The Face of Water:
A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible

by sarah ruden
penguin random house, 272 pages, $26.95

It is a difficult task to explain the beauty of a language to someone who cannot even make out the letters of its alphabet. Sarah Ruden attempts to do this twice over, with the languages of the Bible: Hebrew and Greek. It makes sense for Ruden to try her hand at popular Biblical philology. She is an accomplished translator—her wide-ranging work includes translations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and the Homeric Hymns—and she is the rare Christian academic who is open about her faith without the attendant defensiveness. After reading her Oresteia last fall, I awaited The Face of Water with much excitement.

As an expositor of tricky grammatical concepts, Ruden doesn’t disappoint. Her discussion of the Hebrew “vav-conversive,” for example, is the best I have seen. The “vav-conversive” is a common Biblical construction in which the conjunctive prefix vav is placed at the front of an imperfect verb, converting it to a perfect verb. English translations typically combine the conjunctive and conversive purposes of the prefix, which leads to tiring repetitions of “and” before every verb. Ruden uses the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12 to illustrate the vav-conversive and explain why repeating “and” again and again is not a good choice. Her close reading of the Bathsheba incident is one of the highlights of the book.

But the book’s problems overwhelm its successes. The first problem is Ruden’s primary analytical method: putting King James Version translations side-by-side with her own “literal” translations, which are given in philological jargon instead of mellifluous English. Here is 2 Samuel 11:1 in her translationese:

and-it-was/happened
at-[the]-return [of] the-year
at-[the]-time/season [of the] to-go-out [of] the-kings
and-sent David Joab and-servants-his with-him and-all [of] Israel
and-they-destroyed [the] sons [of] Ammon
and-they-besieged Rabbah
and-David [was] sitting/staying in-Jerusalem

The English words connected by dashes represent single Hebrew words—they show how much a single Hebrew word can express. This is a useful method by way of illustration, but it loses its force when repeated. Worse, Ruden reproduces the Hebrew syntax even when doing so results in absurdity (“and-servants-his”). If one is willing to use nonsense English in the name of being literal, why not go all the way and reverse the English letters so that they can be read from right to left like the Hebrew?

There may be a time and place for translationese, but it is unhelpful and confusing (and by no means literal) here. I can only imagine how it reads for someone unfamiliar with the original languages. That the King James Version is wildly different in syntax and style from either Hebrew or Greek should surprise no one. Why attempt to show the beauty of the Bible (a task at which the KJV succeeds, however imperfectly) using translations that are so ugly? Unfortunately, these translationese experiments take up much of the book.

Like many popular works, The Face of Water offers Hebrew and Greek words in transliterated Roman letters. Thus the opening verse of Genesis becomes “beh-reisheet bara eloheem eit hahsh-shahma-yim veh-eit ha-aretz.” Transliterated Hebrew and Greek words manage to be incomprehensible both to those who can read the languages and to those who cannot. Why not give a short lesson on the Hebrew and Greek alphabets and pronunciation in the preface, and then give the words in their original orthography? Anyone unwilling to learn how to sound out the languages is going to skip over “hahsh-shahma-yim” anyway.

The book’s tone can be off-putting. Ruden mixes translation, close reading, and philology with folksy phrases (a subsection about Luke 10:25–37 begins: “Heh, heh!”) and inapposite anecdotes. Her purchasing Foxe’s Book of Martyrs at a CVS or defending herself from muggers in South Africa are interesting enough stories (where in the world do chain pharmacies sell such books?), but in this context they feel gratuitous and contrived. Anecdotes about her experiences translating Aeschylus and Virgil would have been more enlightening.

Finally, Ruden considers a crucial difficulty facing translators of ancient texts: The vocabularies of modern languages dwarf those of the ancients. For Ruden, this is a problem of incommensurability that cannot be overcome by even the best dictionary—really understanding an ancient language requires more than diligent study of reference works. While this is true enough, what I hoped would follow from this insight was a novel approach to understanding Hebrew and Greek out of the shadow of modern philology. Alas, Ruden returns to the lexicons with gusto, and at its worst, The Face of Water could be retitled, “A Translator Reads the Dictionary.”

Still, whatever the failures of this book, Sarah Ruden is a great translator, perhaps the best of her generation. I anxiously await her translation of the Confessions.

Donald Antenen is currently translating the Book of Genesis.

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