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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. The Masked Chicken says:

    I had a number of links to free versions, but when I went to another tab to try to copy a web site, everything I wrote got erased :(

    The most common freely available version is from the Harvard Classics, translated by E. B. Pusey. It is available from many places in many versions, including audio, at Librivox. I can’t vouch for its faithfulness to the original, however. There is another, newer, free version by Outler, about which I know nothing.

    The Boulding version can be found, online, but it is so recent that my Spidey sense about copyright violation is tingling. It is much safer to buy it.

    The Chicken

  2. donato2 says:

    The reader’s question also inquires about The City of God. I read the Modern Library translation and it contains many long and difficult to read sentences. I have long wondered if that’s the way it is in Latin or if there is a problem with the translation and, if the latter, whether there is a better translation. (Although the Confessions was a more pleasurable read, The City of God had a far more profound impact on me.)

  3. Mikhael says:

    I have also listened to the Edward Bouverie Pusey audio version. Father have you read this translation? If so how would you grade it?

  4. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Father: any thoughts on F. J. Sheed’s translation?

    Thanks; God Bless and Semper Fidelis,

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Rabbit Trail Warning: What do you think is the best trans of the Divine Comedy?

  6. Seamus says:

    What exactly is the problem with the Chadwick translation? (And in addition to Bos Mutissiums’s question, I’d like to add one about the John K. Ryan translation, published by Image.)

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    For those happy to read online or download variously and enjoying the convenience of going back and forth between the Latin text and a translation, there is the old Loeb edition in the Internet Archive (note Rouse’s discussion of text and translation in vol. I, pp. v-vi):


    A selection of letters is similarly available:


    (I assume they know what they’re doing and there is no question here of copyright violation.)

  8. Jacob says:

    My university book store circa 2000 sold the Pine Coffin translation (Penguin). I never finished due to my less than stellar efforts at reading books for class rather than esoteric Tolkien books, but I remember having no trouble with Pine Coffin. Of course, being well read in Tolkien’s more archaic prose from when he was younger helps when it comes to that sort of English. :)

  9. stephen c says:

    I could be wrong, since the Chadwick in question knew Latin way better than I ever will, but Chadwick, as intelligent and well-read as he was, had an unfortunate tendency to use words that have a more immediate but less complete meaning than Augustine’s original. For example, Augustine’s regret at spending time living (in sin) with a woman is, in the original, expressed by the verb for “lived with”, unless I am mistaken, but Chadwick tries to make the text more relevant? more exciting? more existential? by translating “lived with” by “slept with”, thereby, in the name of being “adult” and “cool”, ignoring a main part of Augustine’s regret at not having lived where God wanted him to live, and reducing it to Augustine’s regret for illicit sex, without the overtone of wasting part of one’s lifetime. Another example is Chadwick saying Saint Monica was called a “boozer” by a servant-girl (an insult that cured her of her growing affection for wine) where other translations used, I think, “wine-bibber”. While both expressions are now out of date, the second is less intense and insulting, and relays more accurately how little of an insult it took to straighten out Saint Monica. “Boozer” may be correct, but it is probable Augustine would not have repeated a word from that register in referring to his mother, even in the context of the cautionary tale; another instance where Chadwick makes Augustine sound more like a twentieth century academic, filled with angst and existential scorn and a lack of respect for tradition, where in reality Augustine may be better represented as someone who sounded more old-fashioned than the progressive academics of his (or our) day. Finally, as a general comment, Chadwick often chooses the same register for his translation that the mid-century Bible modernizing translators chose for their translations – a temporarily useful but quickly dated adaptation of contemporary phrases and contemporary bureaucratese, as if the patriarchs and prophets and the contemporaries of Jesus are to be imagined as no different than ordinary uninspired school-teachers and newscasters and lawyers “of today” – as they used to say, and maybe still do. Maybe if I read all of Chadwick’s translation I would like it more than I do, but my guess is that Father Zuhlsdorf is correct in saying no thanks, at least in the presence of other wonderful translations.

  10. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I read and enjoyed Ryan’s decades ago, but knew too little Latin then to make an assessment. I just knew, the book moved me.

  11. jm says:

    Frank Sheed’s translation counts Peter Kreeft and Michael Foley among its fans. Here is Foley:

    “[He] adored poetry and Latin more than anything (he took a copy of Horace’s Odes with him wherever he went), and so his translation of the rhetorically exceptional theologian had to be just right. His son … remembers how his father would translate one page at a time on the New York subway en route to the offices of Sheed & Ward. After he arrived, he would dictate his work to the future Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jean Stafford, checking and double-checking the cadence and sound. Since Augustine intended his Confessions to be read aloud, this attention to euphony gave Sheed’s translation a unique strength. To this day it remains the most canorous and resonant on the market.”

    [Great comment.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  12. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Jim: I second Father’s Gold Star; Thank You Very Much for the insights. Do you recall the source of Mr. Foley’s quote?

    Either way, with such eminent endorsements, clearly we can’t go wrong with Sheed…

    Cheers and God Bless

    Bos Mutissimus

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