In this answer edit, someone changed my translation of a word "арбалет" as used in Strugatsky's Russian text of Hard to be a God from the one I used ("arbalest") to "crossbow".

In the context of translating the book (Hard to Be a God, by Strugatsky brothers), which of the two English terms is more appropriate?

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    Despite having had an interest in medieval weaponry for a while, I never heard the English word "arbalest" ...
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 0:57
  • @Randal'Thor - probably because it's mostly French/Latin :)
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 1:03
  • @Randal'Thor Same here. I thought it was just DVK having fun :) Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 7:58
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    @Gallifreyan - We at the FBI have no sense of humour we are aware of
    – DVK
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 12:19
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    @Hamlet I think you have misunderstood the question. DVK isn't asking for a translation; he's asking for the exact type of the crossbow that was used in the scene. It's not clear from the original text, since the other word appears to be very rarely used in Russian; and yet, some English translators classify the crossbows as either arbalests or others - DVK wants to know why. Right? Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 19:37

3 Answers 3


We don't know whether it was an arbalest or a crossbow.

To quote (for the lack of a better source) Wikipedia:

A large weapon, the arbalest had a steel prod ("bow").
Emphasis mine

Taking that as the trait that distinguishes an arbalest from a crossbow, we... gain nothing. There is no mention of arbalests in the original Russian version, and descriptions given to crossbows don't indicate the material of the prod.

Ложа Анкиного арбалета была выточена из черной пластмассы, а тетива была из хромистой стали и натягивалась одним движением бесшумно скользящего рычага. Антон новшеств не признавал: у него было доброе боевое устройство в стиле маршала Тоца, короля Пица Первого, окованное черной медью, с колесиком, на которое наматывался шнур из воловьих жил.

Funnily enough, in the translation by Olena Bormashenko1 Anton's crossbow is described as an arbalest, presumably due to copper covering:

The black stock of Anka’s crossbow was made of plastic, while the strings were chrome steel, operated by a single motion of a noiselessly sliding lever. Anton didn’t trust newfangled technology; he had an old-fashioned arbalest in the style of Marshal Totz (King Pitz the First), overlaid with black copper, with a cable of ox sinew wound around a little wheel.
Emphasis added.

However, only Anton's crossbow is ever described as an arbalest in this translation. Being described as "old-fashioned", I don't think it was really an arbalest, given that in our world arbalests were developed in 12th century, and Marshal Totz, presumably, lived before that.

One could argue that since the world of Hard to Be a God appears to have plate armour, the need for arbalests is obvious. Brother Aba's crossbow, for instance, is described differently:

Брат Аба с неожиданной для его комплекции резвостью извлек из-под стола огромный боевой арбалет и положил перед собой прямо на бумаги.

Brother Aba, with surprising agility for his bulk, took a huge combat crossbow out from underneath the desk and placed it on the papers in front of him.
Chapter 7. Emphasis mine.

Maybe it is an arbalest due to being a combat crossbow, but we don't have any definitive evidence; and it's not clear why it's not described as an arbalest in the translation, while Anton's clearly is.

Therefore, given the ambiguity in authors' descriptions, both are equally valid; "crossbow", however, is more recognisable.

1: I sent her an e-mail asking about her choice of words; she responded that there was no underlying motivation to use "arbalest" instead of "crossbow".

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    Something that wasn't obvious to me at first was that the Russian word you're discussing is phonetically similar to "arbalest." I didn't figure that out until I opened Google Translate and asked it got a pronunciation. That may be a reason for DVK's/Boashenko's translation.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 15:12

Arbalest IS a type of crossbow with steel "bow". Wiki article for "арбалет" in English it is translated as "crossbow" - it seems that Russian language uses the name of specific type of crossbow as a general one.

Same goes with dictionaries:

Since there is no word for "arbalest" as a specific type of crossbow (heavy crossbow with steel bow) and арбалет is used for all types of weapons that are made as "horizontal bow attached to a stock", I'd stick to using the more general English "crossbow".

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    So we're just going to go with whatever way Wikipedia decides to translate things? What if the context of the Wikipedia article is different from the context of this book.
    – user111
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 1:13
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    @Hamlet No, its not only Wikipedia - dictionary also translates арбалет as "crossbow"
    – Yasskier
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 1:38
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    The question asks "In the context of translating the book (Hard to be a God, by Strugatsky brothers), which of the two English terms is more appropriate?" You don't talk about Hard to be a God at all in this answer; what if there is information in that passage that indicates one translation is better than another.
    – user111
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 1:43
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    In Russian there is no specific word for "arbalest" as a specific subtype of weapon; it means a specific and general type of crossbow.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Apr 27, 2017 at 1:46

As a native English speaker I find the word arbalest archaic, at best. Crossbow, or huge battle crossbow, conveys to me the original meaning of the phrase огромный боевой арбалет clearly and succinctly.

Admittedly, I have not read Трудно быть богом, in English or Russian. However, the only possible excuse I could think of to use arbalest would be to convey an image of some extremely old-fashioned (but still deadly, of course) weapon. Perhaps this is the case.

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