There seem to be currently available three complete English translations of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Middle High German "Parzival," an early, and slightly eccentric, version of the Grail Quest. Wolfram, both a knight and a (slightly eccentric) poet from thirteenth-century southern Germany, is the author of this long Arthurian romance, of a long Carolingian epic, "Willehalm," and some shorter works. His complaints about rival poets, and their replies to him, have turned out to be clues to relative dating of their works. On this and external evidence, Wolfram's poetic career has been dated between about 1195 and 1225; with the almost 25,000 lines of "Parzival" being composed between about 1200 and 1210.
The most recent translation, Cyril Edwards' "Parzival: With Titurel and the Love Lyrics," I have not yet seen. It includes a fragmentary related work, and Wolfram's contributions to the "Minnesaenger" (love poetry) tradition, which makes it attractive. The price of the hardcover is against starting with it! A more reasonably-priced paperback, aimed at the student market, would be a winner, if the translation is good.
Of the other two, both rendered in prose, the older is "Parzival: A Romance of the Middle Ages" (usually cited without the subtitle, in my experience), translated by Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, and published by Vintage Books (Random House), in 1961. With an Introduction, Additional Notes, an Index of Persons, and a Genealogical Table, I found it an attractive entrance to Wolfram-studies, and Middle High German literature beyond the "Nibelungenlied." The language of the translation is relatively colloquial, and has been criticized as both inexact in its use of hunting and heraldic terms, and perhaps too American. A more valid criticism, in my opinion, pointed out that a good deal of the introduction is spent discussing discarded theories floated by Jessie L. Weston (of "From Ritual to Romance") in connection with her verse translation at the end of the nineteenth century. Since Weston's version was the one most likely to be familiar to Mustard and Passage's original readers, this made a certain amount of sense, but they might have mentioned that her views were no longer taken very seriously. The cover art is a medieval "portrait" of the armored Wolfram, anonymous under his knightly helmet.
Almost twenty years later, A.T. Hatto (on whose review of the Vintage translation I have been drawing) produced his own version, in the Penguin Classics (1980); the cover art uses manuscript illuminations of scenes from the poem. Like Hatto's "Nibelungenlied" translation, it is in prose, and has, instead of an extended discussion before reading, an appended "Introduction to a Second Reading," along with a Glossary of Personal Names, and a List of Works in English for Further Reading. The critical discussion is excellent, and postponing it until a reader has a chance to form an opinion is an interesting idea. At least the student won't be quite so tempted to substitute reading the editorial commentary for a reading of the text, if one has to look for it.
Hatto's English is a bit obviously British; and some of his "corrected" readings are actually more difficult to follow, unless you are already familiar with the technical languages of hunting and blazonry. Otherwise, for example, " a pair" of birds is going to be clearer than "a brace" of them. This was not the case with Hatto's translation of the "Tristan" of Wolfram's rival, Gottfried von Strassburg (also from Penguin). The "Tristan" tradition makes a great point of how its hero uses the correct -- meaning fashionable -- hunting language, and Hatto was there, obviously, correct to reproduce the impression of mastery of an esoteric art. Either version is enjoyable, although Hatto (obviously) seems a bit more concerned with precision, and Mustard and Passage a little more with immediate appeal to readers.
Wolfram himself was translating, in his own fashion, Chretien de Troyes' unfinished "Perceval, or, The Story of the Grail" -- although he himself claims to have an additional source, the mysterious "Kyot," who had a better, truer, version. Since Chretien himself claimed to have been working from a source provided by a patron, this has at times sent scholars searching in many directions. Jessie Weston's theory, emphasizing Wolfram's references to Anjou and the Angevins, whose dynasty of Counts had come to rule England (see Henry II), was as plausible as most, and just as much a blind alley. It looks very much as if Wolfram had some sort of additional material -- there are odd resemblances to "Morien," an apparent interpolation in the medieval Dutch translation of the Lancelot-Grail romances, for example -- but mostly to have used his imagination quite freely.
We have an entire opening section with the hero's father, Gahmuret the Anschevin, having adventures in a vaguely-conceived Near East and North Africa, where he leaves a "pagan" wife and son, the latter, the multi-colored Feirefiz, crossing paths with Wolfram's main hero years later. (It is worth noting that, although Wolfram is a snob, and is fascinated by physical differences between human beings, he is in no sense a racist; color is no bar to aristocracy.) This is followed by Gahmuret's second marriage and death, the birth and upbringing in forest isolation of Parzival himself, his fateful encounter with Arthur's knights, and the splitting of the story to include the exploits of Sir Gawain (recognizable under German renderings, variously handled by translators over the years), and Parzival's first adventure at the Grail Castle, all derived from Chretien's account of Perceval and Gauvain, all retold in Wolfram's quirky style. Then Wolfram returns to what seems to be new material, writing his own conclusion. (Eric Rohmer's film version of "Perceval" is a splendid visualization of Chretien's version, and works almost equally well for parts of Wolfram's retelling, too.)
As in other versions, Chretien's very mysterious "graal" is drawn into a Christian conception of the universe. But Wolfram explains it as a sort of magic stone that fell to earth during the War in Heaven, not a relic of the Last Supper. That more explicitly Christianized version seems to belong to the Old French cycle of "Joseph of Arimathea," "Merlin" and "Perceval," attributed to Robert de Boron, and was later picked up and amplified in the "Vulgate Cycle" of Arthurian romances (centering on Lancelot, and introducing Galahad as the Quest hero, alongside Perceval), the version known in English through Malory, and, so far as the Chalice interpretation, also used by Wagner.
Wagner plundered Wolfram for names and a certain "German" quality for his Grail opera, "Parsifal," besides using another version of a story Wolfram alludes to in "Lohengrin,' and the poet's name for a character in "Tannhauser." Personally, I suggest tossing aside all Wagnerian preconceptions, if any, and allowing Wolfram's real personality to have a chance. Sarcastic (especially about competitors), sentimental (especially about wives and children), full of pride in the knightly caste (a new phenomenon, which its members wanted to be very old), arrogantly announcing that he is completely illiterate in the company of poets who boasted they could read anything ever written, he is both annoying and lovable. A living personality, in fact, appearing in a time used to anonymous authors.
For those who find "Parzival" a pleasure, or who would like to try a more military, rather than chivalric, work, there are also translations of his "Willehalm," based on the Old French *chanson de geste* of William Curt-Nose, or Guillaume l'Orange, one of the heroes of the legends of Charlemagne and his descendants. I am familiar with two, both into prose. One, by Marion E. Gibbs and Sidney M. Johnson, was published by Penguin Classics in 1984, and is currently in print, as "Wolfram von Eschenbach: Willehalm." Charles E. Passage, one of the co-translators of "Parzival," had earlier translated it as "The Middle High German Poem of Willehalm by Wolfram von Eschenbach," published by Frederick Ungar in 1977. Although it is out of print, used copies of the trade paperback edition seem to be available.
Curiously, the supposedly illiterate Wolfram seems unusually aware of the idea (if not the facts) of history. The "Pagan" Saracens of his French source are connected by him with the Romans (as descended from the followers of Pompey, rather than of Caesar, and heirs of an old feud), and also with the extra-European characters he had already invented for "Parzival." He rather neatly brings into the correct sequence his versions of Arthurian and Carolingian Europe.