speak by one mouth a feast of tongues sing

Language: Old English 
Poet: Anonymous 
Translator: Evan Klavon


speak by one mouth a feast of tongues sing

Four riddles from the Exeter Book, translated from Old English by Evan Klavon

Riddles confront us with unfamiliar perspectives, disguising what in testing wisdom of how. Objects themselves narrate strange attributes and behavior, then finally demand “What am I?” To have one’s sense of the familiar reoriented and enriched by thousand-year-old riddles is to be reminded of continuities in the powers of human imagination and insight.

My versions of these four Old English poems from the Exeter Book involve a range of approaches to translation, in an attempt to represent the variety of qualities of the source texts. With Riddle 7 I’ve closely approximated the meter, alliteration, and further musicality of the Old English verse. I’ve also tried to carry over the riddling ambiguity and double-meanings of the original, in some places inserting Modern English puns similar in suggestion and near in location to puns in the original. In particular, my version attempts to render a reading which I have not found in any critical literature or translations to date: adding the complication of quill-pen to the consensus solution of swan.

For Riddle 8 I’ve opted to make the old feel more contemporary through modernization of some of the colorful idioms and vocabulary, and by trying to capture the verve and theatricality of the nightingale in loose and rough pentameter. The lack of punctuation in a way reproduces the nature of the manuscript, where poetry is written as (mostly) unpunctuated prose, its verse and syntactical patterns to be supplied by the reader/performer.

Little consensus has been reached regarding the solution to Riddle 39. Proposed solutions include: cloud, comet, day, death, a (prophetic/auspicious) dream, fate, moon, revenant, speech, and time. Rather than translate with a particular solution in mind, I chose to use an open form, reproducing the original’s field of catalogued details while playing off its grammatical relationships, especially the pattern of negations which comprise much of its riddling description.

While many of the Old English riddles personify objects to the extent of giving them voice and/or generally anthropomorphic figuration and action, Riddle 50 is especially rich in presenting fire as a powerful and proud warrior. To capitalize on this persona, I decided to transform the riddle from Old English verse (the single form of which was also used for warrior poetry such as Beowulf) into the more modern popular form for tales of heroes, the ballad stanza.

—Evan Klavon

These riddles translated from Old English come from the Exeter Book, a miscellany containing some ninety-odd riddles total, as well as thirty-five poems of varied lengths on Christian and other themes, and a selection of maxims. Likely produced around 965–75 CE, the Exeter Book is perhaps the oldest surviving manuscript collection of vernacular poetry from Anglo-Saxon England; it is difficult to establish how much older the poems copied therein may be. As was usual for Old English poetry, the poems are all anonymous, and scholars can do little more than conjecture as to the editorial intentions of the scribe who compiled the book.
Evan Klavon was raised in Fresno, California, spent several years on the East Coast and abroad, then returned West to Seattle to attend the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Washington. He is now a PhD student in English at UC Berkeley, where he learned Old English and specializes in Twentieth Century poetry and poetics. Some of his own poems can be found online at Ink NodeLinebreak, and Pacifica Literary Review.

[Riddle 7]

Hrægl mīn swīga∂     þonne ic hrusan trede
oþþe þā wīc būge     oþþe wado drēfe.
Hwīlum mec ahebbað     ofer hæleþa byht,
hyrste mīne     ond þēos hēa lyft,
ond mec þonne wide     wolcna strengu
ofer folc byreð.     Frætwe mīne
swōgað hlūde     ond swinsiað
torhte singað     þonne ic getenge ne bēom
flōde ond foldan,     ferende gǣst.

[Riddle 7]

My clothes stay quiet     as I cross the earth
or let down on a dwelling     or drive the waves.
At times my trimmings     and the mighty sky
muster me up     over men’s nooks
and then cloud’s clout     bears me about
over the folk.     My bits of kit
sound out loudly     and sing a line
noting finely     when I’m not near
river and ground,     a rambling ghost.

[Riddle 8]

Ic þurh mūþ sprece     mongum reordum,
wrencum singe,     wrixle geneahhe
heāfodwōþe,     hlūde cirme,
healde mīne wīsan,     hlēoþre ne miþe.
Eald ǣfenscēop,     eorlum bringe
blisse in burgum,     þonne ic būgendre
stefne styrme,     stille on wicum
sittað hnīgende.     Saga hwæt ic hātte,
þe swā scīrenige     scēawendwīsan
hlūde onhyrge,     hæleþum bodige
wilcumena fela     wōþe mīnre.

[Riddle 8]

I speak by one mouth a feast of tongues sing through modulations changing quick a heady voice crying out loud my tune carry my way resound without refrain as an old evening-bard to courtiers brings merriment to settlements when I alighting shout my voice to homes they quietly sit there nodding.           So tell what I am called who like a showgirl jest and imitate with gusto cabaret promising men much to welcome with my voice.

[Riddle 39]

Gewritu secgað     þæt sēo wiht sȳ
mid moncynne     miclum tīdum
sweotol ond gesȳne.     Sundorcræft hafað
māran micle     þonne hit men witen.
Hēo wile gesēcan     sundor ǣghwylcne
feorhberendra,     gewīteð eft feran on weg.
Ne bið hīo nǣfre     niht þǣr oþre,
ac hīo sceal wīdeferh     wreccan lāste
hāmlēas hweorfan,     nō þȳ hēanre biþ.
Ne hafað hīo fōt ne folme,     ne ǣfre foldan hrān,
ne ēagena [hafað]     ne ǣgþer twēga,
ne mūð hafaþ,     ne wiþ monnum sprǣc,
ne gewit hafað,     ac gewritu secgað
þæt sēo sȳ earmost     ealra wihta,
þāra þe æfter gecyndum     cenned wǣre.
Ne hafað hīo sāwle ne feorh,     ac hīo siþas sceal
geond þas wundorworuld     wīde dreogan.
Ne hafaþ hīo blōd ne bān,     hwæþre bearnum wearð
geond þisne middangeard     mongum tō frōfre.
Nǣfre hīo heofonum hrān,     ne tō helle mōt,
ac hīo sceal wideferh     wuldorcyninges
lārum līfgan.     Long is tō secganne
hū hyre ealdorgesceaft     æfter gongeð,
wōh wyrda gesceapu;     þæt [is] wrǣtlic þing
tō gesecganne.     Sōð is ǣghwylc
þāra þe ymb þās wiht     wordum becneð;
ne hafað hēo ænig lim,     leofaþ efne seþeah.
Gif þū mæge rēselan     recene gesecgan
sōþum wordum,     saga hwæt hīo hātte.

[Riddle 39]

Writings say that to mankind evident and
 the creature is at times great visible

 Has a special power greater much
than men realize
She will visit separately living being
then departs going on way

she Not be there
night another
she must always wander
the path of an exile
not thereby being lower
she Not has foot
not hand
not touched the earth ever
not has eye
not two either
not has mouth
not spoken with men
not has wits
but writings say
that of all of creatures kinds
she is wretchedest which were produced after

she Not has soul
not life
she must endure travels extensive
throughout wonderworld this

she Not has blood
not bone
has been as a comfort to men many
throughout middleearth this

she Never touched heavens
not to hell may
she must always live
by teachings gloryking’s

Long is
to say how her life-fate afterwards goes
crooked shape of events
that is to say
thing curious

True is every
what about this creature
with words describes
she not has limb
but lives

answer If may immediately
you say with words with truth
say what
she is called

[Riddle 50]

Wiga is on eorþan      wundrum ācenned
dryhtum tō nytte,      of dumbum twām
torht atyhted,      þone on tēon wīgeð
fēond his fēonde.    Fōrstrangne oft
wīf hine wrīðeð;      hē him wel hereð,
þēowaþ him geþwǣre,      gif him þegniað
mægeð ond mæcgas      mid gemete ryhte
fēdað hine fægre;      hē him fremum stēpeð
līfe on lissum.      Lēanað grimme
[þām] þe hine wloncne      weorþan lǣteð.

[Riddle 50]

There is a warrior who walks the earth,
a wondrous asset come,
who amid sparks was born so bright
from parents deaf and dumb.

In spite of foe, foe battles him
to both hostile the same.
So ferocious, he overpowers,
yet by a wife he’s tamed.

Them he’ll hark and well obey
and serve in harmony,
if they just serve, the women and men,
what proper meals he needs.

Good he’ll treat with good in kind,
his mild mercy earned.
But those who let him swell with pride
are grimly paid in turn.