Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

confessions-88.jpgWhile some reviewers have found Sarah Ruden’s recent translation of St Augustine’s Confessions unnecessary, ‘jarring’, and marked by too many ‘aesthetic costs’, many, it seems, have welcomed it, and that not least because of the ‘vivid, personal prose’ that characterises its pages. Among the latter we might now add the brilliant Augustine scholar Peter Brown who, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, notes that one of the things that he most appreciates about Ruden’s work is its presentation of God’s lively personhood, a liveliness that makes Augustine more alive also. Here’s a taster:

So what is the correct reaction when we open the Confessions? It should, perhaps, be one of acute embarrassment. For we have stumbled upon a human being at a primal moment – standing in prayer before God. Having intruded on Augustine at his prayers, we are expected to find ourselves pulled into them, as we listen to a flow of words spoken, as if on the edge of an abyss, to a God on the far side – to a being, to all appearances, vertiginously separate from ourselves.

The measure of the success of [Sarah] Ruden’s translation is that she has managed to give as rich and as diverse a profile to the God on the far side as she does to the irrepressible and magnetically articulate Latin author who cries across the abyss to Him. Most translations of the Confessions fail to do this. We are usually left with the feeling that one character in the story has not fully come alive. We meet an ever-so-human Augustine, with whom it is easy to identify even when we most deplore him. But we meet him perched in front of an immense Baroque canvas called “God” – suitably grand, of course, suitably florid, but flat as the wall.

How does Ruden remedy this lack of life in God? She takes God in hand. She renames Him. He is not a “Lord.” That is too grand a word. Its sharpness has been blunted by pious usage. Augustine’s God was a dominus – a master. And a Roman dominus was a master of slaves. Unlike “Lord,” the Latin word dominus implied, in Augustine’s time, no distant majesty, muffled in fur and velvet. It conjured up life in the raw – life lived face to face in a Roman household, lived to the sound of the crack of the whip and punctuated by bursts of rage ….

To make God more of a person, by making Him a master, does not at first sight, make Him very nice. But at least it frees Him up. It also brings Augustine to life. In relation to God, Augustine experiences all the ups and downs of a household slave in relation to his master. He jumps to the whip. He tries out the life of a runaway. He attempts to argue back. Altogether, “Augustine’s humorously self-deprecating, submissive, but boldly hopeful portrait of himself in relation to God echoes the rogue slaves of the Roman stage” [Ruden]. (Indeed, the thought of the bishop of Hippo as having once been the slippery slave of God – like Zero Mostel as the plump and bouncy Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – somehow lightens the impression of a seemingly inextricable roller coaster of sin and punishment that we usually derive from reading the first part of the Confessions.)

For God can change His mood. Like any other free person, He can show a different side. The Confessions is about the marvelous emergence of new sides of God as Augustine himself changes in his relation to God, over the years, from slave to repentant son to lover. Ruden may have to defend her re-translation of the name of God from “Lord” to “Master.” But her approach is a thoughtful one. It is governed by a determination to present Augustine’s relations with his God as endowed with the full emotional weight of a confrontation between two real persons. She takes no shortcuts. Small departures from conventional translations show her constant effort to capture an unexpected dimension of tenderness (very different from that of the slave owner) in God’s relation to Augustine and in Augustine’s to God.

To take small examples: Ruden does not have Augustine “embrace” Jesus as if He were a proposition. He takes Him in his arms. When Augustine looks back at his first mystical awakening, he cries: Sero te amavi: “Late have I loved you!” It is a famous cry. But it is a little grand. You and I would say: “I took too long to fall in love.” And this – the less dramatic but more human turn of phrase – is what Ruden opts for. Repeated small acts of attention to the humble, human roots of Augustine’s imagery of his relations to God enable Ruden to convey a living sense of the Being before Whom we find him transfixed in prayer: “Silent, long-suffering and with so much mercy in your heart.”

So far, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Ruden’s translation, and it will sit happily alongside my copy of Chadwick’s translation of the same. The latter remains my go-to translation, but Ruden certainly helps me to notice things that I have otherwise missed while reading Chadwick and others. I can also imagine setting some of its chapters as readings for my students, precisely because of the reasons Brown names. For both of these reasons, I am grateful for Ruden’s work.

And how perfect is that cover!

2 thoughts on “Peter Brown on Sarah Ruden’s translation of St Augustine’s Confessions

  1. It sounds wonderful — a feisty translation from a blue-sky Quaker to rid us of a fusty old bishop and a fussy Old Nobodaddy. Presumably the impassiblists (with their deity “muffled in fur and velvet”) won’t like it (remembering, with McCormack, that a rejection of divine impassibility may be entirely consistent with an affirmation of divine immutability).

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