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Lesson 7) A Closer Look at Translation


Welcome and Topics for Today
Welcome to Ancient Runes, Year Two, Lesson Seven. Today we will be talking about translating runic inscriptions in more detail. We will discuss the two ways runes can be translated and practice with two examples. You will remember that we discussed the phonetic translation of runes in Week Three, when we also worked on transcribing runes into our own Latin alphabet. Today, we will supplement this with the ideographic meanings of the runes, which we have studied over the last three weeks.

A Closer Look at Translation: Runes as Ideograms
If you remember, ideogram means that the rune is a symbol for an idea or a concept, rather than standing for just a single letter or sound. We have studied these ideas and meanings in some detail over the past three weeks, and now it is time that we put this knowledge into practice.

General notes on translating runes as ideograms
Translating ideograms involves several difficulties: it is subjective to a degree and depends on the experience of the translator. It also requires awareness of the context surrounding each rune and its origins. Remember to try and keep it simple as we go forward - look for the easiest translation first, which is often a simple phonetic transcription.

In the handout I passed around in Week Two, I provided the Muggle interpretation for every rune along with its phonetic value.  Those are typically the baseline translations for each rune, when they are not obviously used for their sound value. For example, Thurisaz would mean “giants” while Mannaz would mean “man” or “humankind.” 

When we are working with magical texts, we also need to keep Schreiber’s corrections in mind as the runes can be understood that way as well. For example, Ansuz could mean the gods or the Nordic magi, depending on the context (generally, if the text speaks of attending a meeting of the gods or one of the gods coming to pay a visit to the village, they are probably speaking about the magi).

Remember, I have compiled the following hand-out for you, so you can easily access all the different levels of translation, including Schreiber’s corrections:  Elder Futhark Handout

Interpreting Runes – Example One
When you transcribe runic texts into the Latin alphabet, as we practiced in Lesson Three, you will quite often come upon runes that at first glance appear not to make sense, yet which are surrounded by other runes that immediately resolve themselves into words or names, something that you can recognise. You might think that this must be a mistake on the part of the scribe – but no! These runes are not a mistake. In fact, they are usually the key to understanding the whole text. Single runes that are surrounded by intelligible words are usually runes that need to be interpreted according to their ideographic meaning, and not their phonetic value.

If I transcribe these runes into the Latin alphabet, they read as follows:

H E L G A  R  N O R E G R

I immediately realise that the first word is a name, Helga, and from the list of places I shared with you in Lesson Three, I also recognise the last runes as the name of a country, Noregr, which means Norway.

But what about that rune in the middle? A single letter “R” does not make much sense, so I have to look for other options. The rune that is transcribed as “R” in the Latin alphabet is the rune Raido. The basic mundane meaning for Raido is “ride, journey.” Since the rune is surrounded in my inscription by a name and a place, the most obvious interpretation is that the scribe used the rune Raido to say that Helga rode or travelled to Norway.

Interpreting Runes – Example Two
But what if you only have a couple of runes and transcribing them produces no word that you can recognise? Theoretically, this could simply be a new word that you are not familiar with, or in a language that is new to you. More often, however, this means that all the runes need to be interpreted according to their meanings and not their phonetic value.

Interpreting runes according to their meaning is not as straightforward as transcribing their sound values into the Latin alphabet. All the runes have multiple meanings and levels of interpretation, and you will need to consider not just the runes themselves, but also their relationship to each other and the context in which you found the inscription.

Let us consider a common combination of two runes:

Transcribed into the Latin alphabet, this comes out as “SD,” which is not particularly helpful as it is no recognisable word.

So let us look at the meanings of these runes. The first step is to look at their mundane meaning, as you find them on your handout from Week Two. The first rune is Sowilo, which has the basic meaning of “Sun.” The second rune is Dagaz, with a basic meaning of “Day.” Combining these two meanings results in “Sun Day,” which is almost “Sunday,” the day of the week. If we find this combination of runes in a text that we can identify as a calendar or a diary, then most likely the weekday is the correct interpretation, as it makes sense in this context. Writing the two runes constitutes a faster and shorter way of noting the day compared to writing it out according to the sounds of the word. Remember that runes were usually carved into wood or stone, or engraved into metal objects that had only limited space and were time-consuming to produce, so abbreviations were common and reduced the effort needed.

But what if we find this combination in a different context? Perhaps it has been engraved on a sword or dagger, or we find it carved into the wooden section of an ancient shield or spear. In this case, we need to look for the deeper meaning of the runes.

Sowilo is the rune of the Sun, but it can also stand for willpower, victory, daylight, and power. In the context of a weapon, “power” and “victory“ make the most sense, so we will keep those two meanings in mind, while we look at the second rune, Dagaz.

For Dagaz, Schreiber’s corrections tell us that it can mean breakthrough, clarity of direction, as well as balance. The first two of these meanings make more logical sense in the context of weapons, so that we end up with the meanings “victory, power” in combination with “breakthrough, clarity of direction” for our two runes on a weapon. When we ponder what this combination might mean, the context of the weapon might give us a clue. A spear is a weapon that needs to be directed, so these runes carved onto a spear might mean something along the lines of “victory through clarity of direction,” or, in plainer words: “a well-directed spear brings victory.” On another type of weapon, such as a sword, the meaning may be more general such as “powerful breakthrough”, which could even be the name of the sword as the Nordic warriors were known for naming their swords after deeds, actions, or character traits.

These are just some of the options of what the two runes Sowilo and Dagaz may mean in combination. We have looked at them on three different levels: First as code symbols for specific sounds, then as symbols for their basic mundane meaning, and finally we have looked at their deeper meaning according to Schreiber’s corrections.

However, while we have looked at them with regard to all three levels, we have so far only considered that they are both to be interpreted at the same level. One final option that I want to offer you today is interpreting the runes on different levels. This is in some way similar to what we did with the previous example, “Helga travels to Norway,” where most of the runes could be interpreted on the basic level of sound, while one rune, Raido, had to be used as a symbol for its basic mundane meaning.

For our final interpretation, we are going to look at the runes Sowilo and Dagaz and consider the option that they may need to be interpreted at different levels. Leaving aside the option that one of them stands for the phonetic value, this gives us two possible combinations.

The first combination is taking Sowilo for its mundane meaning of “Sun,” while considering Dagaz to carry a deeper meaning according to Schreiber’s corrections. In this case, Dagaz could carry the meaning of “breakthrough,” “clarity of direction,” or “balance.” Combined with the meaning of “Sun,” the most likely candidate might be “breakthrough”, in which case the combined runes would mean “Sun breakthrough,” or, more prosaically, “sunrise.”

Switching the interpretation levels around would give us the basic meaning “day” for Dagaz, and a choice of “willpower,” “victory,” “daylight,” “health,” “power,” and “fire” for Sowilo. There are more options here, so we must depend on context to get as close to the original meaning as possible.

Finding this on a rune stone somewhere, perhaps prominently at the top, with a list of names and a date below, the most likely interpretation for these runes could be “victory day,” in which case the stone with its names would be a monument to the warriors who fought for victory in a famous battle.

So, as you can see, interpreting the runes is not always a precise and definitive practice. More often than not, we have to make conjectures and use our knowledge of the culture and the context of our inscription to guide us in understanding its meaning. It is like a puzzle, one where we may never know if we found the correct solution, yet it is still a rewarding exercise of our minds, and when the pieces fall into place, all the hard work is quickly forgotten.

The Meanings of Runes in Spellwork
In next week’s lesson, we will discuss the theory of why and how runic magic works, but I will briefly summarize it now with the Principle of Sympathy and the Principle of Correspondence. The Principle of Sympathy states that “like attracts like.” Basically, symbols and objects that are similar to or can represent the target helps to bring that magic into fruition. An example would be the voodoo doll that looks like the target person. Using the doll would enable the caster to easily perform magic upon the target. The Principle of Correspondence states “as above, so below” - one can recreate or invoke certain forces when a symbol is recreated or when certain herbs/candles/runes that correspond with the magical doings you are performing are used.

For our purposes, the shapes of the runes invoke certain agreed-upon symbols, and both of these laws come into effect. An example is someone charging an Ansuz; by doing so, they may call upon the gods or the magi, and communication may be facilitated with either of these (as the distinction between these two in historical records is less than clear).

What does that mean in the context of ideograms? Ideograms are quite common when it comes to spells in the runic tradition. Naudiz may be used for need, Sowilo for the Sun - so the two could be written and charged together to invoke the Sun or to facilitate a sacrifice to the sun. As always, context is critical to understanding how each rune should be interpreted.

Closing Remarks
I hope everyone has enjoyed this lesson. For your assignment today, you will have to translate 10 inscriptions, using their meanings and making a judgement call on which is the right level of translation. This should be challenging, but doable if you have paid attention over the last few weeks. 

Rest assured that as long as your translation is well-reasoned and can be supported from the material in your lessons and your textbook, then it will be a correct solution.

Level of translation: the type of meaning chosen to translate a rune (sound, mundane, Schreiber).
Principle of Sympathy: “like attracts like”
Principle of Correspondence: “as above, so below”

Original lesson written by Professor Rebecca Black
(Based off of content by Professor Genesis Starfight)

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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