A dazzling reconsideration of the original languages and texts of the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, from the acclaimed scholar and translator of Classical literature (“The best translation of the Aeneid, certainly the best of our time” —Ursula Le Guin; “The first translation since Dryden that can be read as a great English poem in itself” —Garry Wills, The New York Review of Books) and author of Paul Among the People (“Astonishing . . . Superb” —Booklist, starred review).
In The Face of Water, Sarah Ruden brilliantly and elegantly explains and celebrates the Bible’s writings. Singling out the most famous passages, such as the Genesis creation story, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Beatitudes, Ruden reexamines and retranslates from the Hebrew and Greek what has been obscured and misunderstood over time.
Making clear that she is not a Biblical scholar, cleric, theologian, or philosopher, Ruden—a Quaker—speaks plainly in this illuminating and inspiring book. She writes that while the Bible has always mattered profoundly, it is a book that in modern translations often lacks vitality, and she sets out here to make it less a thing of paper and glue and ink and more a live and loving text.
Ruden writes of the early evolution, literary beauty, and transcendent ideals of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, exploring how the Jews came to establish the greatest, most enduring book on earth as their regional strategic weakness found a paradoxical moral and spiritual strength through their writings, and how the Christians inherited and adapted this remarkable literary tradition. She writes as well about the crucial purposes of translation, not only for availability of texts but also for accountability in public life and as a reflection of society’s current concerns.
She shows that it is the original texts that most clearly reveal our cherished values (both religious and secular), unlike the standard English translations of the Bible that mask even the yearning for freedom from slavery. The word “redemption” translated from Hebrew and Greek, meaning mercy for the exploited and oppressed, is more abstract than its original meaning—to buy a person back from captivity or slavery or some other distress.
The Face of Water is as much a book about poetry, music, drama, raw humor, and passion as it is about the idealism of the Bible. Ruden’s book gives us an unprecedented, nuanced understanding of what this extraordinary document was for its earliest readers and what it can still be for us today.
“Ruden finds hidden meaning in the intricate arrangement of the ancient vocabularies, poetics, and lifestyles, and therein lies the fun. The book is often a master class in translation and Bible studies . . . Entertaining, academic and easygoing.”
“Ruden’s work emphasizes the complexity inherent in translation; she lingers on some of the most challenging concepts and explicates the historical and linguistic context for her work, debunking both myths and poor prior interpretations. The book is not only a scholarly analysis, though, but a paean to the rhythm and poetry of the text. Ruden also diverges from standard academic tone, weaving her own personal stories together with her intellectual task; all this makes the reader feel as if they are spending time with a fun—and very smart—friend. This combination of casual ease and serious scholarship allows Ruden to bring fresh insights into even the most familiar stories and will make the book a true pleasure for anyone with an interest in translation or the Bible.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Character of the Languages and Texts
Legos, Not Rocks: Grammar
David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11–12:7)
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4)
Imagine that you’re at a moving and meaningful rock concert—say, Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo playing Sun City, South Africa, during apartheid. You happen to send the only surviving record of the event, and only through text messaging (and yes, I know this didn’t exist in the 1980s), and only to a monolingual English speaker in White Plains, New York, who is an obsessive collector of American Girl dolls. Having gamely transmitted the abbreviated first lines of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” (“God Bless Africa”), you get back to singing and swaying.
We don’t get a much better record of what Psalm 137, for example, was like in its early incarnations. Here is the King James Version:
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
What is this scene of lamenting and cherishing and threatening? It is so vivid and so specific that I’m convinced it was based on direct experience. It does appear that some of the Jewish elite of the Babylonian Exile lived near Mesopotamian canals. But why exactly would you hang harps on willow trees? And why the change to a vengeful mood in verse 7? And what to make of the horrifying verse 9? Was this originally two or even three poems?
Much of this puzzlement naturally comes from the present harrowing shortage of the data that were available to early performers and their audiences. In their oldest written form, the Hebrew words represented by the English “By the rivers of Babylon” would have consisted of ten consonant letters (written and read from right to left) and nothing else. Original written Greek—in a dialect of which, Koinē (“Common”), the whole of the New Testament was written—is so much more decipherable: it has vowels! Early Hebrew writing didn’t. But in both languages a short, handy phonetic alphabet, adapted from that of the Phoenicians, probably served for centuries as little more (at least in the realm of literature) than performance notes in a stubbornly oral culture.
A standard example of the gap between ancient performance and the texts and translations in their evolved forms is fifth-century b.c.e. Classical Athenian tragedy and comedy—for which we have no original stage directions. But at least we know something about that staging from other sources, such as vase painting. How much deeper is the mystery around early Hebrew literature. Was a Psalm “of Ascents,” for instance, one repeated while climbing up to the Temple or other place of worship, or perhaps one sung as the smoke of a sacrifice “ascended” to heaven? And though Psalms were, it’s clear, performed musically, what kind of music was it? And what did New Testament hymns in Greek sound like? Were they chanted or sung? In harmony, or perhaps in rounds? If I declared—according to my strong inclination as a translator—that the first written texts (as far as these can be reconstructed) are it, my logical and proper main interest here, how would I get closer to what that actually was—that is, how it was experienced?
Does a translator just fill things in? In the case of ordinary ancient literature, it’s an unashamed yes. When I translated Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, a Classical Greek comedy that imagines all the wives in Greece going on a sexual strike until a war ends, I counted on jokes occurring at fairly regular intervals, even though modern scholarly commentators couldn’t find all of them. Every turn in the action, every windup in dialogue, and everything unexplainable otherwise was probably a hoot to the original audience—and where there was nothing verbally funny, stage business must have filled in, so that even bland words were funny when paired with, say, slapstick, the imitation of some public figure’s voice, or just a strategic pause.
A Classics translator is readily forgiven if, to restore an arguably essential quality of the work (humor, in this case), she goes beyond analogy (the analogous modern joke is very common and very much accepted in secular translating, since humor dates—more like dies—so easily) and invents rather than leaves semantic blanks. When the protagonist Lysistrata proposes that the women withhold sex from their husbands, two wives respond with one line each. The lines are similar and contain an identical clause (usually translated as “but let the war go on”), yet I changed the second line into something much different:
Calonice: No, I don’t think so. Let the war go on.
Myrrhine: Me? Not a chance in hell, so screw the war.
This kind of reconstruction allows an ancient play to keep doing the basic thing it was created to do: hold a theatrical audience’s attention. Reconstruction can also allow an ancient poem to stay poetic, ancient law to maintain its tone of authority, and ancient rhetoric to show how it played on the passions and compunctions of crowds and juries.
A translator of the Bible can just try to get away with reconstruction. She had better, in fact, concentrate on the palpable intricacies of the languages and see what insights they yield. Those small marks in a modern, scholarly text (in Hebrew, a word can look like a cartoon character being beaten up) teach most usefully about grammar. Grammar is not just (obviously) for deciphering the text—that is, for setting more or less acceptable words of a modern language beside the original words; but also for observing how those original words act, how they express more than their bare lexical projections into the year Now: how they put on a show.
Ancient Hebrew and Greek are inflected, not phrasal languages, a fact that makes a momentous difference in their literatures. If in English I want to express (for instance) the concept that one thing belongs to another, I usually have to string out separate words in a fixed order—say, “a house belonging to a man,” “the house of this man,” or “a man’s house.” It’s relatively rare in English for individual words themselves to change much as their meanings change, in such a way that different meanings can branch out of a single word. An example is the principal parts of the verbs “lay” and “lie”: I lay the book down (present-tense meaning), I laid the book down (simple past), I have laid the book down (present perfect); I lie down (present), I lay down (simple past), I have lain down (present perfect). The reason it’s so hard to keep these forms straight is that we’re not used to expressing ourselves that way. But intricate phrasing is easy for native English speakers; one of my professors reported that his two-year-old daughter had spontaneously come out with, “What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?”—with that bizarre series of prepositions and an adverb (“up”), no problem for the likes of us, but liable to drive a foreign student of English around the bend.
In either Hebrew or Greek, the words in that sentence would be much fewer, with concepts like “I want” and “what for” and “to be read to” and “bring up” expressed by single words, each containing substantial meaning and often through their structure entailing close relationships with other words. In an English sentence, in contrast, words tend to develop their meanings and their relationships through their order. “What . . . for” in “What did you bring that book I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” can’t mean “why” unless the words are where they are (or maybe right beside each other at the start, but that would be awkward and not standard).
In Hebrew and Greek, word order is—on semantic if not stylistic grounds—much more flexible: the subject pronoun “you” is expressed through a finite verb’s form, so wherever you put that verb, the subject of the little girl’s sentence, “you,” won’t be mixed up with the direct object of the verb, “book.” Both “you” and “book” in English become gibberish if they’re moved at all. In Greek, that noun actually has a special form to show that it’s a direct object, so heck, put it anywhere you want.
Hebrew has a nifty device called a construct chain for binding words together without the benefit of an “of” word; the words do have to stand side by side (showing that the first item belongs to the second), but beyond that their forms are usually just altered a little. “The hand of Yahweh” (traditionally translated as “the hand of the Lord”) is two words in Hebrew. But, hey, “of a person having been set free” can be one word in Greek; Hebrew does that kind of thing, too, just not as often.
I call such handy, highly cohesive units Legos, and I compare them to the rocks of English, which won’t stay on top of each other unless you place them just right. In these ancient languages, you didn’t have a great variety of words to choose from (see my next chapter, on vocabularies), as in an old-fashioned Lego set there are only a few kinds of bricks. But you sure could combine words more freely, to create structures of great size, diversity, and nuance. Custom—especially in literary languages—might dictate acceptable word deployment or even strings of specific words, which are called syntax and formulae, respectively; but those were powerful tools more than straitjackets. You could make a small change, fit an eight-pronged red brick in where two four-pronged blue bricks were expected, and it would be striking. Furthermore, most of these are inflected words, or bricks you can individually alter—say, by turning a four-point green one into a two-point white one. Nothing is in the way of creating very expressive and impressive edifices.