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

On this Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, since I am away from the Steam Pipe Distribution Venue, I can think of no better way to help you participate in the feast of this great saint and doctor, than by reposting something from last year.

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

  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    There is an Ignatius Critical Edition of the Boulding translation: HERE

  2. donadrian says:

    I could not get on with the Boulding translation, probably because I grew up with Edward Bouverie Pusey’s rather florid Victorian version; Boulding seems to err in the other direction. Henry Chadwick is scholarly.

    For your information, the Pine-Coffins are a West Country family with a long and distinguished military record. One of them was churchwarden in my village in Sussex before he died a few years ago.

  3. capchoirgirl says:

    I’m a big fan of the OUP: HERE

    [That's Chadwick's translation. I can't say that I share your enthusiasm.]

  4. Josemaria says:

    Father, do you know if there’s a quality edition of the original Latin?

  5. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Josemaria,

    It may not be what you had in mind, but at Internet Archive you can find a scan of the Loeb Classical Library edition (in 2 volumes) with the Latin and a reprint of William Watts 1631 translation (corrected in accordance with the Latin text given) sometimes on back-to-back, sometimes more conveniently on facing, pages, with Scriptural references in the translation’s margin.

    Father,

    Do you have an opinion about Charles Bigg’s partial translation (of Books 1-9)?

  6. Gail F says:

    So excited to read these comments!! I absolutely LOVE Maria Boulding’s translation (didn’t know she was a “dame”) — I literally could not put it down. I didn’t know there was a book like htat anywhere. I can read a little Latin and I do think she captures the pell-mell pace of Augustine. If there is an affordable Latin edition anywhere I would love to buy it. I printed some off the internet o try to read the original (the only time I’ve ever done that with a Latin book, but I really wanted to read what he actually wrote), but the thought of reading the whole thing online is insupportable.

    I didn’t know there was an Ignatius Critical Edition of it! I have another edition someoen gave me that I find unreadable. It is a reprint that doesn’t identify the translator. Maybe Chadwick? My mother-in-law gave it to me because she had had it for a class and was amazed that I liked it. Reading that translation, I’d be amazed that anyone liked it too. I love St. Augustine. He is the saint that helped me understand that the saints are alive and with God… he’s sure not dead.

  7. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    The man who served on my doctoral committee in the UC Berkeley History Department for Late Antique and Byzantine history, Peter Brown (yes, that Peter Brown), said he though Frank Sheed’s translation was the best. And says he still thinks so: he wrote the preface to the new edition that finally included the last three chapters of Confressions, which Sheed had prepared but, for reasons unclear, were not included in the original edition. I agree with P. Brown (and Cathgrl).

  8. KG says:

    What is the problem with the Chadwick translation? That’s the only one I’ve read. I remember thinking that many of the footnotes were distracting, but is there a problem with the actual translation?

  9. Josemaria says:

    Venerator,

    Thank you!

  10. Unwilling says:

    There is much weight in the citation of “truant’s freedom” for fugitivam libertatem. It is not merely a “at least he got one thing right”. A translator’s ability to come up with such a brilliant translation is evidence of deep understanding both of the whole original and of the target language mentality. And, rightly taking for granted verbal faithfulness, it is the overall sense that the user of a translation most requires.

    I have not read Augustine in translation for decades. But I recall that Sheed’s Confessions was good and so far concur with the above recommendation.

    However, there was mention of The City of God too. I had occasion in 2002 to undertake a close, critical reading of most of Henry Bettenson (translator) with David Knowles “introduction” for The City of God against the Pagans Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972. This is a very poor, misleading, irresponsible, misrepresentation of the Civitas Dei.

  11. It’s gotta be Frank Sheed’s translation. Readible, beautiful.

  12. Unwilling says:

    Atonin-D. Sertillanges O.P., La vie intellectuelle… (1920 ff; The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, and Methods. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998); a sadly neglected Catholic classic. Here is an infamous quotation from chapter 5.1:

    Étudiez, bien entendu, en latin! Les traductions de la Somme sont traîtresses. Celui qui se laisserait arrêter par le petit effort de débrouiller une langue dont un esprit ordinaire vient à bout en deux mois ne mériterait pas qu’on s’inquiète de sa formation. Nous parlons pour des ardents: que ceux-là, désireux de pénétrer dans le «cellier à vin», se donnent la peine d’en chercher la clef.

    Study, of course, in Latin. Translations [of a work in post-Classical Latin] often prove false to its thought; they are always inadequate. A man who would allow himself to be deterred by the slight effort needed to make his way about a language that an ordinary mind can master in two months would not deserve to have interest wasted on his mental training. {fn 1} We are speaking to earnest students: let them desiring to get in the ‘wine-cellar’, take the trouble to find the key.
    {fn 1 explains what I have put in square brackets above}

    Such bracing challenges are rare and risk derision. But the basic assumptions are true. The same cannot be said for (even Koine) Greek. And the official Latin of the Church, is often documentary, solemn, ponderous, inaccessible without extensive experience. But the Latin Doctors of the Late Ancient and Medieval periods, and the manuals of the 16th to 20thC can quite feasibly be laid open in two months — say, 200 hours of intense serious study — and other parts of Father Sertillanges book explain how to capture that time in your busy life… if you want and are willing to get serious. The French text is free online (the English more awkwardly in GoogleBooks).

  13. Charles E Flynn says:

    That would be Peter Brown, as in “Augustine of Hippo: A Biography”.

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Josemaria,
    You’re welcome: my pleasure!

    Gail F,
    I am not sure what your preferred price-range is, but a quick check at Amazon tells me the Loeb edition I mentioned is still available, and that a new edition of at least volume one came out in June with a new translation (about which I as yet know nothing!): both apparently new for less than $25 per volume. Loebs are a convenient size for the literal pocket: as to print size, I don’t know that for the new one, the Internet Archive scan will give an idea for the old.

  15. Matt R says:

    Boulding’s translation is also available in an Ignatius Critical Edition from Ignatius Press. It was prepared by Fr. David Meconi, SJ who is a professor of patristics at St. Louis University. He taught the Augustine of Hippo graduate theology class during one of the summer theology graduate sessions at Franciscan University this summer. That class is usually taught by our own faculty’s patristic experts, but Fr. Meconi likes to come every once in a while to teach here…

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  17. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Unwilling,

    It is interesting to compare Fr. Sertillanges advice with Dom Bede Griffiths’s experience (related, I think, in The Golden String (1954) ): not long after graduating from Oxford, he told his old tutor and friend, C.S. Lewis, that he was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions – to which Lewis remarked, “in Latin, of course” – which was not the case, but which encouraged him thereafter to make the effort and read such Christian Latin classics in the original.

    The Harvard scholar and translator of Beowulf, William Alfred, would tell his students of Old English that a translation is always a sort of surreptitious edition of the work translated – editorial decisions about this crux and that hapax legomenon had to be made and put into practice, particular interpretations had to be chosen and offered.

    In this sense, a translation probably always has its contribution to make, even to the reader capable of tackling, or familiar with, the original.

    But, in this context at least, please don’t leave us dangling: what translation(s) of The City of God would you recommend? (I suspect most readers with access to internet but limited pocket and/or access to libraries will end up with Dods at New Advent or CCEL.)

  18. Matt Robare says:

    I liked the translation used in the Britannica Great Books series. Also, St Augustine left behind some great sermons that are a joy to read.

  19. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Matt Robare,

    Well said, about his sermons! I have had the happiness to read an ‘Augustine diary’ with 365 selections- mostly from sermons (or even whole short sermons?) – one year. Unfortunately, not in English. And I don’t think anything like it exists in English (or Latin with facing English translation). It would be a good thing to have, though which publisher might agree, I don’t know…

    (I see the Internet Archive has a scan of the Loeb Classical Library selection of 62 of his letters (with facing translation) in 527 pages (plus, an index). )