Most Christians are, rightly so, of the opinion that robust biblical scholarship is necessary for translating the Bible well. It can be convincingly argued that a love and care for biblical language and literature is just as necessary. I’m currently reading The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible by Sarah Ruden. Ruden, a Quaker, is admittedly not a biblical scholar, but rather a translator of classical literature and an all-around lover of language.
It’s been fascinating to take a step back from hermeneutics as a means of learning theology or ethics or history, and instead to be urged to be taken with the style, meter, tone, and literary thrust of biblical writings. Ruden doesn’t seem motivated to complain about the “aesthetic inferiority” of modern English translations, which is a relief. Rather, she is content to openly and almost gleefully delight in and play with the literary devices of the Hebrew and Greek which make up the Bible.
The book’s first part examines about fourteen different biblical passages in order to highlight the way grammar, vocabulary, style, poetry, voice, meta-narrative, and comedy, respectively, contribute to those passages’ beauty and meaning. In the second part Ruden offers re-translations of said passages set side-by-side with the King James Version’s translation. Here is her translation of Romans 8:31-39, which I found compelling:
31 So what can we say about these things? With God on our side, who can be on the other side? 32 The God who didn’t begrudge his own son, but surrendered him for the sake of us all–how then will such a God not freely give us everything else, along with him? 33 Who will bring charges against those God has chosen to be in his charge? God is the one passing judgment! 34 Who’s the one rendering us guilty? Is is Jesus the Anointed who died–no, who came back to life–and who is at God’s right hand–and who actually intercedes for us! 35 Who will separate us from the love of the Anointed One? Will it be any pressure put on us, or the tightest place imaginable, or persecution, or starvation, or the inability to put clothes on our backs, or danger, or execution? 36 To quote the Scriptures:
“Because of you, we are dying all day long.
We are counted off one by one like sheep to the slaughter.”
37 But in all these things we are the victors over the victors, thanks to the one who has loved us. 38 I have been persuaded, you see, to believe that neither death not life, nor angels, nor the authorities on earth, nor things that are here now, nor things that are coming, nor supernatural powers, 39 nor the highest nor the lowest thing in the universe, nor anything else in creation has the power to separate us from the love of God in the Anointed Jesus, our Lord.
The book’s third part details Ruden’s resources and methods for translation.
The Face of Water successfully provides a unique and refreshing contribution to the discussion over Bible translation. If nothing else, it was neat to read something from someone who so clearly loves language and the possibilities that are present within our words.
The Face of Water is published by Pantheon Books and retails at $26.95. It is available at Baker Book House.