The Face of Water by Sarah Ruden
Water is capricious. Even when it seems still, it is ready to change, to appear and be different. Place a measuring device into a body of water and you have affected its flow. It is an appropriate metaphor for Sarah Ruden, a renowned translator of classical literature, and her new book The Face of Water, a fine analysis of the richness of biblical texts. She explores how translations of the original Hebrew have mutated over the centuries, comparing the King James Version against its origins as well as against her own translations. Who knew, for example, that Paul of Tarsus was a roguish, bitter wit—a tad of H. L. Mencken?
This is a well-written book with sound scholarship and persuasive arguments. Leaning towards the academic, it is not a book for the casual reader. It is filled with gems of insight that make it an excellent resource for the serious student of the evolution of the modern Bible, someone who wants to understand why the words we read today came to be. It is a book to be studied. The discussions of grammatical intricacies in ancient Hebrew can be a bit arcane, for example, not to mention the discussions of internal rhyme and linked words and phrases. That being said, The Face of Water is not without humor, and sly asides enliven Ruden’s potentially tedious forays into why a word, for example, may have a number of different meanings.
The introduction notes the parts of the Hebrew Bible and discusses the historical presence of Israelites around the Mediterranean Sea. A comparison of Hebrew and Christian Bibles’ ways of how King David speaks about the death of his son (2 Samuel, 12:20) demonstrates and emphasizes most presciently that a translation must pay attention and be faithful to its original focus. Ruden then, in three sections, sets out to make the Bible “more a living thing.” The first section examines the character of the language and texts while the second re-translates a number of passages. In the final section, she discusses her scholarly resources and methods. A select bibliography ranges from Foxe’s Book of the Martyrs (1563) to Coogan’s The Ten Commandants (2014).
The comparisons of textual differences that Ruden examines brought to mind courses in Renaissance Literature with Father James A. Devereux, S.J. and one particular day in class. He handed us a typewritten, mimeographed (!) sheet from the Gospel of St. Matthew, VII, 24-27. The first passage, from the 11th Century, was in Old English; the second came from the Wycliffe Bible of 1388 (Chaucer’s era). The third came from the 1611 edition of the KJB while the final was the New English Bible of 1961 (That was the most modern translation at the time). Each of them conveyed the same message but in very different words, tone, and cadence. In The Face of Water, it feels as if that lesson of so many years ago has been brought to light again.
A Quaker, Ruden views the modern Bible as a collaboration in which various pieces came and went. “I have a special esteem for the Bible in part because God has had the longest time to work on it: to allow various documents and collections to come and go…to release the texts to a common readership.” While this particular “text” may not relate to a broader audience, it is an important and elegant contribution to Biblical scholarship.
Sarah Ruden earned a Ph.D. in classical philology at Harvard. Among her translations of classical works are Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Augustine’s Confessions. Ursula Le Guin says Ruden has written “The best translation of The Aeneid, certainly the best of our time.” Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.