Ruden, “The Face of Water: a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible” (reviewed by Dennis Clark)


Title: The Face of Water: a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible
Author: Sarah Ruden
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Devotional and biblical studies
Year Published: 2017
Number of pages: xxxviii, 232
Binding: hardback
ISBN13: 978-0-307-90856-8
Price: $26.95

Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters

Sarah Ruden does not claim to be a biblical translator. Her primary work has been in translating classical Latin and Greek texts: starting in 2000 with the publication of the Satyricon of Petronius, she has published translations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, The Homeric hymn, the Aeneid of Vergil, and The golden ass of Apuleius, this last in 2012. The blurbs for these translations on the dust jacket for The face of water are very complimentary. And the list of those translations is relevant to your understanding of this review, and of Ruden’s book: she is a very accomplished translator, at home in the classical world, the world that Jesus walked in. And now she is walking abroad, deeper into the world of the Jews, at that time and before that time.

Before any of those translations, in 1995, she published an award-winning book of poems, Other places. That may be why she turned to translation to earn a living. Or it may be that she can’t stop translating. She certainly can’t stop thinking about what she is translating. Which may account for her book Paul among the people: the Apostle reinterpreted and reimagined in his own time (published in 2011), a book I have not read, but now intend to. If it is anywhere near as delightful as this book, it will repay the close reading my friends say it deserves.

Ruden says that she does not read Hebrew as fluently as she does Greek, although the Koiné of the New Testament is not the classical Greek she is fluent in. Paul among the people helped her find a subject in which “I could really be of use” to readers of the Bible (xvi). Anyone who has read Paul’s letters in the King James translation can understand how she could be of use. That experience might explain why, in her subtitle to this book, “a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible,” she is careful not to assert any credential as a Biblical translator, and to focus on “beauty and meaning” rather than, say, doctrine and orthodoxy.

This year, 2017, she published not only *The face of water* but her translation of the *Confessions* of Augustine, and a good translation of that classic may be fully as helpful as *Paul among the people*. Her title for this book reflects doubly on beauty and meaning in the Bible, invoking not only God moving upon the face of the waters, in the first chapter of Genesis, but also Jesus walking across the lake of Galilee to catch up to his friends. Neither reflection would be inconsistent with her discussion of beauty and meaning.

But the book may be of greatest use to Mormon readers for the new perspective it offers on both revelation *and* translation. As Ruden says in her introduction, “I’m a Quaker, experienced in communal authority’s mediation of individual revelation, and this adds to the appeal the Bible has for me over religious writings flowing directly from one person’s vision and substantially unprocessed afterward” (xxxvi). This concept of communal authority also epitomizes her summary of current scholarship on the establishment of the canon of the Bible. Her discourse on that process gives an even clearer sense of who she is. She writes:

“Compilation and canonization were how the Biblical texts came together into their present form…. I need to warn about the term ‘compiled,’ and I wish there were a better term. Forget about pages ‘piled together,’ or a single bound book. (That’s what you would think the Latin-derived word originally meant; ah, no: it meant ‘plundered’ or ‘plagiarized.’) For a long period, the vehicle was papyrus scrolls … which kept the basic unit of writing to the length of what we might call a long chapter, such as the Book of Genesis, and must have encouraged a notion of ‘books’ as separate, and relatively interchangeable and disposable…. Leaders, scholars, and scribes — as well as ordinary readers — had to think of material constraints and make quite conscious choices of what to keep, copy, and recopy.” (xxxiv).

The compilation happened first, beginning apparently during the Babylonian captivity, as Jewish scholars read through the scrolls they had brought from Jerusalem, trying to figure out how a monarchy that God had promised would be eternal could have failed. Of that process, Ruden writes “On the whole, the development of the Bible seems to have been more about popular favor than institutional authority….” (xxxiv). People saved, copied and passed on what they liked, a process she likened to the “communal authority’s mediation of individual revelation” quoted earlier.

The process she describes reminds me of Mormon’s comments as he abridged the records of his people — such as an expression of preference strongly made as Mormon abridges the tale of Captain Moroni. This was a process especially poignant in his son Moroni’s case, as he picks through the records left by Mormon. In this parallel between the compilation of the Book of Mormon and the Bible — and it applies to both the Hebrew and Greek testaments – – we see people trying to answer the question “How in hell did this happen? — How did we fail?”

But that’s all background to the book. Meyer divides her task, and hence her book, into three parts. The first is: “Impossibilities Illustrated: The Character of the Languages and Texts,” in which she discusses why Hebrew and Koiné are virtually impossible to translate literally into English — or why any language is. In Part One Ruden does this by examining, in seven chapters, passages selected from both Hebrew and Koiné, one from each language in each chapter, and discussing the difficulties of, and strategies for, translating them. She presents each passage in the King James Version, then discusses other possibilities for translating them. In part two, “Possibilities Put Forward: Mainly, the Passages Retranslated,” she translates each passage but one in parallel with the KJV translation. And in Part three, “An Account of the Fuller Facts. My Scholarly Resources and Methods’ As If”, she presents the same seven pairs of passages transliterated, and literally translated, to show her methods transparently.

That may all seem quite abstract; if so, an example would be in order, one that may be dear to the hearts of those who love the Book of Mormon. And it is the first example in all three of her parts, the story of David and Bathsheba, from -. For purposes of this review, I will focus on what she says about the use of the phrase “And it came to pass.” First the relevant parts of the story, in the words of the KJV (broken into verses for this illustration):

1 *And it came to pass*, after the year was expired,
at the time when kings go forth to battle,
that David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel;
and they destroyed the children of Ammon, and besieged Rabbah.
But David tarried still at Jerusalem.

2 *And it came to pass* in an eveningtide,
that David arose from off his bed,
and walked upon the roof of the king’s house:
and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself;
and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.
3 And David sent and inquired after the woman.
And one said, Is not this Bath-sheba,
the daughter of Eliam,
the wife of Uriah the Hittite?
4 And David sent messengers, and took her;
and she came in unto him, and he lay with her;
for she was purified from her uncleanness:
and she returned unto her house.
5 And the woman conceived,
and sent and told David,
and said, I am with child.

6 And David sent to Joab, saying,
Send me Uriah the Hittite.
And Joab sent Uriah to David.
7 And when Uriah was come unto him,
David demanded of him how Joab did,
and how the people did,
and how the war prospered.
8 And David said to Uriah,
Go down to thy house,
and wash thy feet.
And Uriah departed out of the king’s house,
and there followed him a mess of meat from the king.
9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house
with all the servants of his lord,
and went not down to his house.
10 And when they had told David, saying,
Uriah went not down unto his house,
David said unto Uriah,
Camest thou not from thy journey?
why then didst thou not go down unto thine house?
11 And Uriah said unto David,
The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents;
and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord,
are encamped in the open fields;
shall I then go into mine house,
to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife?
as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth,
I will not do this thing.
12 And David said to Uriah,
Tarry here to day also, and to morrow I will let thee depart.
So Uriah abode in Jerusalem that day, and the morrow.
13 And when David had called him,
he did eat and drink before him;
and he made him drunk:
and at even he went out to lie on his bed
with the servants of his lord,
but went not down to his house.

14 *And it came to pass* in the morning,
that David wrote a letter to Joab,
and sent it by the hand of Uriah.
15 And he wrote in the letter, saying,
Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle,
and retire ye from him,
that he may be smitten, and die.

16 *And it came to pass*,
when Joab observed the city,
that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were.
17 And the men of the city went out,
and fought with Joab:
and there fell some of the people of the servants of David;
and Uriah the Hittite died also.

Ruden explains that what is here translated as *And it came to pass* is “a ‘vav consecutive’ or ‘vav conversive’ constructed out of the verb for ‘to be’ or ‘to become’ or ‘to happen’ and the one-letter word for ‘and,’ vav….” She explains further: “In a vav consecutive, vav is glommed right onto the front of a certain form of verb … and changes that verb’s quasi tense or aspect (or something). Don’t close this book and turn on a PBS documentary about ferrets” she pleads, or warns; “what I’m about to tell you is way more interesting” (11).

And it is, to me. And should be to you. She continues: “In this particular vav conversive, the two reconstructed syllables mean, ‘Something new arose,’ or ‘Then’ or ‘Now’ or ‘Next’ or ‘And get this’ — the variety of ways to translate resulting in part from the special character of Hebrew verbs. These don’t have a strict relation to linear time….’ (11), which would mean that “And it came to pass” is a mealy-mouthed evasion of the translator’s responsibility to relate the sense of the text to the reader.

In a departure from her procedure with the other 13 passages she treats, Ruden does not provide her own translation of this story, but in the other two parts of her book continues to discuss the possible translations of this vav conversive, and the reason for employing a variety of them. In this first part, however, she also points out that the vav conversive, which she transliterates as *vai-hee*, doesn’t sound at all like “And it came to pass.” As she says, *vai-hee* “reminds me of the yip as you trip and fall: the noise of no return” (12). I love that humor; it leavens the book.

When she returns to *vai-hee* in Part Two, she notes that “it isn’t okay to cut and paste ‘And it came to pass’ or any other single representation of *vai-hee* throughout a Bible translation. The translation has to be varied with care and sensitivity” (120). And one reason for that: “Reading the story of David and Bathsheba, it’s easy to feel how the action turns at the spots conspicuously marked by *vai-hee*, and to vary the translations there according to the different kinds of turns…. The *vai-hee* of verses 1, 2 and 14 *all* lead into time references … thus forming a triplet, whereas *vai-hee* in verse 16 leads straight into an action….” (120).

When Ruden returns again to this topic in Part Three, she comments on other translations than the KJV. She does not offer her own translation. But in an example from another translator she gives some hint of what she likes. “Look (for example) how beautifully David Rosenberg takes the process just a couple of steps further in *A literary Bible*:

Verse 1: ‘Here we are: a year was passing . . .’
Verse 2: ‘It happens late one afternoon . . .’
Verse 14: ‘Here we are: in the morning . . .’
Verse 16: ‘So it happens: Joab explores his siege of the city . . .'” (170).

If Joseph Smith were a translator, we might hold him responsible for the anaesthetic effect of “And it came to pass” in the Book of Mormon. If he were merely reading from a stone, then the translators of the text are guilty…and there are some Mormon scholars working on the idea that what Joseph was reading off the stone, if there was one, was the work of the KJV translators in their afterlife. That’s wild speculation. A more interesting exercise for you might be to interact with the Book of Mormon by writing your own translation of *vai-hee* every time you come to “And it came to pass.” This would require a good deal of careful reading on your part, and an analysis of whether or not the action turns, as indicated by *vai-hee*. I’m going to try it. You should, too.

Finally, this book, with its recursive approach to the nature of Biblical translation, asks us to look closely at whatever text we have at hand. Here is Ruden’s translation of the Lord’s prayer from . I leave it to you to open your KJV for the comparison:

9 . . . Father, our father in the heavens above,
Spoken in holiness must be your name.
10 Into the world must come your kingdom,
And into being whatever you have willed,
In heaven the same way as here on earth.
11 The loaf of bread, our every next loaf, give it to us today,
12 And free us from our debts,
Once we have — just as we have — set our debtors free.
13 And don’t, we beg you, take us into the ordeal —
No, save us, save us from the Evil One (123).

It might also help you to understand what she is doing by looking at one of her own poems, one which serves as an epigraph for this volume, inspired by the work of George Fox, the Joseph Smith of her religious tradition.

After Reading the Journals of George Fox

They told me, “We’re quite busy here.”
I told him “Stay away from me.”
I lay awake. I watched the wind
Unwind the branches of a tree.

I passed exams, unpacked and packed,
Ordered and cancelled. Time went by
Like a foreign-language broadcast. Then
I saw a river in the sky.

Clear as the air but bright as ice,
It let the sun through to the wheat,
It rippled like a flare of song,
It pounded like a runner’s feet.

Down here, a form rocked in the surf,
A sidewalk stain was dirty red.
I saw the miracle reversed,
And what had been alive was dead;

And yet the flood of light above
Only swelled stronger, like a storm
Of joy, a conquest of delight,
A dream there was no waking from.

Ruden is serious about her poetry, about her experience as a translator, about the necessity of translating the Bible in beauty and meaning, about shedding the inadequacies of the past. She does not say that she is planning to translate the Bible, either the Tanakh or the New Testament. But she is certainly equipped to do it, and I hope she does. Until then I, who read neither Greek nor Hebrew, will be sampling a wide variety of translations, looking for a live one. The Bible deserves that kind of study, that kind of respect.

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