The Rúnatal: A Poetic Translation

Now, for the first time on this blog, I am posting my own poetic translation of a short passage from the Poetic Edda. It is of Hávamál stanzas 138-145, which are sometimes called the Rúnatal, because they deal with Odin’s winning of the Runes. Regular readers may notice the rather odd stanza structure here. This portion of the Hávamál is rather irregular in the use of the long lines and full lines of the ljóðaháttr meter (and in stanza length), and I have followed the original pattern of lines rather than try to recast it into completely regular meter. Nonetheless, I have aimed to keep it poetic and alliterative at the expense of absolute literalness. I have tried to maintain consistency in the translation when possible. That is, when particular and important Old Norse words occur more than once in the passage, I try to translate them the same way each time. Man translates two different words, mann and þjóð, but I think it is better that way. In some cases, words were added that don’t have correspondences in the original for the sake of the meter, such as wyrd and mammoth in the first stanza. They are, however, quite appropriate for describing that tree. Translation always involves compromises, and it is at least as much art as science.

For nights all nine,
I know that I hung
on that wyrd and windy tree,
by gar wounded
and given to Odin,
myself to myself I gave,
on that mammoth tree
of which Man knows not
from where the roots do run.

Blessed with no bread,
nor brimming horn,
down below I looked;
Runes I took up,
roaring I took them,
then back unbound I fell.

With mighty songs nine
from that much-famed son
of Bestla’s father Bolthorn,
a draft I drank
of the dearest mead,
from the Stirrer of Poetry poured.

Then fertile I became
and full of wisdom,
and I grew and greatly thrived.
A word got a word
by a word for me;
a work got a work
by a work for me.

Runes you will find
and readable staves,
very strong those staves,
very stiff those staves,
which were painted by the mighty priest,
and rendered by the high rulers,
and risted by the rulers’ invoker.

For the Aesir ‘twas Odin,
but for Elves ‘twas Dain,
and Dvalinn for dwarven kin,
and Asvith for etin kin;
I risted some myself.

Know how to rist!
Know how to read!
Know how to paint!
Know how to pry!
Know how to ask!
Know how to offer!
Know how to send!
Know how to sacrifice!

Unasked is better
than offered too much;
always a gift seeks gain.
Unsent is better
than sacrificed too much;
So risted Thund
ere the rule of Man,
where up he rose
and after came back.

Copyright © 2013 Eirik Westcoat.
All rights reserved.

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5 thoughts on “The Rúnatal: A Poetic Translation

  1. Excellent work, Eirik! I’m nowhere near ready to start translation efforts on my own, so I enjoy reading as many translations as I find. As you say, it’s as much an art as a science. Big thumbs up!

  2. Pingback: Audio for The Rúnatal | Eirik Westcoat, Skald

  3. Pingback: Preview of a New Rúnatal | Eirik Westcoat, Skald

  4. Pingback: Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Poem | The Skaldic Eagle

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