Augustine gets a makeover in new translation. He hardly needed it.

Augustine’s Confessions is not an under-translated book. A reader limiting herself to modern translations could avail herself of the English vicar J. G. Pilkington’s late 19th-century effort; the Methodist theologian Albert Outler’s; the Anglican priest and Cambridge theologian Henry Chadwick’s; the Oxford professor E. B. Pusey’s; the poet, author and lawyer Frank Sheed’s (my personal favorite); or any number of others. Translating the Confessions at this point is not a matter of lending a hand to stranded students with poor Latin but rather a critical intervention. In the case of the classicist Sarah Ruden, it is a rescue mission.

“I would rather fail openly, fall while going out on a limb for [Augustine], than leave him up there with no chance,” Ruden writes in the introduction to her new translation of the gracious doctor’s Confessions.

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Confessionsby Augustine; translation by Sarah Ruden

Modern Library. 528p $19.75

It might come as a surprise to inheritors of the Western tradition that Augustine is in trouble. A perennial favorite on college reading lists, Augustine is credited by thinkers like Charles Taylor and Larry Siedentop with having laid the intellectual foundations for our modern age. Meanwhile, religious readers know him as a revered saint in the Catholic Church and a beloved theologian among many Protestants, with the rare honor of being a favorite of both pious followers of the Vatican and diehard reformists. If one progenitor of both theological masterworks and workaday spiritual autobiographies—of both high and low Christian literature—must be chosen, it is easily the renowned bishop of Hippo.

But Ruden is having none of that. To start with, she does not like the title Confessions; she would prefer, she writes, to call Augustine’s classic something like The Testimonies. After all: “the Early Christians had procedures for penitence (though nothing like the Catholic rite in its later form), but that is not what Augustine is doing in his book.” Heaven forbid that someone miss the distinction.

By Ruden’s lights, centuries of doctrinal, orthodox Christian interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions have rendered traditional English translations plodding, dry and distant from both the poetic whimsy and rudimentary faith of their author. Translators taking an approach centered on consistency and discipline “are really talking about a top-down, academically elaborated and enforced ideological and doctrinal consistency and discipline, which are much later than Augustine,” she writes, adding: “Would not Augustine have wanted flexibility?” She is quick to remind readers that the man himself “had nothing in common with modern fundamentalists who conflate the truth of the Bible with scientific accuracy,” and that translating firmamentum as “firmament,” which, prior to its use in the King James Bible, had no widespread English usage, “suggests that Augustine is reciting Bible verses in Sunday school.” Perish the thought.

Instead of the fusty old churchman we all know, Sarah Ruden’s Augustine is a dreamer, an artist, a poet. 

Instead of the fusty old churchman we all know or, perhaps even worse, a contemporary Christian (Ruden states that she rejects the word abstinence in her translation due to its “distracting reminder of a long-running American public education controversy”), Ruden’s Augustine is a dreamer, an artist, a poet. “I maintain that the Augustine of the Confessions was a feeling man more than a thinking one,” she writes; the weight of so many centuries of Christian admirers, scholars and clerics has obscured his beautiful spirit, and with her volume she seeks to restore it.

Ruden’s translation is at times just as jarring as her mission statement. Prior readers of Augustine will immediately notice that she renders dominus as “Master” instead of “Lord.” Early Christians certainly imagined themselves as slaves of Christ, and there is perhaps a useful spiritual lesson in that tradition, though Ruden admits her own personal “distaste” for it. Her reasoning is that in praying to God, Augustine could not have been imagining a “political ruler,” which is implied by “Lord,” but rather must have imagined the master of a household. For Ruden, “Master” is meant to convey this apolitical sense of ownership.

Is it really the case that Augustine could not have been imagining both a lord and a master? In Book 19 of City of God, Augustine provides the equitable rule of the paterfamilias over his household as an element of a properly functioning city. Well-ordered and peaceful homes, he argues, have a relation to well-ordered and peaceful polities. The line between the political and the domestic blurs. Must Augustine really have preferred one to the exclusion of the other?

One can ask the same of Ruden’s insistence that, in the Confessions at least, Augustine was “feeling” rather than “thinking.”

Even in Ruden’s quest to recover the bishop’s emotional prose from his allegedly boring traditional translators, some of his more famously poetic passages receive a rather infelicitous treatment. In R. G. Pine-Coffin’s translation, Augustine asks God: “Why do you mean so much to me? Help me find words to explain…. Tell me why you mean so much to me. Whisper into my heart, I am here to save you.” Anyone who has ever pined for a lover can feel the echo of his longing and its aching immediacy. In Ruden’s rendering, on the other hand, the first clause is dropped altogether, and the next reads: “Have pity on me and let me speak…. Tell me, in the name of your mercies, you, Master, who are my God, what you are to me. Say to my soul, ‘I myself am your rescue.’”

There are aesthetic costs, too, to eschewing tradition in favor of strict originalism. In the famous opening of Book 3, wherein Augustine arrives in the licentious city of Carthage, the infamous polis is usually described as a cauldron, from the Latin sartago. It is no accident that sartago, a kind of shallow stew pan often used for dishes composed of unlike ingredients, bears a sonic resemblance to Carthage (in Latin, Carthago). There is no way to retain the rhyme in English, unfortunately, so most translators have gone for capturing the sense of roiling, bubbling and jostling that one takes away from Augustine’s culinary metaphor; a cauldron must suffice where no better pot is available. Ruden, on the other hand, opts for “skillet,” which captures the flatness of the pan better than the chaotic, vaguely witchy character of a cauldron’s contents—but it is the latter Augustine appears to have been aiming at. Ruden’s translation may tell us more about Roman cookery than we would have known otherwise, but in famous and formative passages like these, one is often left wishing for more care for Augustine’s intentions.

Augustine was a poet, yes, but also an intellectual; he was an imaginative dreamer, but also a Christian. All of those facets were united in one man, and it is difficult to see what, if anything, might be gained by trying to split them up.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Enrique Vasquez
5 months 2 weeks ago

In my opinion, I don't think Ruden knows what she is talking about. Augustine must be read in context and not try to "modernize" him. The New City Press translations are the best renderings of Augustine's writings in modern English.

Jim Lein
5 months 1 week ago

The June 19 New Yorker contained an article, "The Invention of Sex: St. Augustine's carnal knowledge" by Stephen Greenblatt. I don't recall him reviewing any particular book; scanning the article, I again noticed no such references. It's interesting that he wrote about Augustine and did not mention this book. At any rate, Augustine is obviously still on people's minds.

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