Twenty-first-century popular medievalism offers only the latest image in which the Middle Ages have been re-created for the modern world. In the nineteenth century, more than a dozen anglophone writers translated and rewrote the Nibelungenlied (c.1200) for their contemporaries. They approached the act of translation in numerous ways, with various audiences in mind, and with different understandings of what the text represented. The resulting translations were once dismissed as ‘mirror[ing] the poem with a permanent factor of distortion’ (Hatto, 1969).
This paper examines two early English-language versions of the Nibelungenlied: Jonathan Birch’s Das Nibelungenlied or Lay of the Last Nibelungers (Berlin, 1848) and Lydia Hands’ Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom (London, 1880). Birch emphasised his work as ‘the first and only translation’ of the Nibelungenlied, and dedicated it to ‘the wise, the energetic, the good King of Prussia’. Hands, meanwhile, whose intended audience was children, acknowledged her ‘departures from the strict letter of the text’, and used her dedication to highlight the debt her translation owed to Thomas Carlyle. These two translators’ approaches, however, are not as different as they might superficially appear, and they give a broad insight into nineteenth-century anglophone translators’ ‘distortion’ of the Nibelungenlied.