In her new book, The Face of Water (Pantheon Books, Mar.), translator Ruden examines some of the Bible’s most famous passages, providing thoughtful analyses of the original Hebrew and Greek that attempt to restore the Bible’s authentic voice. The book reveals surprising insights, such as the fact that the Greek near the end of the Lord’s Prayer very likely means “deliver us from the devil” and not “from evil” in the abstract sense. Her literary translations attempt to capture the drama of the original texts and the incredible compactness of ancient languages—translations with more “zing,” as she puts it, than modern English translations.
What made you interested in exploring the Bible?
Following 10 years in Africa, where I started doing translations of the classics, I spent an academic year at a Quaker study center. There was a class on Paul and someone asked a question that I knew right away because I knew the Greek. It made me realize there was a space for me in these books that are the foundation of our religious thinking and still feed into our political system and culture.
How is The Face of Water different from other Biblical translations?
I’ve never been interested in studying philology or pursuing a scientific study of ancient texts, which is how most classicists are typically trained. That has sort of, oddly, helped me when I come to writing about sacred literature and translating sacred literature. To be clear, my work could not exist without the work of philologists, archaeologists, and the people who provide all kinds of material and linguistic background. But the nature of their work is that they’re interested in each other’s work. They talk primarily to each other. I want to talk to ordinary readers, people who may have never been interested in the Bible. As a failed classicist and biblical scholar who doesn’t have any formal degree, I have a unique qualification. I want to show how the biblical books are fascinating and delightful without making the reader go through the labor of taking a class or learning the grammar, which are things that most people simply can’t fit into their lives. I want to find direct ways to convey how wonderful a particular verse or passage is.
What are some of your personal favorite Bible verses in The Face of Water, and how are your translations different from previous ones?
2 Samuel 12:23, which describes David’s dead baby son. That was really a sock in the gut to me when I heard it in Hebrew. It was a passage that I couldn’t get out of my mind. My translation in the book is more of a riff, a poem of my own. What I was trying to do was acknowledge the great starkness and sadness of the Hebrew. I also like Ezekiel 37 a lot. It’s such a joyful passage. I was impressed by the slippage of vocabulary—words slide into new meanings throughout the course of the passage, but it’s also anchored by steady words and meanings when it comes to God and communication with God. My own translation tries to bring this out.
Do you think your Quaker identity and beliefs influence your translations of the Bible and if so, how?
I really think they have. Quakers have a special way of treating the books of the Bible. We treat them as witnesses to the truth but not necessarily superior witnesses. As a Quaker, I am welcome to do stuff with the Bible that perhaps a stricter set might not approve of or endorse. For example, the Quakers aren’t at all offended when I point out that Paul is crude, maybe borderline obscene. We also believe in plain-speaking and respectful and fearless listening; so we feel we have to call a text as we see it.
As a reader of ancient literature, you write that most of what you see in the newer translations is lost. What do you think modern readers miss out on most?
I think the main things are the sound, musicality, and wit of the Bible. There’s a certain flattening out of tone, where funny parts and particularly heart-wrenching parts kind of sound the same as their surroundings. I think in general it’s lost its authentic voice, which can have huge consequences for our ideas about the Bible and religion.
What do you most want readers to take away from your book?
I hope that they get some joy out of it and a sense of the treasures of our tradition. We’re in a time right now of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about the future. I really want to hold up the Bible as an example of a way people get through things. For my personal religious convictions, this is a symbol of how much God cares for us. But you don’t have to be a believer to be impressed with the Bible as a treasure. It’s a good thing to get to know, no matter what your background, beliefs, or lack of beliefs.