Is poetry in translation worthless? Or not? I don't know. Never mind that for now. I've just read a novella in verse translated into English by someone known for his lapses and Germanisms, but a conscientious worker nonetheless. In reading it, I ran into a line that both fascinated me and confused me.

The novella is a horror story, a full-fledged thriller with distinctly dark imagery, lots of wind and rain, flooding of the streets, galloping equestrian statues, and so forth. There is a place where the statue of the city's former ruler is described. It stands on a huge rock resembling a cliff rather than a pedestal; the horse is rearing under the rider. The rider's arm is extended, pointing into the distance. Very dramatic and all. The lines go like this:

And high above those rails, as if

Of altitude and darkness blended,

There rode in bronze, one arm extended,

The Idol on its granite cliff


Let's ignore for a moment the fact blending something of altitude and darkness is a hell of a stretch, poetic license be damned. Please look at the "rode in bronze" part.

I think it's beautiful. Scary, too. Has a ringing quality to it. The metaphor, or whatever the hell it is, is gorgeous. But is it good English? (Or even good German or good Russian?) Can a language, any language, accept this kind of phraseological turn as its own, welcome it and embrace it?

Well, is it or isn't it?

Addendum (upon Chasly from UK's suggestion):

The poem is titled "The Bronze Horseman." It is by Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet of some renown. The translation is by Walter Arndt.

Here's the link for the translation:


And here's the statue described in the poem, one arm extended and all:

Peter the Great

closed as primarily opinion-based by FumbleFingers, tchrist, Mitch, Hellion, TimLymington Nov 4 '15 at 22:29

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 4
    I think it's perfectly fine. If you Google "stands in bronze", you get a handful of hits describing statues. And "rides in bronze" is only a small variation on that. – Peter Shor Oct 31 '15 at 10:49
  • 1
    It is ambiguous. (1) The entire figure could be made of cast bronze or (2) the person depicted could be considered to be wearing bronze armour (as did the ancient Greeks for example salimbeti.com/micenei/armour1.htm). The original text presumably intends the former and the translator has made a decent stab at it. It is difficult to imagine doing better in only two words. – chasly from UK Oct 31 '15 at 10:51
  • 1
    It always helps to give the context up front. Could you edit your question to give the name of the poem, the author and, if possible a link? Thanks. – chasly from UK Oct 31 '15 at 11:04
  • 3
    I would say that's an excellent job of poetry, whether translation or not. The fact that it's ambiguous as to the amount of bronzeness is really of no matter, unless some detail of the plot turns on that. – Hot Licks Oct 31 '15 at 11:19
  • 1
    Perhaps you could explain what part of the above excerpt bothers you -- why you think it might not be "good". – Hot Licks Oct 31 '15 at 11:40

On the final exam for my Intro Ling class (which was a take-home exam, mostly done by groups),
I always had this question, which I warned them about a couple weeks before the exam, so they could find poems to work on:

  1. Find a poem¹ you love in a language you know (not English) and translate it into English². Then write a short (max 3 pages) and well-crafted essay on the process of translation, the problems you ran into and how you dealt with them, and the possibilities of translating poetry. Submit the original, the translation, and the essay; you will be graded on the essay, not the translation.

¹ I’d choose a short one if I were you.
² If you wish, you may compare your translation to other, published translation(s).
   If you do so, submit also the other translation(s), with appropriate citation(s).

  • 1
    Sounds like a great course (wistful sigh)! – Dan Oct 31 '15 at 15:09
  • Does this post directly answer any of the following questions?: (1) Is poetry in translation worthless? (2) But is it good English? (3). Can a language, any language, accept this kind of phraseological turn as its own, welcome it and embrace it? I'm surprised the OP accepted this answer. – Mari-Lou A Nov 2 '15 at 9:30
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: None of those questions have definitive answers; every language has poetry, but it always follows different rules. As for translation, that's an art rather like poetry; traduttore, traditore is true, but so is the concept that a poetry translator must rewrite poems anew -- "re-poet" them, in effect. So poetry in translation is worth as much as poetry untranslated -- maybe a lot, maybe not much; depends either way -- and it can be as good English as any poem -- maybe a lot, maybe not much; depends. As for what people will accept, you know as much as I do. – John Lawler Nov 2 '15 at 16:10
  • 1
    And that is the type of answer, I was hoping to see. – Mari-Lou A Nov 2 '15 at 16:15
  • But you know that as well as I do. – John Lawler Nov 2 '15 at 16:19

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.