The Interview with Sarah Ruden Page Two
by A. M. Juster
AMJ: Isn’t it intimidating to translate the Gospels?
SR: You bet your sweet bippy. Words are my life; I go to each text committed to the task of getting inside the author’s head and doing him the best justice I possibly can. In the case of the Gospels, I don’t even have one author, but four, all obscure, three definitely pseudonymous, all working with obscure traditional material, and with the object of making literature disappear and replacing it with self-justifying, self-referential, though mysterious truth.
Forget about finding modern analogies to ancient rhetoric and poetics (hard as that is in itself). The Greek text of the Gospels, sometimes in crude and awkward ways, and through the long-term medium of a mistake-ridden series of handwritten copies (so that you don’t know for sure which of several plausible versions of a particular passage to credit) is always pointing elsewhere, into the infinite. Those are just the problems I face at first, alone at my desk as I ask (for example) “What is this passage — which looks kind of like the blunt refusal to follow up on a pun — really about, in just the most general terms?” Imagine my terror of the reaction from people I love and respect, who love the Gospels but (I’m convinced) don’t know what they love; they think they love something definite and assured, but the message of the Gospels, in form as well as content, seems to me to be that we are called to love self-sacrificially what we can hardly begin to know: God, our fellow human beings, God’s ineffable creation and providence.
AMJ: It’s been a while since your last book of original poetry. Should we be looking for one before too long?
SR: Here I impudently flog my existing books: I’ve been told I can publish another volume of poetry — which is ready and waiting — if my translations and my books about the Bible sell so many more copies.
AMJ: Is there anyone under the age of forty who has caught your eye as a poet or translator?
SR: No. Translating is really not a young person’s game; it took me decades to achieve the kind of distance and balance needed. And as for poets, conditions nowadays aren’t the greatest for them to achieve something when they’re young — that’s when they need to. Significant poetic talent used to arise once in a while from what most people did in their teens and twenties, which was to spend some time alone, acquiring their own tastes. Now the mega-corporations and other behemoth institutions have figured out ways to commodify time and control it. A few years ago when I was teaching, some of my students — including some very able ones — wrote poetry and showed it to me. But they clearly hadn’t read much, so as to assimilate other voices with discernment and thus come up with a voice of their own. Social media are particularly bad for poetry: it’s like billions of toothpaste tubes that are all being stomped on at once: no one can do what’s preliminary to original artistry, which is just to sit still a while and take things in.
AMJ: What’s the funniest thing anyone has ever said to you about your work?
SR: Well, the title of the Roman novel I translated, The Golden Ass, is a gift that keeps on giving. When the book was published, a friend wrote to me, “May your Ass be huge!” My husband, to whom the translation is dedicated, has, in the title, a good source of dinner-party irony.
AMJ: Thank you for your time, Sarah.
“Terentia doing well” was how any alumnus of Cambridge and Bletchley Park would have been likely to put it in the case of his own household, though no woman is resoundingly hale in the hours right after childbirth. But “doing well” is not at all what the Latin conveys: salva means that she didn’t die, which could by no means be taken for granted. Cicero was a typical Roman in having no stiff upper lip, which is understandable, as in that world the side was likely to let you down in every way imaginable, and the only thing you could do about it most of the time was to express yourself fully and precisely; another letter reveals Cicero responding to his only daughter’s death in childbirth with frank, uncontrollable grief. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the British education system, which fed personnel into the army and the Imperial civil service, plastered a false affect all over popular versions of Greek and Roman literature, most powerfully by means of the Penguin translations, which depict ancient authors as pompous and dull.
Emily and I are better translators in part because we’re women. We wake up every day ready to see things from other people’s point of view. We’re not used to getting away with anything. We can feel readers’ disappointment in translations that don’t ring true or sound appealing. We try harder. I hope that the big difference between 2008 and 2019 is that the greater number and influence of women in this calling are raising the standards.
AMJ: I’ve noticed that people who closely read Saint Augustine’s Confessions almost always seem changed by the experience. Since there is no way to read a text more closely than by translating it, let me ask you if translating the Confessions changed you in any way, and if so how?
SR: I don’t know whether it changed me, but it made me notice something important, which I hope is the beginning of change. The Confessions, which in nearly every worldly sense was written amid misery, is suffused with joy: that’s evident in every sentence. Augustine may have been ill at the time, which would be the most plausible explanation for the chance, though he was Bishop of Hippo, to closet himself with scribes for several weeks and pour out an immense, quasi-autobiographical prayer — that was perhaps his greatest self-indulgence since his conversion. He had spent many years without sex and on a restricted diet, working hard at preaching, teaching, theological controversies, charity, and church administration. He felt guilty even about his enjoyment of sacred music, and about gazing at a hunt as he passed by it.
But the act of writing purposefully and skillfully brings him bliss. He can make full use of his rhetorical expertise — he was in fact the greatest orator and writer of his era. But in a broader sense, the structural demands of rhetoric paradoxically open his mind and heart. Kicking a ball around the yard aimlessly isn’t much fun: you need rules to create a game. It’s like Thomas Merton’s feeling that his life opened up only within the walls of his Trappist cell. I learned from Augustine that ordinary hardships and limits have a reason. I’m digesting this lesson further now that an elderly relative is badly injured from a fall and my husband and I don’t have the freedom we used to, and our worries and griefs are multiplied.
AMJ: In your recent National Review essay you touched a nerve by calling Walt Whitman’s poetry a “windstorm of assertion indiscernible in its parts and knowable mainly through the damage it leaves behind . . ..” What did you mean by “the damage it leaves behind” and were you surprised by the vehemence of the response?
SR: I wasn’t surprised by the vehemence, as Whitman is a shrine in many trendy English departments. But I thought it was important to assert, especially to young people, “Hey, you don’t have to revere, or pretend to revere, everything you’re told to. If you can’t see anything wonderful, maybe it’s because there’s nothing wonderful there.” Amid the current paroxysm of hand-wringing and small-town diner haunting on the part of the Eastern intelligentsia, one thing I believe that’s being missed is the cultural element — which is distinct from the economic one; or maybe not, because the American university is a corporate overlord too.
Anyway, Whitman worship seems an exemplary abuse to point out; for me, it’s a matter of stretching, frantically and in exhaustion, with my toes for the lake bottom and not finding it, moving all around the shoreline, and at last concluding that this is not because the whole lake is deep but because the whole lake is bottomless: there is no literary or moral merit in Whitman. The professors thunder at you to honor his “nursing” service during the Civil War, so you go and read more, and you find that some actual nurses were peeved with Whitman, whose theory of “magnetic touch” was a pretext for pawing wounded soldiers. The Whitman cult is, as it was for Whitman himself and his cronies, about power: “You will take this for God; I will make you; I will not quit.” It’s like advertising. If you want to understand Flyover rage, make a list of the idols foisted on the godly, or on those who would have been godly had God not been dressed in so many clown suits.
Sarah Ruden, in Quaker-style garb, with the cast of a Yale trans production of her Lysistrata translation.
Sarah, third from left, with a handmade sign of the Coiffed Phallus.
A.M. Juster, the Poetry Editor for First Things and @amjuster on Twitter, has had work published in Poetry, Paris Review, The Hudson Review, Rattle, and many other journals. Paideia Institute Press has just published his ninth book, John Milton’s The Book of Elegies, which is available at:
photo credit: Johnson Photography
Sarah’s beloved corgi with her beloved husband at home.