St. Augustine in Translation

We’re getting a lot of great feedback on our latest History of Literature episode, #44 – The Confessions of St. Augustine. One of the great things about Augustine is how readable it is: even though the arguments are deep, the prose is never dense, especially in a very good translation.

Several of you have asked which translation I would recommend. I’m not an expert, but I’m happy to offer my thoughts. I’ve previously relied on the Penguin editions, and those are usually pretty safe bets. This time I looked at several before deciding on the one I did, which is by Maria Boulding.

(Clicking the image will take you to the Amazon page.)

Translations can be excellent in different ways. Boulding’s is fresh without being anachronistic, readable without losing the Latinate rhythms and flavor. I think it does Augustine justice. I read a few passages yesterday on the podcast, but for those of you who want to examine it on the page, here’s an excerpt to see what you think:

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.

Good, right? And here’s a simpler one, leading up to the famous “pear-tree incident”:

Beyond question, theft is punished by your law, O Lord, and by the law written in human hearts, which not even sin itself can erase; for does any thief tolerate being robbed by another thief, even if he is rich and the other is driven by want? I was under no compulsion of need, unless a lack of moral sense can count as need, and a loathing for justice, and a greedy, full-fed love of sin. Yet I wanted to steal, and steal I did. I already had plenty of what I stole, and of much better quality too, and I had no desire to enjoy it when I resolved to steal it. I simply wanted to enjoy the theft for its own sake, and the sin.

That’s a simple, workmanlike paragraph. But those are the ones that need to get you through. Think of a translation as a trip to the Himalayas: yes, you can expect the peaks to tower above you, but you also should pay attention to the way the valleys are going to connect one base to the other. Boulding’s translation gave me the full, rich landscape, and I was happy to spend some time there.


Listen to Episode #44 – The Confessions of St. Augustine: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 47:54 — 33.2MB)

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