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The Word and Its Words

by Nicholas Frankovich

The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible, by Sarah Ruden (Pantheon, 272 pp., $26.95)

We would value the written word more if we didn’t have so much of it. Street signs, product labels, instruction manuals, tax forms, blog posts, e-mails, text messages . . . What would Gutenberg say? “That’s not what I had in mind”? The pace at which we produce and consume writing is out of control. A speed-reading tactic that we adopt often without realizing it is to refrain from mentally vocalizing the words as we push our eyes to devour chunks of text as big as possible. We read like a cobra.

That’s why we find the Bible so hard. It’s too big to swallow whole and too dense to digest without chewing it over ever so slowly. In the typical English translation, it’s about three quarters of a million words distributed across 66 books — or 72 or 73, depending on whether, and on how, you count the Apocrypha. Granted, that daunting word length shrinks for the Bible in its original languages, classical Hebrew and Koine Greek, but we avoid them for a reason. They’re tough going, in no small part precisely because they’re so compressed — a single word can pack a lot of detail, whose proper expression in English might require a fairly long phrase. Read the Bible long enough in any translation and the inkling that something is happening here and you don’t know what it is will begin to nag at you. We see through a glass, darkly.

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