The Best Translation of St. Augustine’s “Confessions”

Augustine

In his book Three Philosophies of Life, Dr. Peter Kreeft explains how he rediscovered St. Augustine’s Confessions:

“Only once have I ever encountered a translation that made such a difference, that so opened up for me a previously closed book. That was Frank Sheed’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions, which I found to be as living as molten lava. The most widely used translation of the Confessions is the one by a Mr. Pine-Coffin, and it is worthy of his name. It is a dead translation. Sheed’s is living.”

Poor Mr. Pine-Coffin.

ConfessionsWitty jabs aside, I completely agree with Kreeft. Sheed’s translation captures Augustine’s poetic verve better than any other. I’ve read it twice now. If you’re starting The Confessions for the first time, or perhaps restarting after a failed attempt, check out the Sheed version.

Beyond Sheed, I’ve heard great things about Maria Boulding’s translation. Elizabeth Scalia raved about the book. Likewise, Fr. Z described it as “[t]he best translation for most people.” And Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed, “[Boulding] has perfected an elegant and flowing style.”

If you’re interested in Boulding’s translation, I highly recommend the Ignatius Press Critical Edition which pairs Boulding’s text with extensive notes and commentary by top Augustine scholars.

  • How do you know that Sheed “captures Augustine’s poetic verve” rather than imports a poetic verve of his own? What is it about Pine-Coffin’s translation that is “dead”?

  • I don’t mind Pine-Coffin’s translation, but I’ve also not read any other. I don’t think it’s that bad, however. I think, if I had a name like that, I’d sell caskets.

  • Silverpalm

    Sheed reminds me of Brenton: he makes a valiant attempt to recreate beautiful English, but he doesn’t really know how it works, so it sounds stilted, rather than natural like Watt or Pusey

  • Jonathan

    I have only read Henry Chadwick’s translation (Oxford World’s Classics) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll try Sheed’s on my next go-around. Thanks.

  • s

    Pinecoffin’s translation is indeed made out of dry wood, I know that much!

    I will try your and Kreeft’s suggestion, thanks.

  • Ally

    ooh… maybe I could actually read Augustine then (I have had major issues every time I’ve tried to read him – both the Confessions which I was trying to read for a project on spiritual memoirs, AND various selections I had to read for a historical theology course). Maybe this translation would help. (What strikes me as weird is that I have no such issues with Aquinas (in fact the other evening in RCIA when the deacon chose to go back over sacraments YET AGAIN in a most overly simplified way, I pulled up the part of the Summa dealing with sacraments and started discreetly reading it on my phone for the rest of class))

  • Emily E.

    I have this translation, mainly because the guy that did the notes was the professor. Dr. Mike Foley – smart guy.

    Additionally, this translation is readable without being simplistic, something that I think is good for the reader. Syntax and grammar of the translation are not convoluted, but neither is the translation done in such a way as to lose the (oftentimes) complex ways in which St. Augustine writes.

    Food for thought.

  • Kimberly

    I have not read either of the translations recommended in this article, but I look forward to checking both of them out. I was introduced to Augustine’s Confessions through Fr. Ryan’s translation, and he did a wonderful job of translating the depth of Augustine’s thought while maintaining the rich poetry of his language, and still produced a beautiful, easily-read rendition of that great prayer that still resounds with me today. When I teach Confessions, the Ryan translation is the one I require my students to use.

    • Kimberly

      I’m back again, now that you’ve reposted this, to say I’ve studied Boulding in a class since my previous comment. I still prefer the beauty of Ryan’s translation, but Boulding is very clear, accurate, and readable.