Emily Apter’s famous study The Translation Zone (2006) reveals an intellectual regime of translatability sectioned off into “regulated language parks, restricted areas of mixed use, demarcations of apartheid, cordons sanitaires,” places where languages can & cannot be mixed or exchanged, where the pressing impossibility of translation may be ignored.1 Early English texts are often sequestered in one of these “translation zones”: all around their guarded frontiers the problems of translatability, its inherent imprecision, are freely acknowledged. Within this zone, however, these problems all vanish: not only are these texts rendered unproblematically according to dominant schemes of interpretation, but also examples of translation & exchange between medieval texts are seen as uncomplicated, uninflected by historical circumstances or altered linguistic contexts—heck, even irony. They become flies trapped in an amber of a nostalgic ideology. What’s more unsettling, the language of the text itself, words inscribed by a native speaker of Old English, fully aware of the contexts & implications of that text & those word choices, can be over-ruled, written off—corrected by a scholarly red pen laboring at a thousand years’ remove from the source.
The riddles translated here—just two of many—labor under the weight of modern critical assumptions, which constrain what these poetic relics can mean, & often hide the evidence that suggests other interpretations. The Exeter Book Riddles are inherently playful, deceptive at their core, mobilizing varying registers & figurative tactics to unlock an array of subjective lyrical experiences. They do not have to have one single answer & can look startlingly different to different readers. My recent efforts in re-translating these chittering voices locate new possibilities of meaning through deforming & queering processes, exploiting the cracks or ‘glitches’ in their code, to open up their expression.2 Often, this scheme discovers ways these riddles speak at some level about desires, acts, & experiences otherwise awkward to state aloud & therefore easily spoken over.
Riddle 23, appearing on folio 106v, usually solved as “Bow,” hinges on a cryptic initial word: “Agof” and its extravagantly contrived explanations. In these, its letter F is determined to be an older form of B & so was preserved in this text handed down untouched for generations. Backwards then it spells “Boga,” giving the solution before the riddle even begins, and then it makes sense, right? All that talk of dudes bending over & shooting each other full of something is rendered safe & manly. But a lone dissenting voice posited in 1910 that the “foga” is instead related to “fūhllīc” meaning “peruersus,” perverted, shameful.3 All to no effect—Early English Studies often just ignores what doesn’t interest it at the time. The possibility has remained unexplored—but just look at the word: “Foga.” It should look vaguely familiar to a modern English reader and suggests a different history of a pejorative term.
Two operative contexts inform my approach to retranslating Riddle 23. The first is its kinship with the other ‘Weapon’ riddles (usually 5, 20, 23, 53, & 73). Most riddles, as Aristotle observed, function as metaphors, and require a jump between vehicle & tenor large enough to be misleading.4 Many of these ‘Weapon’ riddles function more as a metonymy that keep the pieces close together: the weapon seems to represent itself as warrior, a figurative connection through association. Here, the bow referent is present, particularly as we can find examples of arrows likened to poison in other places.5 So what if we were to take the bow & arrow as a metaphor instead? Where would that lead? And that brings me to the second context. The speech of the marginalized operates on a level of sly likeness & plausible deniability, as the lyrics of hip hop songs and the sociolects of queer communities make plain. Expression must hide in plain sight & be unintelligible to those outside the community, able to be heard in an entirely different way.
One of these tactical blurs of meaning might be found in line 13’s “man-drinc.” This compound is usually interpreted as “wicked drink,” which fits the idea of death & venom & arrows. But another pun is possible here, one exploited elsewhere in homiletic writing. The “mān” is an adjective meaning “evil, wicked,” yet “mann” means “human” & eventually becomes “man” in the restrictive male sense. I want to sit on that potential wordplay as another “glitch” in the riddle’s code. Like all glitches, these gaps or cracks expose the operation of the entire program & can be exploited or opened to explore the poem’s function.
Riddle 30, which appears in two slightly different versions in the Exeter Book (on folio 108r & 122v), has always been difficult for critics to pin down. Several solutions to the riddle float about, though “Wood” seems to predominate. A major problem is that the speaker seems to change shapes as it tells its story (it’s a tree, a coal, a cup, and then maybe a cross?). The riddle speaks of an inner ignition, an excitement & a fascination, radiating out of the unusual compound adjective “lēg-bȳsig.” This entrancing word combines a word for “flame” (līg) with the idea of activity, busy-ness, maybe even fascination (bȳsig). “Wood” does connect the various states expressed in the poem, but it doesn’t begin to convey their volatility, their capacity for ecstatic connection with those around it. I draw forth that rhapsody by indulging in the very material pleasure of phonemic repetition, rhyme & alliteration becoming bodily sensations shared around a group singing or speaking or listening. These sensations are promiscuous, polyamorous—and all the members of the group take their turn & pass their own kiss to the next. The capacity for these shared pleasures across time causes me to wonder if the ‘solution’ is not meant to be Poetry itself, a celebration of verse as community.
Note: For ease of reference, I have followed the numbering system used by Krapp & Dobbie in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records’ edition of the Exeter Book (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936). It is clear that several poems are divided improperly, but no real consensus exists on how to designate the individual riddles.
1 Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 5.
2 For a powerful presentation of the radical & liberatory potential of the ‘glitch,’ see Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto. Verso (New York, 2020).
3 Otto B. Schlutter, “Agof ‘peruersus’ im 24ten Rätsel, die Balliste beizeichnend,” Englische Studien 41 : 453–4.
4 Aristotle, Rhetoric 1405b4–6.
5 For example, in Beowulf 1744–5 or Guthlac B 468.