“Follow the Lord if you want to be perfect, and associate yourself with those among whom He speaks wisdom, He Who knows what to apportion to the day and what to the night, so that you will also know it and so that there will be lights for you too in the firmament of heaven. But this will not come to be if your heart will not be there, nor if your treasure will not be there, as you have heard from the good Teacher; what will be there instead is a barren and saddened earth, with thorns choking the word.”
These are not the final words of Augustine’s Confessions; they are, however, the final words of Peter Constantine’s new translation of Augustine’s Confessions, as it has been printed by Liveright. The last twenty-nine chapters of the thirteen-book classic are missing. Yes, missing. A barren and saddened earth, indeed! When I discovered that the text ended abruptly at XIII.24 instead of XIII.53, I began flipping frantically through the hardcover, looking for an explanation. There was none. I downloaded the Kindle version, wondering whether this was merely a misprint in my advance copy: the chapters were missing there, too. I called Liveright. A few hours later, I received a surprised (and appreciative) response: Constantine, who has translated to great acclaim authors ranging from Machiavelli to Tolstoy, had been ill during the editing process, and the work was mistakenly published without its final chapters. All future printings will be fixed.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will edit the editors? Although the translation has been out for months and has received reviews in important publications, no one seems to have caught the omission. How is this possible? Two reasons. First, reviewers of translations can (apparently!) get away with not reading the text from cover to cover. The merits and weaknesses of the translator’s method and style are usually evident from the start, and a reviewer may choose to hone in on a few key passages rather than attempting to confront the complete work.
Second, and more importantly, the end of Confessions is (apparently!) not counted among those few key passages. The final four books, in which the saint’s musings on memory, eternity, and creation supplant his autobiographical account of struggles with sin and faith, are woefully under-read and underappreciated. To stop reading after Book IX is to miss the point of the text, which uses the lifestory of a man to capture our attention, only to teach us that God, and not man, is the proper object of contemplation. Readers familiar with Plato’s Symposium may think of it this way: Augustine is, in a sense, encouraging us to climb the so-called Platonic ladder—love for one man is to give way to love for all men, and so on, until, ultimately, we come to love the Good itself—but those who read Confessions solely for its autobiographical content may never get past the first or second rung. Our reward for ascension is made explicit in the last chapter: just as the Platonists seek the Good in the hope of joining the company of the gods and becoming athanatoi,immortal, so we are to seek and reflect God’s goodness in the hope of coming to “rest in [His] great power to make us holy.” The best way to achieve this reward, Augustine concludes, is to ask God directly for understanding—that is, to address God in our ownConfessions. Augustine’s final words therefore justify and explain the entire enterprise of Confessions, while offering the reader a constructive way forward.
And I think Sarah Ruden—the poet and translator whose new Confessions for the Modern Library was released a few months before Constantine’s, following on the success of her translations of Aeschylus, Apuleius, Aristophanes, and Virgil, among others—would agree. Ruden, however, overstates the case in her introduction when she imagines Augustine commenting that “everything from my personal memories to my cosmic reflections is really just a joke” in contrast to “prayer and praise of God.” A joke? For whose amusement? God’s? The reader’s? Ruden does not say.
If it’s all just a joke, why does Augustine bother? He seems rather to believe that the personal memories and cosmic reflections are somehow integral to prayer and praise of God. We may better understand this if we consider, first, how much of Augustine’s intellectual struggle in Confessions involves coming to grips with what it means for man to be made in God’s image and, second, how often in his corpus the saint grapples with the responsibility of being made in God’s image. If we are in God’s image, then we can and should work to achieve a degree of likeness to God, and we may do this by living according to Christ’s example—that is, by following the one who is God’s image and is therefore His perfect, equal likeness. Augustine’s autobiography is, then, not a joke; it is an offering to God, an acknowledgment of and an apology for the ways in which his life story has failed to live up to Christ’s.
Still, Ruden’s reading has compelling consequences for her translation: because the autobiography “is really just a joke,” she imagines Augustine saying, “I fill it with little jokes.” That is, she explains, Confessions “is crammed with puns and other wordplay, alliteration, clever allusion, abrupt self-correction, whimsical digression, and self-deprecating rhetorical questions.” Here, Ruden’s translation excels. In the thirteenth chapter of Book I, for example, when Augustine describes his transition from infancy to boyhood, Ruden successfully captures the saint’s wordplay with infans, which combines the negative prefix in- and a verb of speaking, fari: “I wasn’t an ‘in-fant,’ or ‘non-speaker,’ any longer but a boy, talking.” Compare this to Constantine’s rather dry translation of the same line: “I was no longer an infant who could not talk but had become a boy speaking.” Similarly, during the infamous pear-stealing episode in Book II, Ruden’s translation maintains the alliteration of the Latin: “We filched immense loads, not for our own feasting but for slinging away to swine,” proiicienda porcis. Again, Constantine’s translation falls a little flat: “taking with us a huge load, not to eat, but to throw to the pigs.”
Ruden’s attention to detail fades, though, in some of the more philosophical stretches of text. At XIII.5, for instance, Augustine wonders why God made the created world:
Quid ergo tibi deesset ad bonum quod tu tibi es, etiamsi ista vel omnino nulla essent, vel informia remanerent, quae non ex indigentia fecisti, sed ex plenitudine bonitatis tuae, cohibens atque convertens ad formam, non ut tanquam tuum gaudium compleatur ex eis? Perfecto enim tibi displicet eorum imperfectio, ut ex te perficiantur et tibi placeant; non autem imperfecto, tanquam et tu eorum perfectione perficiendus sis.
What then could You have lacked for Your good, which You are to Yourself, if Your Creation had either never existed or if it had remained formless? You did not create it out of any need but out of the wealth of Your goodness, embracing and converting it to form, not as if Your joy were to be completed by it. Perfect as You are, its imperfection displeased You, and consequently You perfected it so that it would please You: it is not that You were imperfect and by perfecting it You became perfect.
Augustine here adapts the Demiurge of Plato’s Timaeus to paint a picture of a God who is perfect and lacks nothing, but who creates the world because of His desire, in Plato’s words, “that all things should be good.” In short, Augustine’s God does not need to create the world; He chooses to do so. Ruden, however, translates the passage thus:
So what would have been missing in you, as far as the good goes—the good you are in yourself? For that matter, those created things could have been nothing at all, or could have remained unformed. You didn’t make them because of any shortcoming of your own, but rather out of the fullness of your goodness you confined them and converted them to form. It’s not as if your joy is completed by them. It’s because to you in your perfection their imperfection is displeasing, so that they need to be perfected out of you and to please you—it’s not, in contrast, as if you were imperfect and needed to be perfected by means of their perfection.
Ruden muddles the language of necessity, introducing a “need” that is not in the Latin, thereby indicating that the created world comes about for some reason other than God’s desire. She tries to maintain that this reason is not some need, or shortcoming, on the part of God (“it’s not . . . as if you were imperfect and needed to be perfected”), but by saying that the created things “need to be perfected out of you and to please you,” she nonetheless suggests that God is somehow bound by an external necessity—that necessity, and not desire, compels Him to create.
The confusion continues in the following chapter:
Et multa diximus de coelo coeli, et de terra invisibili et incomposita, et de abysso tenebrosa, secundum spiritualis informitatis vagabunda deliquia, nisi converteretur ad eum a quo erat qualiscumque vita, et illuminatione fieret speciosa vita, et esset coelum coeli eius, quod inter aquam et aquam postea factum est . . . .
I have said so much about the Heaven of Heavens, and about the invisible and unformed earth, and about the dark deep with the flow and flux of its spiritual formlessness; once it turned toward Him from Whom it had the modicum of life that it had, it became through His illumination a beautiful life and the heaven of that heaven which God later placed between water and water.
We have said a great deal about the heaven of heaven, and the earth that was unseen and unformed, and the dark abyss with its roving instability of spiritual formlessness. It needed to be turned to him, who had caused it to be life (such as that life was); it needed to become, through illumination, life that was beautiful—fit to be seen, so to speak. It needed to become his heaven of heaven, which was created afterward between one realm of water and another.
Constantine’s translation is not exact, since it loses the force of the negative conditional created by nisi ( . . . spiritual formlessness were it not turned toward Him . . . ); Ruden’s, however, is fabricated. She attributes to the created world a necessity that is simply not in the Latin, even going so far as to dress it up with anaphora and a tricolon crescens (“needed . . . needed . . . needed”). Once again, Ruden suggests that God is bound by external necessity. Her translation of the passage is, on the most charitable interpretation, irresponsible; on the least, it borders on heretical.
Of course, Ruden, by her own admission, “does not have specialized theological or philosophical training” and therefore finds the final four books “challenging.” Moreover, she does not translate for a nitpicky academic audience, eschewing, for instance, the “top-down, academically elaborated and enforced ideological and doctrinal consistency and discipline” that characterize most modern translations of Confessions.
But if not for academics, then for whom does she translate? Her introduction is not an introduction to Confessions but rather an introduction to Sarah Ruden’s take on Confessions. First-time readers will learn a great deal about the state of the Church in the fourth and fifth centuries but will hear nothing of Augustine or his opus until nine pages in—at which point they will have to bear with Ruden as she hops from tangent to tangent, avoiding the outline of the text that she promises to deliver (“To back up to book 2 and start again from there,” she writes, two pages later). Finally, after only six pages on Augustine, Ruden presents her readers with a whopping nineteen pages on her own methodology, complete with a sort of trigger warning about her use of the language of “master” and “slave” (dominus and servus) “with its reminders of American plantation slavery” and an explanation that she does not translate continentia as “abstinence” because “it is unfortunately freighted with the distracting reminder of a long-running American public education controversy.”
In other words, Ruden does not give the neophyte much of a reason to “pick up and read,” as Augustine memorably puts it. She’s so in her own head, busy justifying her every decision, that she misses the bigger picture. Constantine’s introduction, by contrast, begins like this: “Augustine’s Confessions (397–398 C.E.) has remained among the most original works of world literature. It is like no work before it, and there has been no work like it since.” Now that’s a book I want to read.
Ruden is interpreting, in big ways and small.
It is telling, perhaps, that Constantine prefaces his translation with a quotation from Augustine, from the Retractiones, while Ruden prefaces hers with a quotation from . . . Sarah Ruden: her own poem “Translators.” From the start, Ruden’s voice, not Augustine’s, shines through most clearly. It puts me in mind of another new, highly touted translation: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. Wilson, like Ruden, employs casual conversational language (Ruden, for example, translates ergo as “to sum up”) and advocates flexibility when translating the same word or epithet in different contexts, thereby avoiding “doctrinal consistency and discipline.” Wilson, unlike Ruden, however, does not purport to strive for “literary faithfulness”: “My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original.”
Ruden is interpreting, in big ways and small. She is interpreting when she translates moriar ne moriar (literally: let me die so that I may not die) as “Let me die, to keep me from dying”—that is, she is introducing agency to the purpose clause; and she is interpreting every time she translates the same word, e.g. firmamentum, differently depending on context—that is, her English spells out what Augustine’s Latin purposefully leaves ambiguous. Perhaps it is hubristic of Wilson to think she can rewrite the Odyssey, but it is certainly hubristic of Ruden to claim literary faithfulness, given how much she toys with Augustine’s language.
Nevertheless, there is great value in Ruden’s translation. It is not for first-time readers, and it is not for academics; there is something to be said, however, for her “jagged” style, attention to wordplay, and novel paragraph spacing. For sheer beauty and philosophical clarity, I favor Constantine’s translation (at least until XIII.24), but the ease of his lyrical prose lulls the reader into an almost meditative state. Ruden, on the other hand, keeps us guessing and thus thinking. Tolle lege!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 62
Copyright © 2018 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com