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Lesson 3) The Basics of Translation

I am glad you have returned once again to the Room of Runes. I am hoping that, since you have returned today, you have chosen to stay with this class this year, and perhaps even for the next few years.

Today, we will begin working with the runes in earnest. That means we will begin learning to understand what the runes mean, and you will get to practice translating runes for the first time.

Basics of Translation, Part One: Transcription
Not all runic texts and inscriptions that you will encounter will be magical in nature. Many are a primitive form of “Siegfried was here!” or “The harvest was poor this year.” This is because first and foremost, runes are a writing system, or a means of recording information. They are a code for transmitting information; a code that needs to be decoded or interpreted by the reader in order to reveal this information.

What we will be working with in this course are pieces written by the hands of witches and wizards from the first millennium CE. Keep in mind that in this time period, most people did not have the ability to read and write. The Nordic Magi were the primary scribes and knowledge-holders of their society. A few laymen outside the order could take writings back to the people, particularly when laws and taxes were concerned, and that’s where many of the Muggle texts and inscriptions come from. However, for our part, we will concern ourselves with the writings of wizardkind.

To understand runes, you need to know the code. This is very similar to learning to read. However, with runes, there is a further level you need to be aware of. Runes can be interpreted in two ways: as a direct transcription of sounds from the spoken language of their origin, or in the context of their meaning and significance as ideograms. This means that in translating them into our language and script, we have two options:

  1. Transcription: We can transfer the runes into our writing system by using the letters that represent the same sounds in the Latin alphabet (using column three of your hand-out from last week) as we use it in the English language.
  2. Meaning: We can translate the runes as individual ideograms (which each represent a concept or idea) which can then be related to the other runes to reveal the meaning of the inscription or text.

In this course we will concentrate on the latter approach, as it is how many of the texts we will study were intended. HOWEVER, direct transcription should not be ignored when it comes to proper nouns such as names and places, which is what we will focus on for today.

Translation and transcription are important parts of your education with me, and if you find no pleasure in it, you may find your talents better spent elsewhere. Not all of runic lore is translation, but if you ever wish to really get to the heart of the subject, knowing how to properly translate runes is the first step towards succeeding.

Let’s take another look at the table I handed out last week. You may have noticed that one of the columns is entitled “Latin equivalent.” Today, we will focus on this particular column in relation to the runes and transcribing them.

You may remember that I told you last week that all runes have names that are related to the sound they represent. I also just told you that the runes are a code that is used to record the sounds of speech. This week, we will study and practice decoding the sound values of the runes of the Elder Futhark.

So, let us look again at the rune table, this time in a slightly reduced format for clarity’s sake: 

Rune (& variants)

Phonetic (Sound)

Latin equivalent

Name (reconstructed)








/θ/, /ð/

þ, th









k (c)





















/æː/ (?)

ï (æ/ei)





































Most of the sounds in the “Phonetic” column have an equivalent letter in the Latin alphabet, which you can find in the column next to it. As you can see, some of the runes stand for combined sounds. This means that we need two or more symbols to represent the sound in our Latin alphabet. The following runes represent combined sounds or letters:
Thurisaz = th
Ingwaz = ng
Eihwaz = ei

The process of transferring the runic symbols into their Latin equivalents is called transcription. Transcription is usually the first step in figuring out the meaning of an inscription. By transcribing the runes into the Latin alphabet, we can begin to decode the meaning by recognising which runes may be part of words such as proper nouns (names and places for example), and which runes may need to be interpreted as ideograms. We will discuss this in more detail in a couple of weeks.

Know Your Land
To translate effectively, you need to be familiar with the history of the language you are working with and the people(s) who spoke it. This is especially important with runes in order  to identify proper nouns instead of just ideograms. There is a vast canon of literature associated with the Vikings that will help you identify names and places, and I encourage you to read everything you can get your hands on. For now, I will be providing you with a list of the most common names and places that you will find in the texts we will be working with. Becoming familiar with these proper nouns and their runic equivalent will make your task much easier.

  List of Names 

Aldis (f)

Bjorg (f)

Bjorn (m)

Brynja (f)

Frodi (m)


Haraldr (m)

Hel (f)

Helga (f)

Hrodolfr (m)

Ingridr (f)

Ragnarr (m)

Siegfried (m)

Sigridr (f)

Thor (m)

Thyri (f)

Vladimarr (m)

Vikingr (m)

Wodan (Odin)

List of Places 



Danmarkar (Denmark)









Noregr (Norway)






It is not necessary to have these names and places memorized just yet. Instead, try identifying the runes found in each of these names and practice writing them out. Being able to identify their runic counterparts will come in handy later on.

History and Culture
Along with knowing the common names and places, it is also helpful to know the history and culture in which your inscription was created. Only with sufficient knowledge of the history and culture behind the language you are dealing with will you fully understand what you are translating. While these aspects are not greatly touched on in this course, I suggest you do further outside reading if you think you may pursue these subjects more in-depth later on. Having this background knowledge will help you recognize names of historical/epic/religious figures and more correctly determine the context of the translation. A master translator needs to be as well-versed in the target language’s history as their own, as the importance of culture and history and its effects on a language cannot be emphasized enough as it is part of this context. Culture includes the many aspects of the target language’s speakers’ lives- their religion, music, literature, and lifestyle.

Now, let us see how this works in practice. I have here a row of runes, which we will translate together. Please pay close attention, as you will have a worksheet practising translating/transcribing runes after this lesson.

The inscription looks like this:

If we transcribe the runes into the Latin alphabet, we come to the following series of letters: W O D A N

Now, if you check the list of names and places above, you will see that this is a name, and that it is the same as the name Odin. Odin was one of the Norse gods, so this inscription can be correctly translated as either Wodan or Odin.

Next, we have the following inscription:

Transcribed into the Latin alphabet, we have the following letters: N O R E G R

Checking the list again, we can see that this is a place name and that it refers to a country - Norway.

With that, we have come to the end of week three here in the Room of Runes. Your homework today will consist of several further inscriptions, which you will need to transcribe. If you have studied the table carefully, this will not be difficult. Just remember that not all words will be names or places, some might be simply words or ideas written in runic script.

Next week, we will begin studying the runes as ideograms. While I have mentioned that the textbook, Rune Dictionary is not required, it is at this point I recommend you at least skim Chapter Three: Freya's Aett, Your First Eight Runes. By next week you should be very familiar with the sounds the runes represent, so that adding in a new layer of meaning will not prove too difficult.

Context: The surroundings of a text; its position, origin, cultural connections.
Nordic Magi: Ancient councils of wizards; the governors of early Nordic wizarding society. Often considered as gods or at least priests by Muggles.
Phonetics: The technical term for the sounds of speech; the way we pronounce consonants and vowels.
Transcription: Converting text from one writing system (or indeed from speech) into another writing system using phonetic meaning only. May also be referred to as “transliterating”.
Translation: Converting text from one writing system into a rough approximation of another, including phonetic meanings, figurative meanings, ideographic meanings and the like.  When  decoding involves both translation and transcription, the default is to refer to it simply as translation.

Original lesson written by Professor Genesis Starfight
Image credits: Rune images by Professor Venita Wessex

Have you ever come across strange markings in old, worn books and wondered what they said? Do you have a love for languages and writing? Would you like to learn some of the world’s oldest magic? The study of Ancient Runes is a course concerning itself with ancient magical scripts from around the world, their history, their linguistics, and the spells they were used to compose. This year, prepare to enter the world of the Nords, the councils of the magi, and the halls of Valhalla.
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