Most scholars think that Augustine composed the Confessions in a four year period between 397 and 401, but the most compelling suggestion is that he wrote it in a two week period in 397 when he was incapacitated by severe hemorrhoids so that, unable to stand or sit, he knelt and dictated the Confessions to his scribes. Perhaps this accounts for the intensity and unity one finds in this beautiful and enduring classic.
Augustine wrote the Confessions soon after he became bishop in order, he tells us, “to stir up the human intellect and affections into God.” And for fifteen centuries, readers of the Confessions have had this very experience: the work repays intense study, has formed generations of theologians and philosophers, and has also been instrumental in countless conversions and reversions.
Once read exclusively in Latin, for the past five hundred years English speakers have been able to read the Confessions in their native tongue. Today, there are numerous English translations available; indeed, nearly a dozen have been published in the past twenty years. Given the plethora of editions, students and friends often ask me what translation of the Confessions they should read. My answer is always the same: “It depends.” There are translations that are closer to the Latin and better for study; there are others that are soaring and beautiful; there are others that are more readable and accessible; there are some that are bold and make the familiar unfamiliar; and there are others that combine these in different ways. Different readers will want different things.
Below, I weigh the merits of eight translations of Augustine’s Confessions, as well as some audio versions. After that, I present translations of two famous passages for comparison. Readers can hear for themselves what the translations sound like. Clearly, these eight translations do not exhaust the possibilities for reading the Confessions, but they do seem to me the ones that merit most consideration.
Translation preferences are idiosyncratic, so read my opinions warily. I try to indicate the broader consensus on each text and where I join or part ways. As always, the best thing for you would be to take up and read one, or more, for yourself.
Review of the Translations
Audio Versions: Let me commend this mode of engaging the Confessions for everyone but especially for those who might be intimidated by reading this ancient and, let us admit, very challenging work. Augustine’s culture was an oral culture. The Confessions were meant to heard, not read silently. Indeed, silent reading was an anomaly in Augustine’s time. Librivox, a free resource, has the Albert Outler (1955) and E.B. Pusey (1876) translations with readers of varying ability. Audible also has a dozen or so versions, also of varying quality (some are professional, some are not). On Audible, there are solid contemporary translations like Chadwick and Boulding, but for my money, I’d listen to a talented British actor like Simon Vance reading the venerable Pusey translation (Pusey was a friend of Newman and fellow leader in the 19th-century Catholic Movement in the Anglican Church).
Frank Sheed Translation (1942): Of Sheed and Ward Publishing fame, Sheed was a lawyer, publisher, and street corner evangelist for the Catholic Evidence Guild. To my ears, Sheed’s translation is the most beautiful English translation available. The same electric current that runs through Augustine’s original can be felt in this translation, which combines a slightly elevated style (more elevated in direct prayers) combined with the immediacy and transparency of a street preacher (not that different from Augustine’s own style). The latest edition includes an introduction by Peter Brown, the best biographer of Augustine, and notes and commentary by Michael Foley, a truly excellent reader of Augustine.
John K. Ryan Translation (1960): Ryan was a priest and philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America in the middle of the last century. Ryan’s translation is not always sonorous, but it is probably the most reliable English language text for studying the Confessions. In addition, Ryan’s notes are apt and illuminating and attentive to the philosophical dimensions of Augustine’s text. It was my preferred translation for the last decade until the new Williams translation (see below).
Henry Chadwick Translation (1991): This translation was, and still is, a great favorite among professors. Sir Henry Chadwick, an Anglican priest and very fine historian, was particularly attentive to Augustine’s philosophical background. In many ways, a solid and dependable translation, I have always found it a bit dry. This, I know, is heresy among my peers, but here I stand. I first read this translation as an undergrad and was unmoved. Upon visiting it again in later years, I found Augustine sounding somewhat like an Oxford don, though, again, my opinion on this matter is in the serious minority!
Maria Boulding Translation (1997): This translation has become a favorite among Catholics for Boulding’s readable and poetic prose, but also for her deep sympathies with Augustine’s spirituality. Sr. Maria was a cloistered Benedictine nun whose own devotion really shines through this translation. One can also find this translation with faithful Catholic commentary in the Ignatius Critical Edition series. Boulding’s translation is looser than others reviewed here, but it is also more accessible for that.
Garry Wills Translation (2008): This translation in the Penguin Classics edition has never really caught on and it is unfortunate. Wills, a prolific and well-regarded crank and scourge of traditional Catholicism, has produced a singular translation of the Confessions. For example, observe how Wills renders Augustine’s most famous line: “you made us tilted toward you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you.” This is a bold, strange, even jarring translation, and yet it exactly captures Augustine’s theology here. I have found this translation too odd to give to students, but it is definitely worth consulting and, for the long-time reader of the Confessions, it will provide a fresh take on a familiar text.
Benignus O’Rourke Translation (2016): One of the more surprising and, to me, moving translations of the Confessions comes from Fr. Benignus O’Rourke, the late Augustinian friar and spiritual writer. In the Introduction, O’Rourke tells the story of how as a teen he and a friend visited an Augustinian monk who gave them a popular life of Augustine to read, but lamented that there was no accessible text of the Confessions he could share with him. Sixty years later, a few years before he died, Fr. Benignus bequeathed us such a gift, a striking translation accessible to young people and edifying for everyone. His greatest innovation—which I find completely successful—was to lay out Augustine’s text as a poem. O’Rourke does not divide the text by meter, but by units of meaning. Sometimes he adds punctuation to Augustine’s long Latin sentences, while other times he simply breaks up those unwieldy lines into their component parts. The effect is remarkable in that each line becomes something understandable, easily graspable, and immediate. One weakness of the text—which is also an intentional strength—is that it covers only the first nine (of thirteen) books of the Confessions, the books where Augustine treats the narrative of his conversion. Those looking to do in-depth study should look elsewhere. But for those looking to be spiritually edified or to introduce someone to the Confessions, I recommend this translation above all others.
Sarah Ruden Translation (2017): Classicist, award-winning poet, and Quaker, Sarah Ruden has an impressive record. She has translated Virgil’s Aeneid and the Gospels (among other things) as well as written books on the theory of translation. Her translation of the Confessions has been hailed by foremost scholars and skewered by others. The translation has provoked strong reactions among readers and stronger counter-reactions from the translator. Much of this has to do with old debates about the translator’s task as well as prior attachments to cherished translations. Still, some of it is due to Ruden’s somewhat iconoclastic approach. She wants to give us an Augustine stripped of ecclesiastical baggage, of later systematizations, and give us an Augustine of the pulpit, an Augustine of the people, who eschewed the proud, isolated philosophers and immersed himself in the world of the unlearned. Most readers will be struck by the very first line where Ruden renders Dominus as “Master” rather than “Lord.” Whether our English word “master,” especially in light of our history of chattel slavery, conveys Augustine’s meaning better than “lord,” even with all its theological accretions, I leave readers to decide.
Thomas Williams Translation (2019): Williams is Episcopalian priest of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida, and Canon Theologian at the Cathedral Church of St Peter in St Petersburg and, to my mind, has produced the best overall translation of Augustine’s Confessions to date. Williams is less bold than Wills and Ruden and less elevated than Sheed, but the overall effect of his translation is a clear, playful, and eminently beautiful rendering of Augustine’s text. Williams also makes one simple formatting change that greatly enhances the reading of the Confessions: he does not put quotation marks around Scripture passages and places the references to them (hundreds in the Confessions) in the margins. This has a remarkable effect for the reader, especially the long-time reader of the Confessions. In most translations, there are so many quotes and references that the reader is toggling back and forth between “quote” and “commentary” or between main text and footnote. But this is not at all how Augustine wrote (or dictated) the Confessions. Scripture was a part of him. Scripture flowed out from him as naturally as his own speech. He wasn’t “quoting” Scripture passages, but conforming his own words to the word of God so that they made one continuous sacrifice of praise. Williams’s translation captures the immediacy of Augustine’s prayer, the playfulness of his language, and (without striving too hard) the properly elevated poetry of the text. As priest and philosopher and an Anglican with a good sense of English, Williams understands Augustine from the inside. For the foreseeable future, this will be my go-to translation for the Confessions.
Those who know Latin should consult the invaluable (and free!) critical edition of the Latin text with superb commentary by James O’Donnell. The rest of us, though, will choose one of the translations discussed above. Which one depends on what the reader is looking for. In the end, each translation reviewed here has something to offer. Finally, whether you listen to an audio version or read the Confessions, give yourself over to the text. It will shape you and inform your prayers and your spiritual life in ways that will stay with you the rest of your life, this one and the next.
Translations of Confessions 1.1.1 Compared
Sheed: “Thou dost excite him that to praise Thee is his joy. For Thou has made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”
Ryan: “You arouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Chadwick: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Boulding: “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.”
Wills: “You prompt us yourself to find satisfaction in appraising you, since you made us tilted toward you, and our heart is unstable until stabilized in you.”
“Our delight is to praise you.
For you have so made us that we long for you,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Ruden: “In yourself you rouse us, giving us delight in glorifying you, because you made us with yourself as our goal, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Williams: “You rouse them to take delight in praising you: for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.”
Latin Text (O’Donnell): tu excitas ut laudare te delectet, quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.
Translations of Confessions 2.1.1 Compared
Sheed: “I propose now to set down my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not for love of them but that I may love Thee, O my God. I do it for love of Thy love, passing again in the bitterness of remembrance over my most evil ways that Thou mayest thereby grow ever lovelier to me, O Loveliness that dost not deceive, Loveliness happy and abiding: and I collect my self out of that broken state in which my very being was torn asunder because I was turned away from Thee, the One, and wasted myself upon the many.
Arrived now at adolescence I burned for all the satisfactions of hell, and I sank to the animal in a succession of dark lusts: my beauty consumed away, and I stank in Thine eyes, yet was pleasing in my own and anxious to please the eyes of men.”
Ryan: “I wish to bring back to mind my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul. This is not because I love them, but that I may love you, my God. Out of love for your love I do this. In the bitterness of my remembrance, I tread again my most evil ways, so that you may grow sweet to me, O grow sweetness that never fails, O sweetness happy and enduring, which gathers me together again from that disordered state in which I lay in shattered pieces, wherein, turned away from you, the one, I spent myself upon the many. For in my youth, I burned to get my fill of hellish things. I dared to run wild in different darksome ways of love. My comeliness wasted away. I stank in your eyes, but I was pleasing to myself and I desired to be pleasing to the eyes of men.”
Chadwick: “I intend to remind myself of my past foulnesses and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection. The recalling of my wicked ways is bitter in my memory, but I do it so that you may be sweet to me, a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content. You gathered me together from the state of disintegration in which I had been fruitlessly divided. I turned from unity in you to be lost in multiplicity.
At one time in adolescence I was burning to find satisfaction in hellish pleasures. I ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures. ‘My beauty wasted away and in your sight I became putrid’ (Dan. 10: 8), by pleasing myself and by being ambitious to win human approval.”
Boulding: “Now I want to call to mind the foul deeds I committed, those sins of the flesh that corrupted my soul, not in order to love them, but to love you, my God. Out of love for loving you I do this, recalling my most wicked ways and thinking over the past with bitterness so that you may grow ever sweeter to me; for you are a sweetness that deceives not, a sweetness blissful and serene. I will try now to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self, for when I turned away from you, the one God, and pursued a multitude of things, I went to pieces. There was a time in adolescence when I was afire to take my fill of hell. I boldly thrust out rank, luxuriant growth in various furtive love affairs; my beauty wasted away and I rotted in your sight, intent on pleasing myself and winning favor in the eyes of men.”
Wills: “I am determined to bring back in memory the revolting things I did, and the way my soul was contaminated by my flesh—doing this not out of love for those deeds but as a step toward loving you. I move toward you this way because I would love to love you. I bring back up to expression the bitterness of my vile wanderings so you may sweeten them, you my sweetness never deluding, sure sweetness ever delighting. You gather me from my own scatterings, after I have torn myself from your unity and fallen apart into multiplicity. At the time of my young manhood, when I burned to be engorged with vile things, I boldly foisoned into ramifying and umbrageous loves, while my inner shapeliness was withering—I was decomposing before your eyes while in men’s eyes I was pleasing myself and ‘trying to please them’.”
“I go back now in memory
over the hateful things I did,
and over the corruption of heart
that disfigured my life in those early years.
I do this for love of your love,
recalling in the bitterness of my mind
my shameful deeds.
I recall them not to dwell on them,
but so that, my God,
I may savour your love all the more.
Yours is a love which does not deceive,
a love which is serene and secure.
I will try to recollect the ways
in which my life fell apart,
for, in turning away from you,
the centre of my being,
my life fragmented.
It was torn in shreds
by many and empty delights.
In those days my sexual desires were intense.
My passions ran wild
in many and dark love affairs.
In your eyes I must have seemed loathsome.
My beauty withered.
But I was pleased with myself
and did all I could to be pleasing to others.”
Ruden: “I want to be mindful of the ugliness I engaged in back then, and the dissolution my body wreaked on my soul—not because I’m in love with any of that, but rather, my God, for the purpose of loving you.
I do this out of love for the love I have for you; I recollect the paths of my depravity in the bitterness of my inspection of myself, so that you grow sweet to me, with a sweetness, a charm that’s not deceitful but blessed and safe, binding me together against the scattering force that ripped me to pieces as long as I turned my back on your singularity and disappeared into multiplicity.
At one time, you see, in my youth, I caught the flame of desire to glut myself on the pit of hell, and recklessly grew a whole grove of shady love affairs, several species of them. Any beauty in me ran to ruin, and in your eyes I rotted from the inside out while I approved of myself so much, and yearned for approval in human eyes.”
Williams: “I want to call to mind the ugly deeds I carried out and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but in order that I might love you, my God. It is for the love of your love that I do this, that I revisit the memory of my utterly depraved way of life. How bitter it is to think over it all again! Yet I do this so that I might receive your sweetness, O sweetness that cannot deceive, sweetness that is blissful and secure. It is for the love of your love that I gather together the scattered fragments into which I was torn while I wandered away from you, who are One, and lost myself among the Many. For in the days of my adolescence I was on fire to take my fill of hell, and I had the effrontery to make a savage of myself in various shadowy loves. My beauty wasted away, and in your sight I was wholly putrid; yet in my own eyes I was an appealing sight, and I wanted very much for others to find me appealing too.”
Latin Text (O’Donnell): recordari volo transactas foeditates meas et carnales corruptiones animae meae, non quod eas amem, sed ut amem te, deus meus. amore amoris tui facio istuc, recolens vias meas nequissimas in amaritudine recogitationis meae, ut tu dulcescas mihi, dulcedo non fallax, dulcedo felix et secura, et conligens me a dispersione, in qua frustatim discissus sum dum ab uno te aversus in multa evanui. exarsi enim aliquando satiari inferis in adulescentia, et silvescere ausus sum variis et umbrosis amoribus, et contabuit species mea, et computrui coram oculis tuis placens mihi et placere cupiens oculis hominum.
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