Books about Life: Translating Ancient Texts in 2020

Photo courtesy of Sarah Ruden.

An Interview with Biblical Translator Sarah Ruden


Sarah Ruden lives in Connecticut and is a member of Middletown (Conn.) Meeting. She is a translator of ancient literature and a journalist with special interests in literature, religion, and human rights.


How does it feel to be a translator of ancient texts in the chaos that is 2020?

A translator of ancient literature can feel pretty forlorn these days, wondering exactly what she can contribute during this worldwide crisis in human rights. I have a great envy of journalists and human rights workers, everybody who’s out there on the frontlines.

I’m going to have a book coming out in March of next year, a new, more accessible translation of the Gospels, and also the second edition of my Aeneid translation coming out in February. So that’s two mighty works within a very few weeks of each other.

And both of these books are about what it is to be human and have the potential for hatred and violence and, at the same time, to have the power to do something good that lasts forever. In the gospels, of course, that is Christ’s sacrifice. In the Aeneid, it’s a political foundation that has solidity and potential to be constructive and to spread the rule of law, to spread civilization.

Tell me a little bit about that ordinariness of Jesus. You’ve talked about how first-century Christians took the Hebrew scriptures and kind of turned them around, interpreting stories of Jesus as something prefigured in earlier prophets.

The Hebrew Bible is in some ways extraordinary: moralistic monotheism is very unusual in the ancient world. But in other ways, it’s kind of conventional. It’s about nationalism; it’s about the state; it’s about kingliness and leadership, and divinity represented by the leadership.

But a big theme in the gospels is that Jesus is important because he is nobody: he’s a Galilean. Galilee was a backwater, outside the Jewish mainstream. It had recently been involved in an insurrection. People are making cracks about Jesus’s hometown in different places in the gospels.

So language has to be turned around and reformed to depict him as the Messiah: someone critically important to the future of the universe (not just the nation), somebody who’s going to play a central role in the apocalypse and in the saving of at least a portion of mankind.

The history of Israel since the second millennium B.C.E. is almost nothing but getting trampled on, getting stampeded back and forth, because this is a strategic area. It’s a corridor, a state with no power and no significant natural resources. So they just get hammered and hammered and hammered and hammered.

But they develop this idea that there’s a reason for this. You suffer, so suffering has to have some meaning. Or why is it always us? I’m sure this is not going to be printable, but you know the T-shirt describing all the different religions in crude terms, as in, “Agnosticism: what is this shit?” For Judaism it’s “Why does this shit always happen to us?”

The Christian answer is that it ends in an extraordinary sacrifice and an extraordinary miracle too: God reaching down and having compassion for so much suffering and rewriting the laws of nature so that life is something other than just endless suffering, oppression, greed, cynicism, and helplessness.

Do you see a Quaker influence in the way you translate? 

I was drawn to Friends a very long time ago simply through living with them. I lived in Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston when I was in grad school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was an intentional community without many actual Quakers in it, but it was run along Quaker lines. 

I just loved the way people shared the work, enjoyed spending time together, and practiced what they believed about equality. This was really lovely.

I’d been shut up in libraries virtually my whole life, and my stay at Beacon Hill was a discovery of human society. It was terrific. So that’s really the only reason that I came to Quakers.

Later, when I was living at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, I discovered that people were interested in looking at what the original text of the Bible actually said. And it wasn’t just Quakers who were interested in this. I also spent time talking to evangelicals, Catholics, Methodists, and just about everybody.

And they would want to know: well, what about this word? And everything was just kind of interesting. You’d look at a word and say, for example, “Oh my God, that’s not just anger that Paul’s talking about; that’s explosive anger. That’s like uncontrolled anger, flaming anger that you’re going to regret your entire life.” That’s how I got into it. 

It might be useful for this era to be thinking this way about our foundational texts. What do they really mean? Why don’t we stop just reciting and worshiping them in this idolatrous way, and use them for their best use?

Unless you understand them dramatically as a story about life (these people, say, around Jesus, who were alive, troubled, curious, inspired, and all the different horrible and hopeful things that human beings are), unless you understand that these books are about life, I don’t think you’re going to get the full value out of them.

It all takes shaking up. You can’t use the old words. You’ve got to find some new words. You’ve got to sharpen up that translation and be talking about something real. We can go back to that question: What’s real? Well, people’s experience of the world is real. It’s what you experience every morning. No authority is going to tell you differently. I think that’s a kind of Quaker attitude toward reading it.

How are you at Quaker Bible studies? So Quakers get together in a room, everyone reads a little passage, and says what it means to them. And the whole idea (at least for the one model that I see most used) is that there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s what is lifted in your heart as you read it. Is that something that’s easy for you?

I did a lot of that when I was a resident at Pendle Hill back in the day. And I’m not going to condemn that approach, because, for me, it was very stimulating. In fact, my book Paul Among the People arose from my resistance to that sort of fluid, reactive treatment of Scripture.

I had been trained in the language and the rhetoric: I could look at the English and say, I know what that Greek word is and what it means. And I can say that your reaction, though poignant, doesn’t really relate to the situation from which this piece of literature arose.

People can of course use Scripture however they like. But I find it comforting and encouraging in this historical situation—as I watch the news and bite my nails and lie awake at night—to see the effort that people are making to relate where we are now to where we have been.

For example, we are living out the legacy of slavery. This is not deniable; it is a real thing. We would not be in this awful place with policing and with the social divide had we not had slavery in this country so very late. So we had better think about that.

And it seems worthwhile to spend more time thinking about that and less time thinking about purely personal, purely subjective individual issues. So that’s where I think a historical study of the Bible becomes useful. We can then have a related discussion about our ethical life as a nation, about what our past has led us to believe, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it’s going to destroy us as a society.

When I think of Quaker biblical translators, I can only call to mind you and Henry Cadbury. Is he an influence, and, if so, how much? As I understand, he did much of the work on Luke. Do you ever read his notes to see what he’s looking at in Luke? Or is there any connection?

I’ve just been protesting to you about what I think is too much individualism and subjectivity in American—and particularly in Quaker—intellectual life: too much egotism and too little communitarianism. But in my own work, I tend to be an extreme individualist, and I work with the original text. At first, I hardly look at a commentary, let alone a translation. I do that for a long, long time and build up my version of what the original text says, a version that’s going to be full of goofs and misunderstandings. So late in the process of putting together a manuscript, I have to scramble and correct everything. I have my big dictionaries, the concordances, and the commentaries to help me. 

I use the dullest and most familiar translations that I can look at. I don’t look at David Bentley Hart. I don’t look at anything that I think would be congenial, like The Message, which I understand is a really wonderful work. I don’t look at this other stuff because I don’t want to be inevitably imitating things I like. I want to form my own version; I don’t want to be conveying other people’s impressions of it. These should be my impressions. This translation should be my “What canst thou say?”

Of course, I’m absolutely depending on the academic experts to have done the mountains of technical research and to be giving me the raw data for what this probably is about. But in the end, it’s my decision. And then I have to decide how to express my conclusions in a literary mode. So that’s why I have not looked at Cadbury.

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