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.

46 comments… add one
  • shamis

    Honor the roots in runes is it ok to have two odalas next to each other

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Shamis. I think it is ok.

  • Zachary Price

    Hi, i am planning on getting a tattoo of my name. i have deep celtic roots and dont know what era or type of rune to write it in

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Zachary. Norse runes were altogether different as compared to Celtic ogham runes.

  • Ólavur

    Hi, can you help me translate my last name into Nordic runes from around year 1000?
    I get confused with all the different translations I’ve found

  • Alfredo

    I would like to tattoo the vegvisir with a quote in runes around it that says “Choose wisely”
    I found a translation, Kjós Snotrliga, or also Kjós Vitrlega. What would be the right one?

    I’ve used the rune converter of this page to the Short Twig, but i dont know if i have made any mistake, gramatically or corverting it. Can you help me? thanks

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Alfredo. Both kjós snotrliga and kjós vitrliga are okay. The converter is for modern English only, as the disclaimer states (since it does not support letters with diacritics). However, if you substitute a simple o for ó (without the diacritic sign) in kjós and choose any variant of the Younger Futhark (short twig or long branch), the result will correspond to how these words would have probably been written (or rather carved) in runes in the Viking Age.

  • mark

    you need to open your mind and join your info that you see, to compare it to other faith.. look at the 24th rune..In an old Hebrew text I saw a symbol..It led me to China and the Yi globe which led me to your site..number 24 shows the Christ upstanding and the inverted death rune shows him on the cross.. here is your new path for enlightenment knowledge..all faiths were given the knowledge of the Christ but thru time those priests who had the knowledge perverted it to retain their power goes the Druids because they had higher knowledge the church did not understand or CONTROL..

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Mark. Sounds interesting but a bit vague.

  • jake hemmah

    I want to get my son’s name tattooed in Nordic runes but keep finding different alphabets. I was hoping you guys could point me in the right direction.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Jake. It’s up to you to choose the runic alphabet you’d like to use in your tattoo. They are from different time periods and were used by different ethnic groups, so try to find out more about them, this will probably help to make the choice.

  • Skye Manuel

    How do I interpret Runes that are reversed? Ex Thuisaz (reversed, Gebo, & Germans (reversed)?

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Skye. I am not very good at divination.

  • Luciano

    hi! I want to get an Aegishjalmur tattoo, and I’m thinking of adding a phrase from the Havamal Saga when Odin tells of the 18 charms he has learned. Namely, the third..

    “I can blunt the edges of my enemies, that weapons and staves do not bite for them.”
    “eggjar ek deyfi minna andskota bítat þeim vápn né velir”

    I have used the rune converter to translate the phrase from its nordic romanization back into runes.. I’m looking for an expert on runes to corroborate that the conversion was accurate and that I’m not about to ink errors into my skin! :)

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Luciano. The converter works with modern English only, which is stated right above the input box. I don’t think automatic conversion from Latin alphabet into runes is at all feasible for Old Norse. Such conversion requires a scholar.

  • Hannibal

    I’m a bit confused. If I, for example, want wolf/ulf tattooed in runes, should I arrange the appropriate runes for wolf or ulf? Likewise, I want something akin to worldsmith. Would I just spell that English out, or spell out the close Danish translation verdensmed? intend to use Younger Futhark.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Hannibal. Both modern English and Danish words may be a basis for a runic inscription. The choice is up to you.

    • Marie

      Please, please write that “verdenssmed” if you choose the Danish translation. It’s a different word without the second s.

  • allan

    Finally, someone who explains “runic translation” in a concise manner.

    I will be linking this page.

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