The translations in this book are based on the texts of the most recent riddle edition, my own, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977). Lost portions of the text are indicated by asterisks: some of these are the result of manuscript aging or mutilation; some are indicated by a gap in the meaning or meter of the text and are probably the result of scribal error. I have tried occasionally to fill in the sense of a lost word and have sometimes gathered together bits of words in order to give a glimpse of meaning to fragmentary passages and to avoid an ungainly succession of isolated words and long lacunae. Readers interested in the exact placement of fragments, lost letters, and lacunae should consult the original Old English edition where the system of elliptical indication is more complicated.

Old English poetry is built on an alliterative, strong-stress pattern. Each line contains four strongly stressed syllables—for example:


Ic swiftne Swift I

geseah saw

on swabe
on road

feran travelling


The possible alliterative patterns are 2 and 3, 1 and 3, or 1 2 and 3 (as in the example above).
The third stress regularly alliterates, the fourth stress rarely.
Often there is cross-line alliteration, sometimes assonance, rarely rhyme.
The positioning of unstressed syllables is fairly, though not entirely, free.

The Old English poetic lexicon was stocked with a wide variety of words for the important commonplaces of the culture-hero, battle, sea, horse, hall, death and so on–which meant that the alliterative demands of a particular line could be readily met. But the mead-hall poet's delight is the modern translator's bane–since cultures rarely show linguistic diversity in the same set of terms (the Eskimo needs many words for snow, the Ngoni warrior needs none).

Another difficulty is that what was common to the literate Anglo-Saxon, the controlled strong-stress line, often proves strange to modern readers of poetry used to the iambic rhythms of post medieval poets or the free verse of many modern writers.
Occasional modern poets hearken back to the ancient Anglo-Saxon rhythms–W. H. Auden in The Age of Anxiety, 92 Richard Wilbur in "Junk,"93 and Gerard Manley Hopkins in some lines written in sprung rhythm94-but mainly the rhythms remain a medievalist's delight.

Translators deal with these problems in different ways.
Some attempt to keep to the strict Old English meter and dredge up archaic words to meet the alliterative demands.
Some scuttle strong stress for the more comfortable iambic pentameter or free verse.
Some struggle to make compromises.

My own compromise represents a cross between the traditional Anglo-Saxon meter and a looser form used by Ælfric, sometimes called rhythmical prose.95
It retains the four stress line in a loosely alliterative pattern.
It builds in abundant cross-line alliteration--especially to bind to the rest of the poem an occasional non-alliterative line.
It plays with the possibility of assonance and adds the close repetition of words and morphemes. Occasionally it makes use of perfect or partial rhyme.
Take, for example, the bookworm riddle (45)-which I quote here in Old English, in a straightforward translation (with some indication of the ambiguities in the original), and in my own poetic rendering:

Moððe word fræt— * me þæt þuhte
wraetlicu wyrd * þa ic þaet wundor gefraegn,
þaet se wyrm forswealg * wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, * þrymfaestne cwide
and þæs strangan stapol. *
Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra * þe he þam wordum swealg

A moth ate (spoken) words— * to me that seemed
A strange event (weird fate, odd saying), * when I heard of that wonder,
That a worm (bug, snake, dragon) should swallow ("take in") * the songs of a man,
A thief in darkness (ignorance), * his glory-fast sayings (munchings),
And their place (intellectual foundation) of strength. * That thief guest
Was no wiser * for having swallowed (mentally imbibed) words.

A moth ate songs—wolfed words!
That seemed a weird dish—that a worm
Should swallow, dumb thief in the dark,
The songs of a man, his chants of glory,
Their place of strength. That thief-guest
Was no wiser for having swallowed words.

My poetic translation is written in strong stress meter.
It contains two primary alliterative stresses each in lines 1, 2, 3, and 6.
The stresses of line 4 are linked by the assonance of "man" and "chants"; of line 5 by the assonance of "strength" and "guest" (or "place" and "strength," depending on the individual pronunciation). Lines 4 and 5 are also linked by the cross-line alliteration in "guest" and "glory."
All six lines have an S alliterative stress; three lines have a double w stress.
The sinuous S pattern I hope produces some of the ominous overtones of the wyrm complex (worm snake-dragon) in Old English.
Verbal repetitions include "songs" (1 and 4), "words" (1 and 6), "swallow"/"swallowed" (2 and 6), and the double "that" of line 2 and triple "of" of lines 4–5.
All of these devices help to tighten the translation and in some sense compensate for the loosening which takes place with the loss of primary alliteration in lines 4–5.
The translation is occasionally iambic as in "A moth ate songs," or "Their place of strength"; but this momentary pattern is almost always followed by the shock of dense stress, as in "wolfed words," and "thief-guest."
I hope this produces a rhythm that rolls back and forth between an ancient and modern mode–it is a rhythm that is influenced by Hopkins's sprung rhythm.

Building into the translation
Fred O. Robinson calls the "artful ambiguities"97 of the Old English Rriddle
proves a difficult task.

The word gobbling wyrm that steals man's cultural songs from their vellum foundation may mean "bug, worm, snake, reptile, or dragon" in Old English.
The dragon that destroys Beowulf is a wyrm, but so is the larva that spins silk.
Building the bug into a dragon and bringing him down is part of the mock–epic game of the riddle,98 but most of this is lost in the innocuous "worm" of modern English.
Taking the ravenous possibilities of fræt a word that seems to imply unnatural gobbling, I try to recapture the dragon's ferocity with the phrase, "wolfed words."
Wyrd is a word whose meaning ranges from "terrible fate" (epic dragons) to "what's happening" (mocking the bug); in the riddlic context it is also a pun on gewyrd, "speech."
The ambivalent tone is echoed by cwide, "songs, sayings," a pun on cwidu, "what is munched."99 The grotesque irony of this is perhaps conveyed in the "weird dish," since for moderns not only a hard fate but also hot lasagne may be "dished out."
The addition of "dumb" is also an attempt to catch the bovine level of cwidu as well as the unspeaking idiocy of the"worm."
The word þystru means either physical or mental "darkness"; swealg, "swallow physically" or "imbibe mentally."
These ambiguities are kept in modern English (e.g., "That book left me in the dark." "Don't swallow that old line.").

These are just some of the semantic problems any translator must deal with.

Some readers may object to the trade of a wolf for a dragon or the intrusion of a dish-but a translator must attempt to reproduce not only primary meanings, but also ambiguities, textures, and tones. A safe translation is often one that does injustice to the complexity of the original. My goal has been to recreate faithfully the Old English and to shape modern English poems as compelling as the originals. Just as the riddlic game is a mediation between setter and solver, so too the act of translation is a mediation, a dance of two minds. The Anglo-Saxons themselves, often members of a multilingual community, recognized the complexity of translation. King Alfred describes the act metaphorically in the preface to his translations of Augustine's Soliloquies:

So I gathered staves and posts and tie-beams for each of the tools I should work with, and building-timbers and beams for each of the structures I should make-as much beautiful wood as I could carry. Each time I shouldered the wood home I wanted the forest, but it was more than I could carry. In each beam I saw something I needed at home. So I urge those who have knowledge and good wagons to go to the woods where I cut my beams and fetch their own beautiful branches so they can weave lovely walls and shape splendid buildings and bright towns and live there joyfully summer and winter as I have not yet been able to do.100

Each translator rebuilds the Anglo-Saxon world in his own way. For those interested in the comparative variety of shapes, I include in the next section a collection of bookworm riddle translations. Some are pedantic, some are lively, some are provocative, some sing. Some seem to have been gobbled by a sharp-toothed bookworm and regurgitated. But all of us, scholars and poets, must plead mea culpa in trying to translate. Hauling words and ideas from one culture to another is no easy task.

[Click moððe for the page of translations.]