A Free-Wheeling Approach to Riddle Translation

This week we have another guest post for you, but it’s also one that shakes things up a bit (we wouldn’t want you to get bored, would we?). K. J. (Jim) Keller, creative writer and graduate student at Fresno State, has written a special post on translating the riddles into different cultural idioms. Here it is:


Riddles are idiomatic. They function by presenting something familiar, drawing on collective societal experience, but showing it in a way that is not the usual way of considering it. One of the great challenges and joys for those of us who study Anglo-Saxon riddles is that they provide a window into the Anglo-Saxon world through this cultural idiom. We see what they saw as commonplace, but we see it from a slightly oblique angle. The flip side, however, is that all but the most juvenile of Anglo-Saxon riddles are completely unsolvable by most people today. We simply don’t have an equivalent cultural framework. What they saw as commonplace we see…well, in many cases they’re things we don’t see at all.

My interest as a translator is to present Anglo-Saxon riddles as riddles, though. I want to be able to read a riddle to a room full of people and have a good, old-fashioned party of solving them. But how do we do that when the original solution – when we’ve managed to parse it out at all – is something that does not exist in the modern world, or that exists but in a very different form, or that is perceived very differently from the way an Anglo-Saxon riddlee would have perceived it?

Well, if I, as a translator, came across a figure of speech that would be lost on my readers if rendered literally into the target language, I would not hesitate to change it to something different which would convey the same idea. So I’ve opted to do the same with the solutions to the Exeter Book riddles I’ve translated. I seek to preserve the “feel” of the original as much as translation allows, but I instead lead the reader to an answer that is a present-day analog of an academically defensible answer for the original riddle.

I know that’s a provocative approach, but I think it brings the riddle back to life in a way that other translations do not. If we accept the notion that all translation is adaptation, and we understand that there are multiple translations of these poems available to scholars and students today, then mine become simply one more lens to use when looking at these unique pieces of literature.

At this point, however, it’s fair to ask what my translations or adaptations do seek to preserve of the originals, if not their original meaning.

The facetious answer to that is, “More than you think.”

First and foremost, I found myself captivated by the rhythm of the Old English originals. On the surface, it seems that Anglo-Saxon meter defies translation. Attempts to define and classify the meters (such as Sievers’ Five Types) rely on “strong” and “weak” syllables, which simply aren’t replicated by modern English’s pattern of accented and unaccented syllables. Modern English speakers simply don’t hear emphasis in an accented syllable the way an Anglo-Saxon speaker would have heard emphasis in a strong syllable.

But to my ear, the typical Anglo-Saxon rhythm of two stresses per half line is a loose tetrameter which I do, in fact, hear when I listen to real speakers deliver a modern riddle, stressing not every accented syllable bur rather the accented syllable of certain key emphasis words. Here’s an obvious example:


What’s black and white        and read all over?

Or a less obvious (less “metrical”) example:

How is a raven        like a writing desk?


I never was,        am always to be.

No one ever saw me,        nor ever will.

And yet I am        the confidence of all

who live and breathe        on this terrestrial ball.


When these famous riddles are presented like this, Anglo-Saxon meter seems far less alien. In fact, it almost becomes primal, surviving centuries of linguistic evolution. So as I translate, I seek as my first priority to try to match as closely as possible the rhythm found in the original not using a traditional count-the-syllables method, but rather by matching the number of important words a reader is likely to emphasize.

I also find the Anglo-Saxon affinity for alliteration to be relatively easy to preserve, but when faced with a choice between keeping the original alliterative patterns and an opportunity to be literal, I go with the latter.

It may seem surprising that translations as free-wheeling as mine seek to be literal as much as possible, but a lot of the unique character of Anglo-Saxon riddles are, to me, those unique turns of phrase such as “Saga hwæt ic hatte” (“Say what I am”) that are perfectly comprehensible to a contemporary reader, but no longer in everyday use. The whole fun of a riddle involves looking at something from a slightly different and surprising perspective and trying to figure out what is being referenced, and sticking to how the Anglo-Saxons expressed themselves automatically gives that alternate point of view.

The end result to me is like an old building that has been extensively modernized. Its original architecture is still recognizable, but it’s been adapted to be useful for real people today rather than standing as a museum piece or, worse, a ruin.

We can debate semantics about whether it’s better to consider these as translations or adaptations, but ultimately I don’t think that matters much. Either way, I hope they will prove useful to instructors and students by making riddles accessible and fun, providing a user-friendly introduction to Anglo-Saxon poetry – much the way these riddles functioned in their day.


Jim was also kind enough to provide The Riddle Ages with two full translations in this style. Spoiler alert, though: these are riddles that we haven’t yet reached in our wider translation project.

Riddle 27

I am worshipped,         widely found

first as flower         found in tropics.

From rainforest or field,         berry, then bean,

picked and roasted,         perfectly ground.

Brewed with water         in home and office,

I’m hot or iced.         Now I’m needed,

savior and curse.         Soon I betray,

creating addicts         of young and old.

Soon you find         we’re bound together.

Forcefully resisted,         some avoid me,

but without my power         they collapse in bed.

I help you cope,         bring you jitters.

I give you strength,         I steal your sleep.

You speak too soon,         speechless without me,

Granted power by me.         Guess what I’m called!

Throughout the Earth         I run businesses

that would stop without         my wetting them daily.

Highlight the boxes below with your cursor to reveal the possible solutions:

Solution: Coffee

Original Solution: Mead

Riddle 34

I saw a creature         in town and country

clearing the yard.         It has many teeth

in a goofy grin,         yawning downwards.

It roots reliably,         rowing in dirt.

It hunts in autumn,         searching for leaves,

which it always finds,         chomping securely.

It beautifies the lawn,         straightens the grass,

then stands aside,         resting in the corner.

The neighborhood gleams,         alive and verdant.

Solution: Rake

Original Solution: Rake (but rakes had very different uses back then)

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