Spoofs, Goofy Rhymes, and 'Little Doggies': The Bible, in its own words

Translator Sarah Ruden, on how English translations have missed the true character, vitality, and sophistication of the Bible.
Sarah Ruden, author of The Face of Water, and translator of Virgil (The Aeneid), St. Augustine (Confessions), and others. (Penguin Random House)

Translator and poet Sarah Ruden is at the top of her game.  So much so that the Modern Library has commissioned her to translate the Gospels. This, on the heels of two major books she's released in 2017: A new translation of Confessions, by St. Augustine, and The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible.

How did she get here?

As a child, she writes in The Face of Water, the Bible was of about as much interest to her as the bowl of fake fruit in the lobby of her Methodist church in rural Ohio.  Sarah remembers absent-mindedly squishing the plastic grapes between her fingers while the adults prattled on about matters of faith.  

But after many years of academic study, translating secular classic works from Greek and Latin, (including a widely acclaimed take on Virgil's Aeneid), she began to study ancient Hebrew.  And she discovered something: The Bible is bursting with vigour.

The most astonishing document ever written?

"The Bible then seemed to me to be the most astonishing document ever written. Really exciting, really important.  And I looked around and I just couldn't see that anyone was simply reading it and communicating about it to the general public. To people who didn't have, you know 20 years to study languages and read the original text. So I took it upon myself to write a book along those lines."

English, as useful as it is, turns out to be a bit of a spoilsport when it comes to Biblical translation.

"We have this enormous vocabulary, so we can be very precise. When we mean 'wind' we say 'wind'; when we mean 'spirit', we say 'spirit'.  And literary Greek and Hebrew have a really tiny vocabulary ... they work with playful forms to draw out poetic meanings.

"What English does in a very superior way, now, is work as a globalized language across cultures, and address technical problems."

We're missing the double-entendres

So what are we missing in current English translations of the Bible? Well, to begin with, 'goofy rhymes' (Genesis), 'spoofs' (Jonah) and 'double-entendres' (the Gospel of John). In The Face of Water, Sarah Ruden takes a run at some of the best-known passages of the Bible, including the story of David and Bathsheba, Jesus' teaching of the Beatitudes, and a scene from the book of Revelation. She shows how examining the way the passages are composed adds a new dimension to their meaning and resonance.  She even took on the 'Our Father' passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Her translations shed new light on a central Christian prayer.

Sarah Ruden reads her translation of the Lord's Prayer from the Gospel of Matthew. 0:41

St. Augustine: Charisma and chauvinism

St. Augustine's influence on Christianity and Western thought has been nearly as profound as the Bible itself. His writing has inspired great minds across the centuries, from St. Thomas Aquinas in the medieval era, to the modern philosopher Hannah Arendt

Sarah says, "He was the one who took the prescribed Christianity, and with incredibly charismatic use of language, he sold it to ordinary people."  Her translation of his spiritual autobiography, Confessions, gives readers in 2017 a vivid sense of how he expressed himself to his audience - and to his creator - in 400 CE.  

What was the appeal of translating St. Augustine? "The Confessions contains the most difficult Latin prose that we've got left, so if you want to do some hot-dogging, then you translate the Confessions.  But also, Augustine was a literary superstar, by far the most brilliant, the most appealing of the Church Fathers."

Nobody's perfect, though, not even a saint, and Sarah Ruden says his attitude toward women "twists my guts sometimes."

"Augustine had great respect for his mother; probably too much respect … but … he was, before his conversion and after his conversion, having this old Platonic dream of a world in which women didn't bother you. No domestic responsibilities, no stupid women in your face, ever: You are living the higher, spiritual life, which means women are nowhere in sight."

'We are made to love each other'

Even in the face of sentiments like those, Sarah Ruden's motivation to translate sacred literature comes from an optimistic place.  She attributes that in part to her Quaker faith, admitting that Quakers generally have a sunny view of human nature. She's also been received remarkably well wherever she shares her findings. "People, I think, are more interested in outreach, in reconsideration ... We are all people of the light, even if we don't all know it yet, and we are made to love each other. That's what my personal religious experience has taught me, so that is my deep conviction."

Click listen above to hear Sarah Ruden's argument for the value of absurdity in the Bible, and why she feels one of the most powerful commands in scripture is: 'Everybody dance!'.