” as “firm foot” – but I've come to consider this as clunky.

I'd contend that “firm foot” is the pretty standard early 17th century term for a lunge, considering that the early Masters don't use the modern Italian term “affondo”.

This is Alfieri's definition:

“There are two principal ways of attacking: from a firm foot, or with a pass or other type of movement.

The attack from a firm foot can be accomplished in one of two ways. The first is when you strike by extending your arm and your body without moving either foot. The second method, having your weight over your left foot, is to carry the blow forward by stepping with your right.”

The same with “ferire”, in 2011 I translated it as “wound”, however since there are several examples of “ferire” being used when the action doesn't actually land, I'd contend that “attack” is an easily defensible and arguably more apt choice.

Although note that Parise uses “firm foot” to describe a simple lunge into the late 19th Century.

In his translation Chris Holzman notes (from the 1884 edition of Parise):

“he uses the term firm-footed to describe the lunge, since the rear foot remains in place, or firm on the ground.”

So at best, according to your interpretation, Capoferro would be some kind of weird outlier (in his specific usage).*

Tom Leoni in his translation of Giganti's 1606 translates piede fermo as “firm foot” however he adds the footnote:

“Firm-footed attack (ferita a pie' fermo): an attack with footwork other than a pass, i.e., a lunging attack or an attack without a motion of either foot”.

Which of course perfectly corresponds to Alfieri's very straightforward and clear description. Note that Tom also translates “ferire” as “attack” and not “wound”.

It is clear from this that Piermarco’s translation choices are defensible, whether I agree with them or not. Regarding ferire, I would say that strike is much better than attack, because it doesn’t come with the necessary condition of the strike landing (as wound does), nor with the fencing-theory baggage that “attack” does.

Regarding the strike of the fixed foot; I would say that though Piermarco has made an excellent case for “lunge” being an appropriate interpretation of Giganti’s meaning, I still do not see it as a good translation of what Giganti actually wrote. This is because we have somewhat different theories of translation; I hew very closely to the original phrasing of the source, and will only translate something using a completely different expression if it’s a case of an idiom that is simply nonsensical when translated directly, which I don't think is the case here. At the very least, a footnote would have been a good idea.

In case you are a complete beginner to academic discussion I should point out that this sort of back-and-forth is a) completely normal b) implies no disrespect and c) is the engine that drives all development. As I said in my previous post, Piermarco’s translation is excellent, well worth your time, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for his work. But translation is always at least in part a matter of judgement, and as I am a raving pedant and have a different view of the job of translator, in my considered opinion, I wish some aspects of his translation were different. Now that I have a copy of the original book I can simply use that, but also, now that I have checked to see what kind of judgement calls Piermarco makes, I can use his translation in an informed way.

And incidentally, this is exactly why, in my opinion, professional HEMA instructors (by which I mean people who do this for a living and therefore should be held to the highest standards) should only teach from sources they can read in its original language. However *good* a translation may be, it is still always, by definition, something of an interpretation.

If you find this kind of discussion interesting, you'll probably enjoy the story of how it was established beyond reasonable doubt that I was completely wrong in identifying the poison-dust-pollax ingredient

*It’s somewhat off topic here, but my rapier background is in Capoferro’s style, working from his 1610 book Gran Simulacro.

There he wrote in paragraphs 46-48 (which you can see in the image above; click on it for a high-res photo):

46: The wide measure is, when with the increase of the right foot, I can strike the adversary, and this measure is the first narrow one.

47: The fixed foot narrow measure is that in which, by only pushing my body and legs forward, I can strike the adversary.

48: The narrowest measure is when the adversary strikes at wide measure, and I can strike him in his advanced and uncovered arm, either that of the dagger or that of the sword, with my left foot back, followed by the right while striking. (In Jherek Swanger and William Wilson's CapoFerro translation (click on the link to download in pdf))

It is perfectly clear then that for Capoferro the strike of the fixed foot is not a lunge. Piermarco is right in that Capoferro is an outlier in this (as indeed he is in many other respects too), but given Capoferro’s status in the rapier world, this by itself is sufficient grounds to expect at least a footnote to explain that the original term being translated as “lunge” is “fixed foot”.

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3 Responses

  1. This highlights the importance of footnoting the original phrase where choices in translation have been made. Wonderful stufff!

  2. Hi Guy, I think your quoting of Capoferro’s definitions of the fixed foot here is a useful addition, since it differs so much from the general usage of his contemporaries. While Capoferro may be an outlier in many regards, still I think that every master is idiosyncratic in some respects, e.g. Agrippa shows the inquartata/scansa de la vita with his face turned away from the opponent, whereas Giganti explicitly says not to do that. Capoferro spends a of time explaining the guards, while Giganti doesn’t, saying the important thing is to instead make a counterguard, and so on. So I think this discussion helps illustrate the benefits of reading a range of related sources (where we are lucky enough to have ones available), in order to gain a fuller understanding of any one system.

  3. To add another reference, in his 1597 treaty, Calvacabo (an often forgotten master, which is a shame considering his strong influence in France) also describes “(de) Pied Ferme” as a way to thrust with a lunge but without passing. Rob Runacres translated it as “on the firm foot”.
    However, when he and Thibault Ghesquière translated Dancie (1610), who uses the expression to describe the same way to thrust, they used “with the foot firm”.

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