Sarah Ruden on the Nature of Translation

Dr. Sarah Ruden is a translator, poet, essayist, and a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in Classical Philology from Harvard and an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminar and has taught at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Cape Town, among other places. Dr. Ruden is well known for her translations of Latin literature, including the Aeneid (Yale University Press, 2009) and the Confessions (Modern Library, 2017), as well as two books about the Bible and a new translation of the Gospels with the Modern Library, forthcoming in 2021. Dr. Ruden gave the 2019-2020 Steiner Lecture at St. John’s College, entitled “Vergil's Aeneid and Augustine's Confessions: Reading, Writing, Being Human”, after which this interview was held. 

Photo taken by Tbel Abuseridze (Instagram). 

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in January 2020, to be published in the Spring 2020 issue of ἱστορία , but the disruption of the academic year due to the Coronavirus pandemic caused the publication to be pushed back. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Mr. Riggins: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, and thank you for your lecture. I’ll start with a broad question: What is translation and how would you describe your vocation as a translator?


Dr. Ruden: Well the definition can be very broad. Translatio in Latin only means “bringing it over”, so you’re bringing something over from one language to the other language, and it’s never been very well defined what that actually means. You have these monumental theoretical disquisitions about translation, and they don’t impress me as a professional translator very much, because you’re always working with practicalities and impossibilities. Notoriously, nothing translates. You cannot get the same image, the same concept, the same anything in the target language, because the writing comes from two different people living in two different environments, maybe in a long time distant from each other. You’re just not able to reproduce this thing that was in the original literature. So, you’re trying all kinds of analogies, all kinds of half-measures, aiming for things that are “good enough.” And for me that demonstrates the vagueness of the idea of translation. How do you get one thing from one place to another place? Do you take a plane? Do you hike? What shape is the thing in by the time you get it where it’s going? It just seems to be such an incredibly open question.


Mr. Riggins: So is there a particular philosophy of translation that you’ve adopted over the course of your career?


Dr. Ruden: I don’t really have a philosophy. I have a methodology, and this I would relate to my Quaker faith. We don’t have any theology. We don’t have any prescribed sets of beliefs, but we do have a very strict and well-established way of doing things. We have our special way of reaching consensus in a business meeting. We never vote, but we never pressure people either. We have special ways in which we communicate with each other while we sit together. It’s very important that you don’t ever reply to anybody. There’s always space between different contributions in a business meeting. So I say, “These are the reasons I think we should have blue carpet,” and then I shut up and then after a couple of minutes another person may say, “I’m hearing these reasons for why we should have blue carpet, and I cannot say that they’re wrong, but maybe there are some reasons for green carpet, and here they are.” And this all goes very gently into the mix, which might produce an answer this year, or next year. So I do draw on the Quaker use of time in translating. My feeling is that I can’t act as if I know the language, can’t assume that I know what some author is saying. I don’t know all of these languages very well. Hebrew I only started in middle age. So I just take time. I sit with the dictionaries. There are electronic dictionaries that I use, which can access many different authors. You may have to use those to track down a particular meaning of a word in a particular author. So I use those a lot, and then I go back to the question again and again. My principle is that it takes as long as it takes. You have to listen to the authors, not take your assumptions to them, but listen to what they’re trying to do.


Mr. Riggins: So, on the subject of your Quaker faith, one of the things that Quakers are predominantly known for is being pacifists. How did that affect your experience translating the Aeneid? What was that like?


Dr. Ruden: Well, the Aeneid is incredibly violent, but I tried to deal with the author as an individual and with his notions, particularly with his ambivalence and his grief, but also with his relief at the end of about a hundred years of on-and-off civil war. He was with the Augustan project, there’s no question about that. He didn’t want more civil war. He didn’t see a means other than the principate to get rid of it, but he was not a fan of raw power. He wasn’t himself a violent or forceful man. He was a very gentle man. You can read all of this into the text, but only if you’re very careful. You have to be careful not to read in your own ideology, and not to cast him as a pacifist in a modern mode. He certainly wasn’t that. But this is about trying to listen and trying to ask the right questions and not interpose any of your own feelings or the feelings of anyone but the author. You would go crazy if you don’t narrow it down to the work of one mind. There are tons of influences going into a text: social, cultural, political, literary, all of this stuff, but if you grasped at it all, you’d be saying that you have to listen to a thousand people in order to render these words on this page, and that can’t be. For me, Quaker practice speaks very cogently to this. You listen to one person at a time. You make space for that one person, and you listen really well. For me, authors are like that. They are privileged like that, in that you only listen to them as individuals.


Mr. Riggins: Did you find it easier listening to St. Augustine than to Virgil?


Dr. Ruden: Maybe so, but the ease of listening to an author is not an excuse. If it’s harder to listen to an author then you just try harder. I tried very hard with Virgil. Part of that was just a question of his form, because he writes in a really demanding, poetic form. The meter is really hard to capture plausibly in any English meter, even one that’s relatively easy, like blank verse. So there’s an extra demand to listen to Virgil formally and aesthetically. Augustine was easier. For one, he came later, and it’s prose, so you’re freer. This was also later in my translation career. I had more confidence and experience, so I had fun with Augustine. He really is a lot of fun and I wanted to produce a translation that would help readers realize this. I was rebelling against the translations that make him seem about as funny as a crutch. He was really witty, and he loved what he was doing. He had a significant amount of freedom, compared to Virgil. So I had a blast.

Mr. Riggins: That makes sense. Since you’re about to publish an updated version of your translation of Virgil, I’d like to ask what sort of things are you changing for the second edition?


Dr. Ruden: A lot of the changes are more or less mechanical. I have a very kind, helpful editor, Susanna Braund, who’s a classicist at the university of British Columbia. She’s an expert on Virgil translation and reception and a lovely person. I have recast and revised every book in my translation, mostly finding the things that were awkward and unacceptable to me after all these years. There were some inaccuracies and some bad meter and some silliness. So I did the revisions, and then she would comment on the revisions, and we would go back and forth on them until we had something we both liked. Most of the changes were on aesthetic grounds. The translation went over pretty well as a poem, but that didn’t mean that I was happy with it and couldn’t find a lot that I wanted to fix.


Mr. Riggins: Well, we’re looking forward to it. There’s no doubt that Virgil went along with the Augustan project, but last night in your lecture you weren’t sure to what degree Virgil was happy about it.


Dr. Ruden: It’s so hard to speak assertively about this, but I would say that there are good sources of suspicion. We don’t know what parts of the text were written when, but let’s say he was working chronologically, and that horrifying last scene of Aeneas killing a helpless captive would’ve been written late, if not last. So, he has it on his mind as he’s dying of sunstroke while he’s being dragged back to Rome as part of the Emperor’s entourage, when he wanted to travel abroad alone. So, you can sort of fictionalize this in your mind and create a coherent story in which he’s annoyed at the position he’s in and would rather not have this work survive. For that we have some biographical testimony. We have to take that with a grain of salt, but if you put various things together then you get a rather pitiful picture of him at the end of his life.


Mr. Riggins: At some points in the Aeneid, there are things that seem very subversive to the overall Roman project. You mentioned a couple of instances in your lecture last night where he’s giving what you call “un-Homeric similes” about the horrors of war. He compares war to a natural disaster and talks about how it impacts the animals and the environment around it. Some people even like to point to that final scene you mentioned and claim that Virgil intended to end the work there with the final scene depicting Rome as being founded upon a gruesome act of murder. I know you’ve said that the book was supposed to be twice as long, and you make that judgement based on aesthetic reasons.


Dr. Ruden: Well by one account it was supposed to be twice as long. Again, you can question how reliable the biographical accounts are because it was normal in antiquity to write the biography of an author based on their fictional work. So, that’s why we have Euripides in his biography being torn to pieces by Molossian hounds. Now obviously the Bacchae is an influence there. So we can’t state it as fact that he intended the book to be twice as long; but it would be really strange for him to end it here on purpose. I think that’s a commonsensical position.


Mr. Riggins: Where biography is reliable, do you allow it to influence your translations? If there is a convincing biographical account that Virgil intended to subvert the Roman project, do you lean into those moments in which Virgil depicts what Aeneas was doing as horrible?


Dr. Ruden: Well, you don’t really have that from antiquity. The most voluminous account of the Aeneid and its author is the account from Servius and he emphasizes the glorification of Aeneas. So, Servius really emphasizes the moralistic, patriotic project, and he would have Virgil gung-ho for Augustus’s program, which I don’t think really stands up when you go back and read the text. But you take these commentators and biographers from whence they come. They tend to be moralistic. These biographical accounts tend to be designed for school boys, and thus interested in questions like “How do we learn from Virgil to be an upstanding person?” But you can look back at the poem and legitimately question whether this is the right question to ask of it. What would Virgil think about his poem being addressed to little boys to teach them how to behave for the rest of their lives? I think he would have a very dubious response to the idea.


Mr. Riggins: On this subject of the relationship between biography and translation, let’s move to the Confessions, since it is an autobiography. Augustine seems to have almost a universal appeal. People are able to connect with him in a way that they might have trouble connecting with people in the Bible, for instance. Why do you suppose that this work is so powerful?


Dr. Ruden: Well there’s some dispute about whether or not he invented autobiography. I mean, he has a near-contemporary who wrote about his own life, but there really isn’t anything like the Confessions. The emphasis, for example, on the psychology of childhood is just captivating— enthralling, really. For example, he still remembers at a pretty advanced age what it was like to have the tar beaten out of him in school and how it still hurt that his parents thought it was funny. This was a very ordinary experience in antiquity. In school, you were beaten silly. Your parents thought this was a good experience for you. You would complain; they would laugh. This is very ordinary, but he remembers it. He doesn’t let it go, and in that sense he’s a very modern personality. He’s somebody that speaks to us straight across the centuries. He’s somebody we feel like we know. I don’t know of any other Roman or Roman provincial who would dare to say, essentially, “I’ve really never forgiven my parents for collaborating with those who abused me as a child and being okay with my teachers knocking me around.” I remember that in my rural Ohio primary school we had a sadistic and perverted principal who threw one of my classmates up against a wall and dislocated his jaw for sassing him. There was a lawsuit over it, and this is something that still haunts me in middle age. I think it’s a modern sensibility and a Christian sensibility: “How can you do this to someone half your size or someone who has almost no power in comparison to you? How can you do this to a vulnerable body that God created in his image?” So through this book, Augustine takes this leap, in a sense, into ways of thinking that still prevail today, and I think that’s one reason it still enthralls us.

Mr. Riggins: So, in addition to a revised version of your Virgil translation, you also have a translation of the Gospels coming out soon with the Modern Library, right? When will that be released?


Dr. Ruden: It will probably be out within the next year and a half. [In fact, it’s March 2021.]


Mr. Riggins: That’s great. I’ve heard you talk about your upcoming translation in your other interviews and other writings, and one of the things I’ve heard you say is that most of the translations we have now miss a lot of humor that’s present in the originals. Why do you suppose that is, and how does your translation go about rectifying that?


Dr. Ruden: The Gospels are full of humor, almost none of which survives in any clear form in any standard English translations. There seems to be a prevailing conviction now, which is certainly not there in the ancient world, that humor is somehow incompatible with religion and reverence. But you could read the Hebrew Bible and just laugh yourself silly. The modern world has lost that sense, and it probably has to do with the state structure subsuming religion in the modern West. The Bible is as fabulous survival of a very long period in which people who were carrying the religion were more or less excluded from political power. It’s really this amazing phenomenon that people practicing the Jewish religion were never able to consolidate their power except for quite brief and quite distressing periods. Maybe they could consolidate some, but basically from the reign of Solomon onwards, you have upheaval and disaster, and it just goes on and on and on. So you don’t get things settled where the religion can dictate behavior. Then Christians are this lower-class cult which is associated with the Jews. But the Jews are in a particularly bad position after the destruction of the Temple [in 70 C.E], and as they struggle to re-form, they don’t want anything to do with Christians. So Christians are on their own and undergo major persecution. They go on for hundreds of years being a very disfavored movement, and they’re doing their own thing outside of public power. Just think about Saturday Night Live. What do people excluded from power do? They laugh. That’s one thing they can do. They can laugh. And they do it in great abundance in the Bible. But then when the Church and state meld together in late antiquity, the sense of humor goes by the wayside. When people look at government from the inside, they don’t think anything’s funny.


Mr. Riggins: Could you give an example of an instance where the Gospels are funny in a way that’s lost on us?


Dr. Ruden: Well, you know the passage where it says that if someone sues you for one garment you should give him both garments? In ancient Judea, you only have two garments. The Jews are a puritanical culture, and Jesus was not thinking in any other terms. They don’t do public nudity. So here you are standing in court, nude, because you’ve handed over both garments. “Okay, you want both? Don’t let me hold back anything. I think I owe you both of these.” Of course it’s humorous. The Talmud is not without dirty jokes either, used to make points. Not anything explicit. They’re always very euphemistic, but you do find that kind of thing in the Talmud.


Mr. Riggins: So how do you recast that in your translation so that people can see the humor behind it?


Dr. Ruden: You don’t want to be heavy-handed, but sometimes you’ll have to add a word or two. You don’t want to do too much in footnotes. I think scripture should be read continually. You should have this kind of immersive experience and get into it as a literary work and not be constantly referring off to some supplementary material. So, I try to stay away from jokes that don’t work without the footnote. Sometimes you have to add a few words. You can do some things by really careful word choice. When Jesus is being sarcastic, I think it’s acceptable to add a “Well...” at the beginning and then have him speak very pointedly, and often that’s just a matter of word choice and vocabulary so you don’t have to depart from the text. You just have to work at it, because to my mind, if you translate a funny passage and the result is not funny, then you’ve mistranslated. It’s worse than just making a mistake about what one word means. The humor is a basic part of the meaning. It’s bound in there with the message that this thing is supposed to convey.


Mr. Riggins: Well, we’re all looking forward to reading your new translation. Earlier you mentioned you picked up Hebrew late in your career.


Dr. Ruden: Oh, yeah, really late.


Mr. Riggins: So now you’ve published translations in three different languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.


Dr. Ruden: Yeah, I have small Hebrew translations in my book, The Face of Water. It’s about the Bible, mainly about problems in translating the Bible. So, in trying to address the problems and setting priorities about things to represent in translation, I do some experimental translations, and some of them are of Hebrew.


Mr. Riggins: Do you have a favorite language to work in?


Dr. Ruden: Well, I’ve been with Latin for a long time, and there are some authors in Latin whom I absolutely love—Apuleius, for example. Latin just does fabulous things, and late antiquity is so modern, and it’s such a scream. I guess I would have to say Latin.


Mr. Riggins: Okay. Well, we’re almost at the end of our time, so I’ll close with this question: why should we continue to read great works like the Aeneid and Confessions today?


Dr. Ruden: Would you miss them? I’m a translator, so I’m attached to them. I can understand that if your translations are dull, you might question why you have to read them. ‘Am I doing this to make myself a better person? In what way am I going to become a better person?’ I can see that, if your translations were not up to par, you would be asking yourself that, but I don’t think you should be put in a position where you have to ask yourself that. ‘Why do I slog through the Aeneid if it doesn’t enthrall me or entertain me more than anything I can get on Netflix?’ I just don’t think you should be left asking that question. I think the value of this stuff should be self-evident, first of all, aesthetically—and the aesthetics are bound up in the meaning of these works. If you asked an ancient author how the aesthetics of a work and the meaning of a work are related, he’d say “Why are you talking about two things? Those are one thing.” You should get pulled into Virgil and love it. It’s just the most exciting thing going. And you’re dealing almost unconsciously with ideas as you read it. That would be my answer.


Mr. Riggins: Thank you very much for your time.

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