Hildebrandslied
Anonymous, ca. 800
tr. Bruce McMenomy


The text of this poem was recovered by the merest chance from the binding of a book, and it is incomplete. It was written in a form of German very remote from today’s, using a verse form that is characteristic of most poetry from all branches of the Germanic language family. Rather than relying on rhyme or even a regular rhythm, the principle of versification is alliteration — that is, the repetition of initial word-sounds. In this interplay, the lines are divided into half-lines, each of which will usually have one or two words with alliterate with one or two of the other half-line. I have tried to retain this as much as possible in the following translation, though the effect is inevitably somewhat different in modern English, especially since we need to have a lot more “little words” to make English work nowadays. In a handful of places I have used the Old English words, such as byrnie and thane. These are not far from the truth, though: “thane” translates an almost identical OHG word “degano”, and “byrnie” the OHG cognate “brunnono”. Those who have seen modern German can tell how different this is, but it is a language not unrelated to our own: one can pick out cognates: ðat (that), gurtun (girt) suert (sword), hringa (rings), and ritun (rode). The form of the poem as we have it comes to us from around 800, but it recalls an earlier age — the age, indeed, of Theodoric, who ruled in the first part of the sixth century (ca. 525).

Ik gihorta ðat seggen,
ðat sih urhettun     ænon muotin
Hiltibrant enti Haðubrant     untar heriun tuem.
sunufatarungo;     iro saro rihtun,
garutun sê iro guðhamun,     gurtun sih iro suert ana,
helidos ubar hringa     do sie to dero hiltiu ritun.

Hiltibrant gimahalta, Heribrantes sunu:     her uuas heroro man...

etc.


I have so heard it said:
That once came together     in single combat
Hildebrand and Hadubrand     between two hostsI.e., as champions for either side
Father and son.     Their fittings they fastened,
Securing their byrnies:     bound their swords onByrnie: mail shirt, usually of linked rings
Over the ring-mail     ere they rode to the fighting.

Hildebrand spoke, Heribrand’s son     — he was the older man —
In few words asking     who his father was
Among the fighting-folk...
                            “...or from what kindred you come.
For if you tell me one     the other I’ll know.
You see, lad: I know     all the land’s noble houses.”

Hadubrand spoke then,     Hildebrand’s son:
“Know this on the faith     of those of our folk
Who, older and learned,     were living long since —
Hildbrand is my father named;     I am called Hadubrand.
Long time ago he is gone away east,     driven by Otaker’s envy, See note on names, below.
With Thiedrek faring     and his thanes all together.
Behind him in grief     he abandoned ungrown
His little bairn,     and his bride in the bower,Bairn: child.
Lacking all means.     He had to go east.
Thiedrek thenceforth     much was in need
Of my father’s service:     he was so friendless a man.
To Otaker he was     a foe ever angry;
But for Thiedrek     the foremost of thanes.
At the front of the battle he went,     and best loved the fighting.
He was well-known     to the keenest warriors.
I suppose that he     is no longer alive.”

“God be my witness,” quoth Hildebrand,     “from heaven on high:
You’d best have no dealings     in deeds of battle
With so close a kinsman.”
He took from his arm     the twisted torc
Wrought with gold chasing     given him once
By the king of the Huns.     “Have this for friendship,” he said.

Hadubrand spoke then,     Hildebrand’s son:
“A man seizes his prize     by plying his spear —
Point counter point.
You’re a wily warrior     indeed, you old Hun.
With words you will cozen me,     but then cast your weapon.
You’ve become old     by base double-dealing.
Sailors on the ocean western,     on Wendel-seaWendel-sea: “Vandal sea” — i.e., Mediterranean.
Already have warned me:     war took him away.
Dead now is Hildebrand     Heribrand’s son.”

Hildebrand spoke now,     Heribrand’s son:
“Well I can gather,     from your good battle-gear
That you have at home     a handsome master,
You’ve not ever suffered     exile by the same.
Alas now, Almighty God,” quoth Hildebrand,     “a woeful fate follows.
I have fared sixty summers and winters     far from my land,I.e., thirty years.
Always ranged forward     in the first battle-rank.
Nor yet has fate found me     before any fortress;
But now must my own son     hew me with sword,
Lay me low with his spear,     or I take his life.
You well may, however     — if your might is so hard,
Win from so old a man     his armor with ease,
Bear it for booty     if you win it in battle.”
Quoth Hildebrand, “Not even the craven     cowards of the east
Could deny you the duel     since you so desire
To fight to the finish.     So then let us find out,
Which of us two     will give up his gear,
And who bear away     both of the byrnies.Not as odd as it seems: armor was very expensive.

Then first they let fly     their ash spears,
In sharp-falling showers     that stood in their shields.
Then they closed battle,     and battered their boardsBoards: i.e., shields
Hacking hard     at the hay-white shields,
Till the wood dwindled     beneath deadly blows,
Weakened with weapons...


Note on Names:

Thidrek is my normalized transcription of the name rendered several different ways in the poem: once as Theotrihhe, once as Detrihhe, and once as Deotrihhe. In any case the reference is clearly to Theodoric. He succeeded in power the Visigoth Otaker (Otachre in the Old High German text), otherwise known as Odoacer or Odovacar, who deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor, in 476. I have chosen “Thidrek” and “Otaker” because they are fewer syllables. Thidrek is the name given to this character in the Old Norse Thidrekssaga; the Nibelungenlied knows him as Dietrich von Bern.


Translation and notes © Copyright 1997, Bruce A. McMenomy