How to Translate into Runes Correctly

runestoneYou cannot translate anything into runes, full stop. Runes are not a language, they are signs devised to represent the sounds of a language, the same way as letters. You also cannot represent anything in runes correctly. No kind of correctness standard may be applied to the Viking Age runic inscriptions, at least in the current state of research.

Lewis Carroll while travelling in Russia liked the word защищающихся (meaning ‘those who protect themselves’ as he noted in his diary) and wrote it down in English: zаshtshееshtshауоushtshееkhsуа. The Russian word has 12 letters, the English one as many as 30. Did Carroll write it correctly? There are two ways to check it: a) finding a universally accepted chart of correspondences between Russian and English letters; b) showing the word to some Russian guy and asking him if he can understand it.

Neither of two is feasible for Old Norse. The Viking Age did not produce any accepted chart of such correspondences (even between the sounds of the Old Norse language and runes, which would be spelling, let alone the modern English sounds or letters and Viking runes, which would be transliteration). Everyone carved runes as he or she deemed truly good and right. The only criterion of correctness was the fact that people could actually understand what the inscription said. This method no longer works, since all native Proto Norse and Old Norse speakers are long dead.

Now imagine some Russian guy who shows up and says: “Hi, my ancestors were Germans who emigrated to the US and then to Russia. To honor them I want to tattoo the word защищающихся on my back / to engrave onto my bike / to carve it on my bat. Which letters should I take, those used in the US, clean and simple, or those used in Germany, with umlauts, bells and whistles? Keep in mind that I have to write it correctly (because I want to tattoo it on my back / to engrave onto my bike / to carve it on my bat). And don’t forget to quote your sources (I already got a couple of answers in other places, they all differ, so I want to check)”.

What would you say? The obvious answer is: study either US English or German and write something in English or German with alphabets devised for those languages. Leave that zаshtshееshtshауоushtshееkhsуа thing alone. It’s ugly.

But studying languages is painful. That’s why the guy from Russia says: “Translate the word защищающихся into English for me. Keep in mind that I have to write it correctly. And don’t forget to quote your sources.” Now you try to explain that the form защищающихся is the genitive case, and no such thing as cases exists in English. So there are some options more or less corresponding to the original like “of those who defend themselves” and “about those who defend themselves” but there is no single correct version (why on earth would he need the genitive?). The guy begins to think that you fool him.

That’s what I feel when I get on my Facebook page or here in the comments questions like this: “I am of Norwegian / Swedish / Danish descent. I want to translate the word victory / glory / ivory into runes. Which set of runes should I use? Keep in mind that I have to write it correctly, because…” you know.

Even though finding Old Norse words for victory / glory / ivory is not that difficult, my general advice is to keep them in standard Old Norse orthography in Roman letters. The point is that contrary to the common misunderstanding, Younger Futhark runes were not meant for the standard Old Norse, as we know it in Eddas and sagas. Viking Age runic inscriptions reveal an older form of the language, in many respects significantly differing from the later texts. A large amount of runic material is understood only tentatively. The truth is we cannot establish a complete grammar and vocabulary for the language of the Viking Age Younger Futhark runic inscriptions allowing to translate coherent texts from other languages into it. As for the Elder Futhark, it isn’t suited for Old Norse inscriptions altogether, as I wrote in my short Guide to Writing in Runes.

What might be the practical advice for those who still wish authentic runic texts as tattoos / carvings / engravings? The best option is to search through the existing Viking Age runic material, which is already interpreted with a satisfying degree of certainty, and use it as is.

In the posts to follow I’ll try to collect such fragments of runic texts, which may be of interest for use by us modern people.

See also:

How to Write a Name in Runes for a Tattoo
How to Write an Authentic Runic Inscription
Should I Write in Runes Phonetically?

Photo: runestone Sö 243. Courtesy Kenny_lex. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

47 comments… add one
  • Steve

    Hi! I love the analysis of how one ought to properly translate–very insightful and it illustrates how *real* translation work is accomplished, especially with regard to complex texts or (as

    [One quibble regarding

    “no such thing as cases exists in English”

    Well, not entirely true, right? There are pronouns which exhibit case (and gender!). But of course nouns and their accompanying articles and adjectives don’t care about their rôles in the sentence, and so don’t require declension in response to shifts of case.]

  • Santiago Cruz

    The answer to your question on how to co vert an archaic language is to know the sound. So how do foreigners describe Old Norse, for example the Arabic then ask an Aramaic (ancient Arabic) speaker what that might sound like. Ask 10 in fact. That’s the phonetics. Next loom to Old Norse names. Break down their intended meaning and direct meaning. To use your German example William is actually Willhelm. This we know is used to mean ‘Protector’ by its use in language Will means Desire Helm is a helmet. This gives cultural significance to a strong head and strong mind being Strong (strong enough to protect) it has also given is three words and context. A protector is someone strong enough to protect with the desire to protect. It gives practical use if how desire is used in language. Names and phrases, Old ones especially in their original form, I how we coded language and knowledge in the past. They are found in modern names and Old songs. It’s not easy person it is within reach though and I suspect worthwhile.

  • Liz

    I’m trying to convert “Iron Maiden” into runes. I tried first translating it in Old Norse. I translated it verbatim (but not sure if that’s grammatically correct): járn mær. Then tried my hand at translating it to Long Branch myself. I came up with: iron (járn): ᛁᛅᚱᚾ maiden (mær): ᛘᛅᚱ (or is it ᛘᛅᛦ ?). But keeping with the guide rules, could it be ᛁᚱᚾ ᛘᛅ ? Or should the duplicate rune only be taken out after the first appearance? Appreciate any help!

  • Bruce

    Since names have meaning, I would think the best way to transliterate your name into an authentic Runic inscription would be to find out what your name means/meant in its original language and then find the Runic inscription that means the same thing. For example, if you wanted to get a Runic inscription for your dog’s dog collar and his name is Rex, you would find the symbol for King and use that.

  • Natalie

    Hello! Can you share anything about bind runes? I am wondering if I can combine runes as I like to create one symbol, but want to be sure I follow any “rules” around doing so. For instance, if 2 of the runes being combined have a straight line in the middle, should they overlap that line or be next to one another in a certain order? Anything you can share, or anywhere you can direct me is much appreciated!

  • Michael

    Hey there. So, I’m wanting a runic tattoo. And of course I want it to mean something. Basically, I want it to have parts that remind me of…life. And what i do in life. Justice. Fight. Warrior. Protect. sacrifice. Love. Humble. I’m a soldier and I want to get something that represents who I am at heart. And at heart, I am a soldier and i fight for all things right. I’ve thought about getting this tattoo as a band or something on my forearm. With your knowledge of this material, I want your input on what the tattoo should be, specifically. I also kinda dont want it to be just plain runes. I mean, yes the runes have to be there and have to be the main subject that everyone sees. But what about, like a back drop to the tattoo? Or designs to go with the arm band tattoo idea. Something that matches, ya know? Sorry this is long and I hope you can be of some help

  • dan


    Was there an authentic younger futhark runic inscription for gjallarhorn? I want to engrave it on my drinking horn and realise that converting it from the english to younger futhark would not be something recognisable to a native speaker (if there were any around). However, seeing as it would have been a word that was known at the time is there an authentic inscription?

  • Enoch

    Hi! I’ve been wanting to get a tattoo on my back to honor my Norse/Danish ancestry, but as you’ve mentioned here, it’d be pretty awkward if I got it wrong! I want all 5 runes across m shoulder blades and here is what I’ve got from my research so far:
    So far I have ‘Mannaz’ for family (the rune that looks like an “M”)
    ‘Tiwaz’ for honor (looks lit a “T”)
    ‘Kenaz’ for wisdom (looks like a open bird beak)
    ‘Wunjo’ for joy (looks like a pointy “P”)
    And I want one for Courage but can’t find any that really fit?

    Also, from the research I’ve done I’m pretty sure these are all from the same alphabet (Short Twig?) but I wanted to be sure.
    Can you point me in the right direction for a rune that captures the concept of courage? I greatly appreciate the help!

    • Viking Rune

      Enoch, these runes are from the Elder Futhark runic alphabet.

  • David

    Do Norwegen names spelled in runes have meanings? A Nova article had an interactive where by you typed in your name and it translated it into rune characters. I have no idea what version of runes was used. My last name is Tyndall.

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