Translation as nuclear arms race: David van Schoor reviews Sarah Ruden’s bold interpretation of Augustine’s Confessions

David van Schoor reviews Sarah Ruden’s bold new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

Sarah Ruden
Modern Library, 2017

1. Sine praedicante

Who, would you say, is the greatest African writer and intellectual in history? Judging by influence, surely there can be little controversy if we set that laurel on the head of Augustine of Hippo (354—430 AD).

Augustine may have been taught at school in the global language of his day, Latin, and may have travelled to Rome and Milan to study Greek philosophy, but he was the son of an African mother and African father—born in what is known, today, as Souk Ahras, Algeria—and Africa is the home to which he returned to read, think, preach and, crucially, write.

When it comes to works from Antiquity the reader who does not speak Latin or Greek has to take a translator’s word for it. Fortunately these days, for prominent texts like the one under consideration here there are many translations to choose from and weigh against one another. Perhaps the most important way in which a translator can serve this particular writer is to emulate his gift for expressing the tension, the inward drama, which was the very contents of his life as he regarded it.

Augustine’s Confessions is a work memorably marked by these tensions and hesitations, and a deep sensitivity to the reality of ignorance—of the self as a shadowy thing only partially illuminated by the sacred truths that came from God, coupled with hard-won insights from self-scrutiny. The heart is afflicted by lifelong disquiet, until it finds rest in God, he writes—inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te. In Confessions these tensions and anxieties are vividly dramatised in the form of an extended apostrophe to God by a man who defines himself through his formative doubts, his questioning, his active and continuous intellectual and spiritual struggling.

This tension—between past and present, understanding and ignorance, spiritual yearning and hesitation and incomprehension—is in part the greatness of the work and the man. Confessions’s complexity and liveliness issue both from a strongly felt sense of everyday difficulty and a deeply intimate life of the mind that, while cogently conveyed, finely retains 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.

No sense of doubt, tension or hesitation, by contrast, is expressed by the intrepid poet and translator Sarah Ruden in the ‘Introduction’ to her bold new translation. It is, rather, with a surprising sureness of step that she sets about the notoriously complex task of offering a fresh version, among so many down the centuries, of this 1,600-year-old text. Ruden suggests that, finally, Confessions has found the translator—in her impartiality, freedom from political correctness and unencumberance by theological prejudice and tiresome scholarly practice—it deserves. [Editor’s note: Sarah Ruden, an American who is a visiting scholar at Brown University, lived for many years in South Africa, where she taught Classics at the University of Cape Town. Her volume of poetry Other Places (Justified Press, 1995) was awarded the final instance of the CNA Literary Award.]

It is a view of her work apparently shared by none other than JM Coetzee, and it is worth citing the recommendation to which he lends his name, because it raises very great expectations in the reader, and to any scholar interested in Augustine it is an enticement that cannot be ignored. Coetzee’s advance praise for Sarah Ruden’s translation runs:

Based on fresh insights into what it meant in Augustine’s day to write good prose, Sarah Ruden has produced a version of Confessions that speaks to us clearly and directly, and may well reflect Augustine’s meaning more accurately than any other translation hitherto.

As Coetzee implies, Ruden’s new translation of Confessions is a self-consciously updating one. It breaks with conventions in several ways and aims to redeem Augustine as literary artist, a ‘poetic creator’, and in its way to efface ‘any impression of Augustine—in this work, anyway—as a plodder or systematiser rather than a poetic, organically branching, rather whimsical author’.

Scrupulous new translations of major works ought always to be welcomed and we may be thankful to Ruden: for whatever deficits hers may contain, it is an accomplishment that stimulates a rich questioning of, and an opportunity to revisit, perennially important and fascinating issues. In reflecting on this new version and Ruden’s striking, somewhat polemical, introductory essay, I have once again been asking myself what translation is really for and what its chief ambitions could or should be. Ruden explains her own motivations as follows (my emphasis):

My main justification for this new translation, after several learned and serviceable ones have become established, is the previously hidden degree to which Augustine makes his life and ideas vivid in the style of his Latin. (The fusion of form and content in ancient literature has become something of a specialty for me in the course of translating a variety of Latin, Greek, and now Hebrew works.) In Augustine, the manner of presentation is especially compelling, because of his stress on beauty and joy on the one hand, and intellectual helplessness on the other.

If translations are inherently failed enterprises—in our time, Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco, for example, ingeniously drew on the logical consequences of this inherent fallibility, like twentieth-century Alexandrian poetae docti, in their work—Ruden pleads winsomely that if fail she must, she will ‘fail openly’:

Obviously, Augustine is the author here, and gets his way; I’m not his schoolmarm … He gets his lofty ‘heaven of heavens’ … Splitting differences this way produces splitting headaches, and in the end even the best efforts may look rather comical. But I would rather fail openly, fall while going out on a limb for him, than leave him up there with no chance.

She concludes her opening remarks professing the hope that, at any rate, her work will provoke questions about translating: ‘if they only provoke debate and thereby bring more attention to the task of translating this astonishing author, I’ll count that as progress’.

2. ‘The demotic is valid’

There are many sensitive discussions about the nature and challenges of translating Augustine. Carolyn J-B Hammond’s Loeb Classical Library edition is succinct and exemplary, while the second edition of Frank Sheed’s 1942 translation carries its learning very lightly and will constitute no heavy burden to the non-specialist reader—quite the contrary. Part of the trouble in Ruden’s Confessions is that implicit in her ‘Introduction’, and in her ideas about translation itself, is a radical—one may even say Manichaean—and to my mind artificial cleft between the scholarly and the popular: the archaic, the learned, the theologically searching and historically sensitive on one hand and the immediate, accessible, colloquial and up-to-date on the other.

Translation is a field to which Ruden has given no little thought and to which she has productively devoted herself, having now published half a dozen translations from Greek and Latin and a work on the craft itself, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Pantheon Books, 2017). Here, Ruden’s mandate may have been to produce an ‘accessible’ translation (that unfortunate word, is it the burden we bear for the gift of the Internet?) in updated English for The Modern Library and to avoid encumbering the ‘general reader’ (although there is no such thing) with the onera of professional scholarship. But—Aurelius Augustine—probably ethnically Berber, a North African educated in the lingua franca of the fourth century Roman Empire, a man who lived 1,600 years ago—is this someone to whom we really wish to pretend we can have absolutely direct access? If we believe we can meet him unimpeded, have we in some measure been taken in by the rhetorical power of his directly-addressing, first-person voice?

Ruden’s is what one may call an enthusiastic interpretation, a product of the secularism that itself originates from Martin Luther’s great sixteenth-century revolution and its political and social consequences. After all, one of the most momentous acts in recent history was an act of translation: the work of Luther and his fellow Protestants in translating the Bible from Hebrew and ancient Greek into vernacular German. Modern, Western, democratic, late-capitalist, individualist consumers feel themselves free to study, examine and evaluate all the things of this world in their own language, and they believe that this language, and the codes and values that both inhere in it and that it conveys, is sufficient to disclose the meanings of all historical experience and trans-historical truths. The demotic is valid.

Look how successful it has been, see how the world and its people submit to the irrepressible logic and imperial sway of modernity. The American language, some may fancy—and Ruden’s Confessions is really a translation into American—is supremely equal to the task of revealing things as they truly are and truly have been. So much rests, for modern people, on the sureness of unmediated accessibility to reality and truth. There is so much optimism and self-belief in the Lutheran impulse to publish, in order to retrieve the truth from the preserve of elites and the learned, the jealous authority of the clerics. We are surely entitled to take things our way. It is this bracing, impressive, sometimes stirringly refreshing hermeneutic impudence that constitutes the failing of Ruden’s translation—but also provides its intermittent appeal.

3. Hauling in a Circle

One may surmise that the major lines of Ruden’s poetics of translation are as follows: she wants to make the work new, restore it to its original vividness, via a kind of etymological authority. She wants to retrieve the pristine sense of Augustine’s language, while concurrently paying a kind of homage to modernist liberty, through such devices as the unconventional lay of type on page (see, e.g., in her ‘Introduction’, her notes on her own ‘compositional quirks’ and the ‘white space so useful in modern poetry’; and her case for regaining the oral cadences of Augustinian reading and delivery). Further, she wishes to recover the primacy of the immediate in poetic language, as opposed to the supposedly abstract or merely intellectual—as if the visceral and sensational had more weight or authenticity. (Incidentally, this to-my-mind quixotic poet-alchemist’s impulse to overcome the gap between the concrete, the sensational and the immaterial stuff of language and spirit is testified to in a poem of her own, ‘Translators’, which prefaces this work in her dedication.)

To this end, Ruden offers a glossary of selected Latin words, explaining their root meanings and the ‘non-standard’ choices she has made for their rendering into English—offering such a glossary being fairly standard practice. While we detect guiding principles, however, it is not always entirely clear why Ruden has made the modifications she has.

In Confessions 1.1, the opening passage, for example, Augustine rhetorically asks God how he ought best to begin. The period et laudare te vult homo … aliqua portio creaturae tuae contains the repeated phrase aliqua portio creaturae tuae—which might be given in English as ‘a little piece of your creation’ (Henry Chadwick), or ‘but a part of your creation’ (Hammond), ‘but a tiny part of all that you have created’ (Sheed), ‘a mere segment of what you have made’ (Garry Wills). It finds in the Latin a rhythmic alternation with the also repeated clause laudare te vult homo—‘man wants to praise you’. This careful modulation of rhythm in Augustine is lost in Ruden, who unaccountably varies the translation of the phrase and loses the repetition—’who is some part of what you created … a given portion of your creation’—upsetting the clearly-deliberate rhythmic patterning. It is the same with laudare, which first is rendered as ‘praise’ then shortly after as ‘extol’.

The repetition circumferens suam … circumferens sui, meanwhile—as in, … et homo circumferens mortalitatem suam, circumferens testimonium peccati sui—is not similarly marred by what may simply be an attempt at elegant variation or an instance of the ‘flexibility’ for which Ruden pleads, but her choice of ‘hauling his deathliness in a circle, hauling in a circle the evidence of his sin’ again presents a serviceable example of what Ruden may be trying to achieve throughout this work. Compare this with: ‘bearing his mortality with him’ (2 Cor. 4: 10), ‘carrying with him the witness of his sin’ (Chadwick), ‘He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness’ (Sheed), ‘even though humanity bears everywhere its own mortality, and bears everywhere the evidence of its own sin’ (Hammond), ‘man, “confined by a nature that must die”, confined by this evidence of his sin’ (Wills). Ruden’s phrase is not in itself objectionable, in fact it has undeniable power. This power may be just its problem, however, for if its vividness is simply for the sake of effect, it comes with a certain cost—rather like the baroque Hellenistic sculpture that loses emotional force even as its artifice escalates.

In English, the word ‘haul’ connotes a deliberateness and effortfulness about which ‘carry around’, ‘bear’ and the similarly colourless Latin ‘circumferens’ are neutral. ‘Haul’ is not simply ‘carry a very heavy burden’ but, surely, ‘consciously be straining at pulling along some object’. Sisyphus hauls his rock, Odysseus hauls himself onto land, Simon hauls in his heaving nets on Galilee. This does not seem to be what humans do, on the other hand, with their mortal natures: that is a different kind of burden, one that it is possible to be unaware of, and one that one can, through conversion of one’s desires and values, finally release. It is an extraordinary, weightless, fatal burden, which one ‘carries with one’ from birth. It is, too, for Augustine, the emancipating burden through which humans can come to yearn for God and delivery from their condition, their transience and mortality.

Now, recalling … et homo circumferens mortalitatem suam, let us examine ‘in a circle’ and ‘deathliness’. The ‘circum-’ element of the composite verb is an example of Ruden’s etymological literalism, a maverick’s pedantry which hinders rather than liberates, straining too hard to make the reader experience, to really feel, the futility which is quite sufficiently expressed by ‘carries around/bears everywhere’. Perhaps most surprising, however, is ‘deathliness’ for mortalitatem. English ‘deathliness’ is not quite the same thing as ‘mortality’. An abstract noun formed on the adjective ‘deathly’, ‘deathliness’ is presumably an attempt to yield an English equivalent for the Latin formation of mortalitas (‘mortality’) on mortalis (‘mortal’) from mors (‘death’). ‘Deathliness’ is unusual in English, if not downright odd. Why abandon the common ‘mortality’ for its sake? One suspects precisely because it is odd and because it is different from all those other translations. Originality is, of course, not in itself to be avoided, but neither is it in and of itself an absolute good. In an example like this, one sees how too much attention is drawn to the wording and choice of the translator in her obvious effort to be memorable and vivid, and something of Augustine feels lost rather than regained. Like escalation in the nuclear arms race, the proliferation of new, more powerful poetic ordinance may lead simply to all-round neutralisation.

4. Confession’s the thing

Consider, further, the term confessio and the English ‘testimony’, the Latin original of which—testimonium—we have seen recurring twice in the very carefully worded opening of the work. Ruden would prefer to call her translation of Confessions ‘Testimonies’, but is forced to ‘retain this title just to keep my translation from being misidentified’. For Ruden, ‘confession’ bears too heavily the implication of sin and the later Catholic rite of absolution, which it would not have done for Augustine, and is thus undesirable. Augustine’s work is an auto-da-fé, a ritual of public penance, and ‘testimony’ would express the ‘strong judicial tinge’ of his public declaration of faith. It is certainly true that the range of English ‘confession’ is more negative and restricted than the Latin confiteor and confessio from which it derives. So what is one to do, both with a word like confessio and more generally in a complex undertaking like this, in which some terms in Latin have a broader range than the usual English translation—and some in English, by contrast, a broader range than the Latin originals? Ruden pleads for slack:

When modern Confessions translators insist on the ‘consistency’ and ‘discipline’ of either translating a Latin single word with a single, traditionally established English one throughout this long work or footnoting exceptions, they are really talking about top-down, academically elaborated and enforced ideological and doctrinal consistency and discipline, which are much later than Augustine, and the imposition of which greatly frustrates his speaking with both perceptible religious fervor and authentic rhetorical ingenuity to a very broad readership in his time and beyond it. I appeal to professors who may be inclined to anathematize my translation because it is different from familiar ones: Would not Augustine have wanted flexibility?

Ruden requires us to accept her versatility as she overcomes what is ‘only a modern academic, rationalist take’ on Augustine, and she promises to bring us into more direct contact with him: ‘A translator has to get beyond that to his inspired synthesis.’

On these ‘headaches Augustine infuses into a translator’, we could profitably compare another translator’s approach. In the ‘Introduction’ to the first volume of her own recent translation (Harvard University Press, 2014), Carolyn Hammond discusses the very problem of that word, confessio. In her handling of the defeat she suffers to the intractability of problems of translation, a kind of intelligent surrender to semantic aporia, one learns of a kind of satisfaction in dissatisfaction (my emphasis):

As a work it defies categorization in terms of content … Part of the answer lies in the carefully chosen title: confessio means a declaration, either of belief, praise or sin—and the text is a commixture of all three. In his preaching Augustine made this explicit to his congregation (Sermons 67.1). So nuanced is his deployment of the term … To substitute a variety of terms, such as ‘declaration of praise’ or ‘affirmation of belief’, would obscure for the reader this vital connective thread running through the text.

A still more detailed discussion of ‘confession’ and confiteri is to be found in Michael Foley’s notes to the second edition of Sheed’s translation (Hackett, 2007). This (delightfully) difficult Latin word, writes Foley, translates the Hebrew psalmist’s hoda(h) and the Greek exomologeisthai, and includes the senses registered by both Hammond and Ruden. But Augustine, while presupposing these different nuances:

… also expands on the traditional notion of confession by more explicitly portraying it as a kind of sacrifice … This development configures confession as a divinely initiated sanctifying transformation, and it underscores the relation between confession and the entire Christian mystery of death to the old man and rebirth in the new. Finally, it implies that Augustine is offering his Confessions as a sacrifice to God for the benefit of the reader, specifically, for the purpose of effecting in the reader the same transformation.

At the level of the discrete term, then, as well as in the broader project of the work, we find enlargement and transformation. The English ‘confessions’ is in a very real sense a reinterpretation of confessio. As well as being a complex activation of the Latin term’s several denotations, the notion is modified in a thematic fashion by the writer, whose spiritual transformation is recorded in a transformed language, one objective of which is also to transform others.

5. Augustine the sub-Nabokovian joker?

Ruden’s wariness about the Catholic sacramental colouring of ‘confession’ and its emotional overtones of guilt is quite justified. But her handling of the difficulty is not turned into an opportunity for exploring the problem, as it has been with other translators. Certainly, we have learned a lot more from Foley and Hammond than we have from Ruden’s unhappy resignation to convention and frustrated desire to replace confessio with ‘testimony’. It is almost as if with Ruden there is, in the name of historical authenticity, which feels spurious to this reviewer, a need to remove the sediments of Church and Catholic history that have accumulated over centuries, and to deliver a humanist Augustine who ‘can play dramatically with still clear physical meanings’—an Augustine who is a joyful player of semiotic games. And yet, per Foley’s example, it’s possible to bring the term ‘confession’ to life in a vital way: confessio apparently forms part of a rich ecosystem of ideas and religious emotions and that, in and of itself, is its Sitz im Leben, its setting in life. Its context is not simply the context of historical, domestic or civic usage; it is not inert, but activating new meaning, having a place in Augustine’s commemorative, therapeutic and transformative—and distinctly not lexico-realistic—project.

What had seemed a problem, even a crisis, in translation, thus becomes revelatory. It is a revelation of Augustine as extender of meanings, which is suppressed by Ruden’s translation, with its gung-ho dispensing of the theologians and scholars (‘flexibility in word choice is an absolute necessity for literary faithfulness in translating this author … I have to protest that patristics scholars have in general allowed anachronistic misunderstanding of both ancient writing and ancient Christianity to influence their dictates on what is proper’). It would be a shame if this freedom and creativity of Augustine’s were to be lost on the reader.

With Ruden we are promised the authentic, fun Augustine, a joking Augustine with a sexy backstory (even if he does lapse into high abstraction and biblical exegesis after the ninth book) and an habitual smirk: not a ‘plodder or systematiser’ but a ‘poetic, organically branching, rather whimsical author’. In the end, I confess my preference for other translators, who have given us a more nuanced, more interesting Augustine, one marked by much more creatively exciting tensions than Ruden’s sub-Nabokovian literary joker.

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