Language: Old English
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
she must always wander
the path of an exile
not thereby being lower
she Not has foot
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
she must endure travels extensive
throughout wonderworld this
she Not has blood
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
to say how her life-fate afterwards goes
crooked shape of events
that is to say
True is every
what about this creature
with words describes
she not has limb
answer If may immediately
you say with words with truth
she is called
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.
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.