Translations of the Havamal

For those that love to study the Havamal there are subtle differences in each translation. Take a look at some of the various translations of Verse 82 below. Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation?

2. Hollander

Fell wood in the wind, in fair weather row out to sea,
dally with girls in the dark – tha days eyes are many -
choose a shield for shelter, a ship for speed,
a sword for keenness, a girl for kissing.

This Translation sounds like it is advice on buying goods. It’s a practical guide for the trader. The word “choose” makes me think of a viking looking out at 3 or 4 shields, and the advice is to choose the one that would seem to provide the best protection. Not the prettiest or flashiest. Pick a ship that’s fast, even if it’s not the most beautiful, etc.

3. Larrington

In a wind one should cut wood, in fine weather row on the sea,
in darkness chat with a girl: many are the eyes of the day;
use a ship to glide along, a shield for defence,
a sword for blows, and a girl for kisses.

This translation uses the word “use” instead of “choose” so it makes it sound like it is advice on how to get the most of out your tools. Don’t try to turn your sword into a pry-bar, use your sword to chop stuff! Don’t use your shield as a table or a bench, or to carry berries, keep it handy for use as shelter!

4. Harugari

Fell wood when it is windy,
Set out to sea when it is fair;
Love girls in the dark-
The day is full of watching eyes;
Pick a shield for protection,
A ship for its speed,
A sword for its excellence,
and a girl for kisses.

The word “pick” here seems like hollander’s “choose” so it seems to say the same thing as hollander’s.

5. Anderson

In the wind one should hew wood,
in a breeze row out to sea,
in the dark talk with a lass:
many are the eyes of day.
In a ship voyages are to be made,
but a shield is for protection,
a sword for striking,
but a damsel for a kiss.

This translation leaves out “pick” “choose” or “use” but reads like “use” could be there.

6. Auden & Taylor

Hew wood in wind-time,
in fine weather sail,
Tell in the night-time tales to house-girls,
For too many eyes are open by day:
From a ship expect speed, from a shield, cover,
Keenness from a sword,
but a kiss from a girl.

This almost sounds like the “use” could be in there, but the subtle difference is that it’s says “from xxx expect” So this isn’t exactly the same as saying “use” a shield for protection, but it’s along the same lines. To me, wording the translation this way is like saying “expect a shield to provide cover” instead of saying “use a shield for protection.” Maybe there’s no practical difference though.

7. Bray

Hew wood in wind, sail the seas in a breeze,
woo a maid in the dark, — for day’s eyes are many, –
work a ship for its gliding, a shield for its shelter,
a sword for its striking, a maid for her kiss;

The most excitingly different translation. Instead of “choose” “use” or “pick” Bray has translated this as “Work!” So, is this advice to build a ship designed for speed? Make a shield that is strong? Design a sword to withstand heavy strikes?

8. Chisolm

Hew wood in the wind,
row out to sea in good weather,
play with a maid in the dark,
for many are the eyes of the day.
Look for speed in a ship,
and for cover from a shield.
Get a sword for hewing
and a maid for kissing.

Chisholm’s “look for” seems real similar to “use” or “expect”

So in one variation of the translation I’m told HOW to pick an item “pick a ship for it’s speed”

In another variation I’m told not to expect to haul cargo with a warship or use my sword as a shovel..

In another variation it seems to be saying that if I’m building a ship, build it for speed first; if I’m building a sword, make it able to cut. It seems to be telling me how to prioritize the properties of an object, and the primary property is the one I should concentrate on.

How can we have so many different translations from the same few words in Old Norse? In modern english all these words have very different and specific meanings “use, pick, expect, work, choose” How do we get such different translations? And if you don’t read Old Norse (like I don’t..) then how can we determine if one translation is closer to the intended meaning?

One way is to study as many translations as you can and try to glean the more subtle meanings from the context of the verses preceding and following the one in question. Some of us endeavor to learn at least a bit of Icelandic so that we can try to make some sense of the Old Norse. It’s also important to study the author of each translation a bit and keep in mind how their goals may have influenced their translation. Were they attempting a literal translation, or were they trying to maintain a poetic sense?

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