QUAERITUR: What’s the best translation of St. Augustine’s “The Confessions”?

From a reader:

What I call: The biography of Augustine Pope Benedict would have wanted to write.

Thank you for the recommendation on the biography [of St. Augustine by Hollingworth]; I have purchased it at Amazon through your site. Can you recommend a good translation of the “Confessions” and/or “The City of God”? Kindle is best, hard copy if necessary for a readable modern translation that is faithful to the original.

That is a good question.  The Confessions is usually the only work most people are exposed to when it comes to the Doctor of Grace.

The best translation –  for most people –  is probably by Dame Maria Boulding, OSB, who was at Stanbrook Abbey.  She captures the aspect of prayer in The Confessions without, for the most part, sacrificing accuracy of translation in the process. The Confessions is, of course, an extended prayer.

You can quibble about some of her choices, of course.  All translations limp.  For example, Augustine says in Book X that he was “loved and feared” (amari et timeri – 10.36.59) by his people.  (Get it Your Excellencies? Fathers?) She choose to say “loved and esteemed” (or something woolly like that), which does not get at what Augustine really said.

By the way, I wrote about that “amari et timeriHERE. I even have a mini PODCAzT with the Latin.

Boulding’s is better – for most people – than Pine-Coffin‘s.  (I am not making up his name.) His translation is good but it is in a style of English many people are no longer used to.  Pinecoffin, however, hits it out of the park sometimes.  For example, when Augustine is talking about his profligate youth in Carthage, P. renders “amans vias meas et non tuas, amans fugitivam libertatem” (3.3.5) as “I loved my own way, not yours, but it was a truant’s freedom that I loved”.  Not precise but dead on.  “A truant’s freedom”.  Wonderful.

Chadwick‘s… no thanks.

Boulding’s translation is also quite affordable.  The paperback is only $9 and the Kindle version is only $8.  UK Link HERE.


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24 Responses to QUAERITUR: What’s the best translation of St. Augustine’s “The Confessions”?

  1. stebert says:

    Would “amari et timeri” make a good episcopal motto?

    [So much so that I would consider changing my own motto!]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. acardnal says:

    Fr. Z, have you ever read Frank Sheed’s translation? I wonder what your opinion was of that version.

    In some of my spiritual readings, Sheed’s edition has been recommended. I’m not sure it’s still in print. I got my used edition from Loome Theological Booksellers.

  3. Andreas says:

    Many thanks for your comments on the various editions, Father Z. The volume I have is a translation by Edward B. Pusey, D.D. with an Introduction by Venerable Most Rev. Fulton J. Sheen (Modern Library, 1949). It, too, is written in old and very beautiful English usage.

  4. Gregory DiPippo says:

    Could it be that by Dame Maria’s accident, or a mistake in her edition, she read “aestimari” for “timeri? They have “tim( )ri” in common. This could be a modern printer’s error, or a variant in the mss. I have encountered much wilder variants in the writings of St. Augustine that appear in the Breviary. One copyist omits the T of ET, either because ET has evolved into E in his spoken language, or he is tired after a long day in the scriptorium, or by the common scribal error known as haplography (writing once what should be written twice.) Then the next copyist hypercorrects ETIMERI to ESTIMARI, with a brief prayer for the repose of his long-deceased brother in religion who didn’t know that ESTIMO is of the 1st conjugation. Just a thought.

    [Perhaps. But I have it on good authority that her translation was challenged in the editing process.]

  5. Patra says:

    Fr. Z, have you ever read Frank Sheed’s translation? I wonder what your opinion was of that version. [I haven’t read that one.]

    Father, I too was wondering about this as I have a copy of Sheed’s translation (1942) that belonged to my late brother.

  6. pberginjr says:

    I’m glad to see your endorsement of Boulding’s translation (the one I bought several years ago but haven’t gotten to yet). I was a bit concerned about it as it has a bit quote from Richard Rohr regarding its excellence.

    Maybe this is the first (only) time you’ve been grouped with him, Fr. Z.

  7. Pingback: Feast Day of St. Augustine of Hippo - BigPulpit.com

  8. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Very tangentially, at least a couple modern languages seem to have collections with excerpts from the works of St. Augustine (in translation) for every day of the year.

    Has anyone done something analogous in English?

  9. Patruus says:

    If you want English and Latin on facing pages and don’t mind a translation that’s just a mite on the ancient side, then William Watts’ version of the Confessions is a candidate. It’s in print as a Loeb edition in two volumes, and is also downloadable in various formats from the Internet Archive.

    He plays a straight bat with “amari et timeri” (“to be loved and feared”) as can be seen on pp.184-5 of vol.2, here –


  10. Vecchio di Londra says:

    I have a great affection for the Pine-Coffin translation (the old 1961 Penguin Classics version) because reading it brought me back to the Church of my childhood, that I had abandoned in the post-VII turmoil of the 1960s. I was particularly struck by the way the many brief quotations are interwoven with Augustine’s story of his spiritual development: it gave me a glimpse of the importance of scripture, and the motivation to read the Bible from cover to cover.
    I looked again at one favourite passage just now: Augustine himself is urged to read Holy Scripture when he is lying dejected under a fig tree in the garden, and hears the voice of a little child from a nearby house calling out ‘Take it and read, take it and read’. Augustine stands up, reads the first passage at which the book falls open: ” ‘Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.’ [Rom 13:13-14]. I had no wish to read more (…) For in an instant (…) it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.”

    P-C’s language is admittedly a bit old-fashioned, slightly formal and literary, but that isn’t entirely wrong for Augustine, or for the recollected-in-tranquillity feel of the Saint’s memoir.

  11. Legisperitus says:

    Pine-Coffin’s is the one I read, and it affected me extremely deeply, so it must have had something going for it. I read the Confessions at a time when I had just run out of C.S. Lewis non-fiction to read, and the transition of style from Lewis to Pine-Coffin felt fairly natural.

  12. M. K. says:

    What is wrong with the Chadwick translation? I have used it before in teaching the Confessions to undergraduates, and it seemed serviceable enough. (For classroom use, I wanted a translation that was modern yet still elegant – and Chadwick seemed the best bet for that; for personal devotional use, I suspect I would opt for one of the older translations mentioned, or perhaps I would try Boulding.)

  13. Joel says:

    I have in paperback the John K Ryan, (Monsignor I believe), version of 1960. I like it but wonder how it compares to the others mentioned.

  14. My teacher, Peter Brown (yes, that Peter Brown), always recommended Frank Sheed’s translation. I like it and have always assigned it to my students.

    And, yes, it is in print and the last three chapters, not published in the original edition are now included: HERE

  15. msc says:

    I, too, would like to hear why Fr. Z. objects to the Chadwick, given the very high praise it has gotten. I haven’t looked at it so I’m truly in the dark.

  16. Patruus says:

    Eight translations of one particular sentence from the Confessions are brought together for comparison on this page –

    The Latin original is: “Sed exhalabantur nebulae de limosa concupiscentia carnis et scatebra pubertatis, et obnubilabant atque obfuscabant cor meum, ut non discerneretur serenitas dilectionis a caligine libidinis”.

    The Sheed translation is previewable (up to page 46) here –

  17. jbpolhamus says:

    I read the Sheed, and found it excellent.

  18. Mrs. G says:

    I asked the question that Fr. Z was kind enough to answer with a new post. It’s the Sheed (1942) that I own and have never managed to finish. Book-length thees and thous got tedious, as did occasional sentences long enough that I wished for more punctuation as an aid to understanding. Here’s his version of 2.2.2 to add to the helpful list linked by Patruus: “…but from the muddy concupiscence of the flesh and the hot imagination of puberty mists steamed up to becloud and darken my heart so that I could not distinguish the white light of love from the fog of lust.” I’ve d’led a Kindle sample of the Boulding in hopes of finding her easier to follow without giving up too much beauty/accuracy.

    I also own “The City of God” translated by Marcus Dods (1950). I’ve never even attempted it, wanting to read “The Confessions” first. Any opinions about a good translation there or should I plan to tackle his thees and thous after “The Confessions”?

  19. James C says:

    I too would like to hear more about Fr. Z’s objections to the Chadwick translation. It seems to be the most commonly read now, especially in classrooms.

    I just checked my iPieta app, and the translation of the Confessions there is by a certain “J.G. Pilkington, M.A., Vicar of St. Mark’s, West Hackney; and sometime Clerical Secretary of the Bishop of London’s fund.”

    Christianaudio.com’s audiobook of the Confessions uses the Pusey translation.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    StWinefride: Thank you!
    James C reminded me of another possible resource: LibriVox.org. One can try listening to Albert Outler’s translation of The Confessions and Marcus Dods’s, of The City of God, there (though I have not done so, yet: I read Pine-Coffin with delight and instruction, but have only read around in The City, more in Bettenson’s (usefully indexed!) than in Dods’s translation) – where someone is also working on an audio version of the Latin text (!) .

  21. Quis ut Deus says:

    Amazing! I was just thinking today that I need to email Fr. Z and ask him about a better Confessions translation because I was giving away my old one. What terrific timing!

  22. jflare says:

    Hmm. Tough to know how to respond to this one….
    I pulled out my copy of the Confessions, seems that mine came by way of Albert C. Outler, with revisions from Mark Vessey, but it’s a Barnes and Noble Classic, not Amazon.

    I also have a copy of The City of God, evidently translated by Marcus Dods, with a foreword by Thomas Merton.

    I rather cringed at the comment about most people who’ve heard about Augustine have heard about Confessions. I thought I was doing rather well to have read it at all. I’d never heard of it before maybe 6 years ago or so. I did read it about 5 years ago, but found it a pretty tough read. Some time before that, one of my cousin’s kids had commented that Cicero tended to take a good half page with one sentence; I got the impression that Augustine must have learned from him.
    He (Augustine) DOES make his point, but he seems to me to ramble a LOT!

    I’ve also read a few of the later chapters of The City of God. ..I likely won’t be trying more anytime soon. He’s simply too..long-winded for me.

    I will admit though, I never thought of Confessions as a prayer. ‘Course my copy DOES come from a secular source, so the introduction likely didn’t concern itself with noticing that particular idea.
    It does make a difference.

  23. MarkG says:

    I wish I were smart enough to be able to read and understand St. Augustine.

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    jflare and MarkG,
    He wrote/spoke in different ways for for different purposes and readers/listeners, and really tried to be clear for everybody in his diocesan congregations. I enjoyed Augustine the Bishop (1961) by Frits van ser Meer (about his pastoral life after what he tells about in The Confessions), but don’t remember how many quotations from such accessible sermons it gives. Maybe there is a collection of such sermons someone could recommend, on- or offline.