Academic journal article Akroterion

Partly Folksy, Sometimes Smirking: A New Translation of Augustine's Confessions

Academic journal article Akroterion

Partly Folksy, Sometimes Smirking: A New Translation of Augustine's Confessions

Article excerpt

1. Sine praedicante

At Confessions 1.1 Augustine is rhetorically asking God, to whom his work is addressed, how he ought best to begin:

   da mihi domine, scire et intellegere, utrum sit prius invocare te
   an laudare te. sed quis te invocat nesciens te? aliud enim pro alio
   potest invocare nesciens. an potius invocaris ut sciaris? quomodo
   autem invocabunt, in quem non crediderunt? aut quomodo credent sine

Sarah Ruden's new translation is a self-consciously updating one, it breaks with conventions in several ways and aims to redeem Augustine as 'literary artist', the 'poetic creator' (p. xxviii) and in its way efface 'any impression of Augustine--in this work, anyway--as a plodder or systematizer rather than a poetic, organically branching, rather whimsical author' (p. x1). There is a long tradition of reading and translating Augustine, devoted scholars and readers have reflected on his works for many centuries. To give a sample of how many English readers, since the 17th century, would first have encountered this opening passage, here are the above lines rendered by William Watts from his translation first published in 1631, (he had relied in some measure on Sir Tobie Matthew's 1624 translation, even while referring to Matthews as 'the papist'--readings of Augustine have long been contentious): (1)

   Grant me, Lord, to know and understand what I ought first to do,
   whether call upon thee, or praise thee? and which ought to be
   first, to know thee, or to call upon thee? But who can rightly call
   upon thee that is yet ignorant of thee? for such an one may instead
   of thee call upon another. Or art thou first called upon that thou
   mayest so come to be known? But how then shall they call on him, in
   whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe without a
   preacher [sine praedicante]?

When it comes to works from Antiquity, the reader without Latin or Greek has to take a translator's word for it, but fortunately there are many translations to choose from and weigh against one another these days. Perhaps, the most important way in which a translator can serve this particular writer is to emulate in some way his gift for expressing the tension, the inward drama, which was the very contents of his life as he regarded it. (2) Augustine's Confessions is a work memorably marked by such tensions and hesitations and a deep sensitivity to the reality of ignorance, of the self as a shadowy thing only partially illuminated by sacred truths that came from God and the hard-won insights of self-scrutiny. The heart is afflicted by lifelong disquiet, until it finds rest in God, inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. In Confessions, these tensions and anxieties are vividly dramatized in the form of an extended apostrophe, by a man who defines himself through his formative doubts, questioning, his active and continuous intellectual and spiritual struggling.

These struggles constitute the voyage towards his God's grace, the movement towards salvation. His is a lifelong dialogue of inquiry and interpretation of himself, as if he constituted a living text undergoing a delicate, ongoing exegesis, whose chapters' meanings are illuminated by earlier chapters. This self--Augustine--is an unfolding story, acts and responses that form a Life, whose illuminations have been foreshadowed in its earlier instantiations, rather as Sacred Scripture is an account of new truths foreshadowed in revelations and narrations past.

This tension--between past and present, understanding and ignorance, spiritual yearning and actual condition of hesitation and incomprehension--is in part the greatness of the work and the man. Its complexity and liveliness issue from the strongly felt sense of difficulty and a deeply intimate life of thought cogently conveyed but finely retaining every subtlety of colouring. Many readers have experienced this simultaneous power and nuance of the work, which has the immediacy of a living internal voice, the volume and presence of consciousness itself. …

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