Perhaps the greatest difference between historical and Olympic fencing is our reliance on sources. Lacking a living tradition in most cases we’re dependent upon the happy accident of surviving works on fencing. Sabre and spada, being more recent developments historically speaking, have a larger corpus covering them than say those for pole-axe or medieval single-hand sword. Still, there are hurdles even with those works produced since the printing press, laid out in familiar ways, and with easy to read, regular typeface.
Living as we do in an age of literacy we take a lot about reading for granted. There are, however, facts we need to be aware of in reading most of these historical fight manuals. A few key ones to start this discussion are:
- Historical & Social Context (including the purpose of the work)
- Intended Audience 
To this we should add the perennial challenge of reading (or writing) any work that attempts to describe via the written word something that is performed physically. Unlike musical notes, themselves signs relating to finger, hand, or mouth placement on an object, fencing texts can explain an idea or action but have a less direct, one-to-one relationship to the activity. An open G on a violin requires the ability to recognize the sign on a page and where the corresponding string is. To perform an engagement from third in sabre, however, assumes a lot more than those four or five words suggest.
The topic of translation is a large one so here we’ll
only look at some basics. Unless the texts you’re working with are in your
native language or one you know super-well, chances are good you’re working
from a translation. I work mostly within the Italian and to a slightly lesser
extent French traditions, and while I have a working knowledge of both for
reading, I am not fluent in either; in fact, I can’t read much outside of my
historical field or fencing works (I’m useless with a menu and would likely
struggle to find a bathroom in either language, though I can order beer. Yeah,
potential problems there 😉 ). This means I rely heavily on translations, and
even though I can set them side by side and get a decent sense of how good that
translation is, I still defer to those I know who know those languages better
than I do if I’m unsure about something. This is, by the way, a standard
practice in research—we want to get things right, so, we do due diligence in
assessing how correct a translation is. Even when I make translations in
languages I work in all the time I have people check it.
Why is this important? It’s important because not all translations are the same. Some are better than others. So, how do we tell if a translation is decent? First step, check out the translator—
- How are they qualified?
- What else have they translated? How has it been received?
- What, if anything, do other translators make of their work (if you can find that out)?
- If they include a note or preface to their translations, what do they tell you about their process? If they don’t, that is important.
- To what extent do they understand the context they’re working in?
Someone can be fluent in Italian today and yet mistranslate a word because the meaning of that word has changed. Quick example from English, the word “doom.” We use this today to mean one’s fate often with a connotation that is negative. We might say “oh he’s doomed!” and mean that guy is in trouble—rarely do we use the same word when a friend gets a sweet new job and pay increase . Originally, however, Old English/Anglo-Saxon dōm, “doom” meant “judgment,” both in the sense of law and later, by extension, in a religious context of the Last Judgment, i.e. “Doomsday.” It is the nature of language to change, and while we might chafe at that, we need to know it when working with translations, especially of older works.
There are also different ways to translate something, and depending on how well it’s done, both can work. Some translators opt for as literal a translation as they can; others prefer a looser, but easier to read version. What you gravitate toward is up to you, but in either case make informed choices. It’s possible to make something work in English better and remain faithful to the original tongue, but it’s also possible to obscure meaning and confuse things if this is done poorly. A literal translation must be readable, which can be a challenge, but if too literal it fails— one “can” render sentence structure in some languages exactly as is, but if word-order runs counter to your own language’s word-order it’s a mess. There are values to each approach. If you’re lucky, you may find a literal and a looser translation of a single work. It means a lot of comparison, but you’re potentially getting a richer sense of what the original author intended (again provided the translators are good).
Historical & Social Context (any Applicable Context)
We ignore context at our peril. In historical fencing this is absolutely vital and too often ignored. I’ve touched on this before, so I’ll be brief here, but not all fencing works are equal. If your goal is to study Dutch maritime cutlass, then Roger Crosnier’s work on sabre and Roworth’s manual for broadsword are not the best place for you to go.  If you’re fighting on foot, you can learn a lot from a cavalry manual, but by definition sword meant for the saddle was stripped down to essentials, and armed only with that you will have trouble fencing those who’ve spent time on manuals for fighting on foot. This seems obvious, right? It isn’t. There are a lot of people in historical fencing using weapons too heavy for what they think they’re doing or misapplying other traditions to their favorite. It matters if the H in “HEMA” means anything to you.
Context invariably means having to read and study beyond the manual itself. This can be work, true, but it can be interesting work if you approach it right. It also pays to read the right stuff. There is a lot out there, and most bookstores carry what sells, not necessarily the latest word on subject X; libraries are similarly hobbled by finances and space. TV and the internet are a mixed bag—you’re more likely to find crap about Martians or Freemasons and “secret” knowledge than anything actually useful. So, be cautious, do a little homework, and apply the same basic detective questions to your outside reading: how credible is the author/researcher? What is their training? How well do they document their study? Do they provide examples, citations, and use decent research? Because we’re largely an amateur (again in the best sense) pursuit, we have a lot of people writing all sorts of things—not all of it is equally good, not all of it is well-reviewed or fact-checked before it’s shared.
Is your chosen manual one meant for the military or civilians? What if anything does the author say about the purpose in writing it? A drill manual for infantry or cavalry will often have less detail than those written by the instructors training those same soldiers or troopers. Specific audiences often mean specialized vocabulary too. This can be difficult enough in one’s native language, so such jargon translated can be extra tricky. The titles of government officials are just one issue; often these authors assume their intended readers know the context, purpose, and lingo. Their original audience might have, but we don’t always know.
Even civilian works on fencing for civilians can assume knowledge of fencing fundamentals that many within historical circles lack. Even for seasoned Olympic fencers some terms and ideas disappeared, so while they may know what a bind in foil is, they might not have heard the term croisé. One good example of this is the excellent The Art of the Sabre and Epee (1899; 1936) by Luigi Barbasetti—it’s clear he assumes the reader has at least a working knowledge of foil. Your author might too.
There is much that goes into assessing the value of a text. One issue we face with later fencing manuals, even some early ones, are editions of the same work. Some may be just a second print run, some may have changes. This is especially true with more popular works. For example, Charles Roworth’s The Art of Defence on Foot with the Broad Sword and Sabre was published in 1798, but so too was the second edition, and, with changes. There were later publications in 1804 and in 1824. The third edition (1804) has differences in the plates. So, if you are looking for “Roworth’s manual,” be aware that the copy made in New York in 1824 was a copy of the 1804, which is a little different from the first and second editions from 1798.  A more thorough student will want to see all four to see how they differ; they may want to read a bit about Roworth and his contemporaries, and his audience or audiences.
Ways of Reading
If you’re familiar with John Berger’s now somewhat dated Ways of Seeing (my edition, London: BBC/Penguin, 1982), you will understand this subtitle. We read in different ways, all the time, but are not always conscious we are doing it. Some works we read for retention, which requires one way of reading. Others we consult as we prepare a meal, fix a sink, or fence. Still others we read for the pleasure of reading, be it the art of language as expressed in poetry or the imaginative worlds in fiction. Some reading we chew, some we digest.
You can read a fencing manual like a novel, but you’re not likely to get much out of it in terms of its intended use. I read most of them cover to cover because it gives me a general sense of how the author organizes the topic, how they make sense of it, and I get a better sense not only of their views, but how their work fits into the big picture. That can be valuable. However, in preparing drills, or consulting a work to figure out all I can about a specific maneuver or action, I read it with more focus. Normally this means rereading the same passage several times. I might read several manuals for the same thing and compare them—this is easier for me as the Italian tradition has a lot of sabre manuals from ca. 1850 onward, but it may be possible for your tradition too.
What steps can help?
- Read the page, passage, or line several times
- Read it slowly
- Read it again
- List and look-up any terms that you don’t know or have questions about
- Ask other fencers and researchers for help (if you’re stuck, message me and I’ll try to point you to helpful people)
- If there are illustrations, compare what you read against them 
- Try out what you read in space—if your weapon is close, great, if not, a pencil can work until you find a partner; be prepared to revise
While this can be hard work, it gets easier; it’s worth the effort. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Even the most experienced fencers stumble on some texts or some lines, and that’s okay—it can be a great opportunity to chat with knowledgeable people. If your interpretation doesn’t work, try again. If you’re still stuck, get help; with the internet this is a lot easier than it used to be.
Not all authors in the past were great writers (another issue, by the way, in translating), but even if the text is clear that doesn’t mean the topic is easy. Fencing is a highly technical art; there are a lot of moving pieces; and even the simplest thing, like moving forward, can be hard to describe or “unpack” from a particular author’s prose. Word-choice alone can change everything—witness for one example the battles over an “extended” vs. “extending” arm in foil during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Practice in reading closely, slowly, and weighing the sentence, even individual words, can do a lot to assist you in making sense of your chosen texts. It can improve your knowledge of the work, deepen your appreciation for that branch of the Art, and help you improve. Each fencer is a student, and students need books. Fiore dei Liberi, in discussing his student Galeazzo de Mantova’s notion of the relationship between books and the Art wrote “without books, nobody can truly be a Master or student in this art. I, Fiore, agree with this: there is so much to this art that even the man with the keenest memory in the world will be unable to learn more than a fourth of it without books.” 
 For brevity I’m only focusing on these three basic issues facing the reader. There are more. I’ve not prepared it yet, but I gave a talk last March covering some of these issues as regards medieval fight texts and will post that in time.
 A more general knowledge of the weapon and the variety of its use will do a lot to help you make sense of more specific, focused texts. Yes, this includes those written for “sport.” For Roworth, see note 4; for Crosnier, Fencing with the Sabre: Instruction and Technique, New York, NY: A.S. Barnes and Company, 1955.
 For a nice copy of the second edition, and a useful introduction to the text and its basic history, see Nick Thomas’s arrangement of the second edition; http://swordfight.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Art-of-Defence-on-Foot-Second-Edition.pdf
 Illustrations, just like the text, must be interpreted; there can be a one-to-one correspondence, but artistic conventions, style, skill, and a host of other factors can be at play as well.
 Fiore dei Liberi, Fiore de’ Liberi’s Fior di Battaglia, MS Getty Ludwig XV 13, translated by Tom Leoni, Rev. 4, Alexandria, VA: Lulu Press, 2009, 8.