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Not all translations are created equal, and often the public domain ones freely available online are some of the worst.

Augustine fans out there - whose translation of Confessions or City of God is the best in English? I'm looking for readability (out-loud or otherwise) here, not necessarily technical accuracy.

Update:

Alright, so no shining knight with a great answer has shown up yet on this one, I thought I would perhaps encourage a bit of piecemeal feedback by listing known English translations of Confessions. I doubt this is a complete list.

  • E.B. Pusey (1838) In Public Domain, free online at Project Gutenberg
  • J.G. Pilkington (1886), free online at www.newadvent.org
  • F.J. Sheed (1948)
  • Albert C. Outler (1955), free online at www.ccel.org
  • John K. Ryan (1960)
  • Maria Boulding (1997)
  • Hal M. Helms (2010)
  • Pusey translation revised by Cormac Burke (2012), free online www.cormacburke.or.ke
  • Benignus O'Rourke (2013)

Here are four excerpts from different translations, all from the first few sentences of Book I, Chapter 3:

Pusey:

Do the heaven and earth then contain Thee, since Thou fillest them? or dost Thou fill them and yet overflow, since they do not contain Thee? And whither, when the heaven and the earth are filled, pourest Thou forth the remainder of Thyself? or hast Thou no need that aught contain Thee, who containest all things, since what Thou fillest Thou fillest by containing it?

Burke:

Do the heaven and earth then contain You, since You fill them? or do You fill them and yet overflow, since they do not contain You? And whither, when the heaven and the earth are filled, pour You forth the remainder of Yourself? or have You no need that aught contain You, who contain all things, since what You fill You fill by containing it?

Boulding:

So then, if you fill heaven and earth, does that mean that heaven and earth contain you? Or, since clearly they cannot hold you, is there something of you left over when you have filled them? Once heaven and earth are full, where would that remaining part of you overflow? Or perhaps you have no need to be contained by anything, but rather contain everything yourself, because whatever you fill you contain, even as you fill it?

O'Rourke:

Do heaven and earth contain you, then, since you fill them? or do you fill them, and is there something of you left over because they are not able to contain you? If so, where else do you pour the rest of your being, when heaven and earth are filled? Or is it that nothing can contain you, because you contain everything and fill everything?

My very initial impression is that the Boulding sounds the most contemporary, but perhaps it is weak in other areas. The book reviews on Amazon rarely address the translation, so I'm asking here.

Update

After quite a bit of side-by-side comparison, I really considered writing my own answer to this question arguing for the Boulding translation. It really is "easier to read" in many regards. Still, I couldn't help but consider the Sheed as a very close second and then superior in other regards.

I would have loved to see more discussion on this, but I think the Christianity SE community needs to be built up some more. That's OK. I decided to accept Charles's answer although I really think it's a bit up in the air. In hindsight, this seems like maybe NOT as good of a candidate for Q&A as I thought. There were far more options out there than I initially realized and they all have relative strengths and weaknesses. What would really help is if someone could get one of the more contemporary translations into the public domain as the old Pusey is really going to be a stumbling block for more than a few folks these days.

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This is actually a superb question. I know some people will say this is primarily opinion based, but this is actually exactly what experts would want to know. –  Affable Geek Sep 19 '13 at 20:38
    
Generally, later translations are better, assuming the translator is sufficiently qualified, because the language will more closely approximate that of the reader. That said, I don't know the qualifications of some of the later translators mentioned, but I definitely feel the pain of reading Pusey. It's like being stuck with a KJV and nothing else! –  Affable Geek Sep 23 '13 at 20:18
    
I hear you. I have two copies of Pusey on my shelf. It's likely that anything is an improvement. Someone needs to redo the Libravox one with something newer while they are at it. –  Matt J. Sep 23 '13 at 20:26
    
Personally, I really like the Pusey version best; it seems quite poetic and beautiful (plus I like reading old fashioned English). I agree with you that the Boulding sounds the most contemporary, and as such, I was wondering how it seems hard to read? Of course, it takes a little bit of thinking to comprehend what is actually being said, but to me it seems that there would be no way to get what is being said across in any easier way, unless you were to drastically stray from the original... –  Byzantine Sep 24 '13 at 23:58
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I asked a friend of mine who teaches classics at a college where all freshman are required to read Confessions. He said, "If you're wondering about what translation to go with, I have used Henry Chadwick's the most often (Oxford World Classics), and I enjoy it, but it's not the most accurate. The edition put out by New City Press (Maria Boulding) comes highly recommended for its accuracy. If you're concerned about accuracy, I would go with the latter." –  Matt J. Sep 27 '13 at 15:46
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1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted
+100

If I were, for some strange reason, compelled against my will to read Confessions aloud before a crowd, I would choose F. J. Sheed’s translation.

In my mind, Sheed not only sufficiently translates the originals into English, but also does the best job with the electrifying high poetry of Augustine's writing.

For example, compare Sheed’s translation of Book I, Chapter III with the examples in the body of your question:

But if you fill heaven and earth, do they contain you? Or do you fill them, and yet have much over since they cannot contain you? Is there some other place into which that overplus of You pours that heaven and earth cannot hold? Surely You have no need of any place to contain You since You contain all things, and fill them indeed precisely by containing them.

Notice that, unlike the other more technical translations, the last sentence in the above excerpt is molded into an imperative sentence rather than an interrogative. This appears to be a subtly significant attempt to convey both the theological, as well as the emotional dynamism that St. Augustine is canonically known for. This also breaks up the monotony of questions by giving some intelligible credit to a philosophical giant such as Augustine.

When reading Sheed’s translation of Confessions (as well as his other works) I often catch myself reading the passages with a sort of rhythm, almost like I’m reading one of C. S. Lewis’ works of poetry. It combines just the right amount of the post-Elizabethan, King James-ish English with a more modern Chesterton-like prose, both of which I am truly fond of.

Here I have loosely rearranged a passage of Sheed’s translation in order to illuminate the rhythmic structures of sentences that help me to stay zeroed in on what Augustine is actually saying:

And if You are already in me,

Since otherwise I should not be,

Why do I cry to You,

To enter into me?

Even if I were in Hell You would be there,

For if I go down into Hell, Thou art there also.

Thus, oh God, I should be nothing,

Utterly nothing,

Unless you were in me,

Or rather unless I were in you,

Of whom and by whom and in whom,

Are all things.

Book I, Chapt. II

Sheed’s translation is thoroughly saturated with a kind of seamlessness, that of which other translations I have read (or have attempted to read) seem to lack. As in all of his theological works, (which I very highly recommend every single one of them) Sheed does an incredible job of efficiently manipulating the English language into transporting eternally understandable truths to simple minds like mine.

Give Sheed a chance…you won’t regret it.

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Really interesting, and exactly along the lines of what I was looking for. Thanks. The fact that Sheed breaks up some of the endless string of questions seems like a really great idea to me. I'll investigate it a bit more. –  Matt J. Oct 1 '13 at 15:29
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I spent my lunch hour comparing passages from Sheed, Chadwick, and Boulding. So many differences! Sheed is definitely the most poetic of the three, managing to sound elevated without being too clunky. Boulding stood out as the most contemporary or colloquial - more like a memoir you might find written today rather than something ancient. I had to admit though that at times the Chadwick seemed to have much more force. In regards to Augustine's mistress, others wrote "lived with" and "carnal pleasure", but Chadwick wrote "slept with" and "erotic indulgence". It has more punch. –  Matt J. Oct 1 '13 at 20:24
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