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Helping hand with Augustine’s Latin

02 December 2016

Edward Dowler enjoys a parallel translation of the Confessions

Confessions: Books 1-8 (Loeb Classical Library)
[Aurelius] Augustine
Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, editor and translator
Harvard University Press £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25


Confessions: Books 9-13 (Loeb Classical Library)
[Aurelius] Augustine
Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, editor and translator
Harvard University Press £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25


ST AUGUSTINE’s Confessions topped the poll in the Church Times’s “100 Best Christian Books” in 2014 — deservedly so; for this was and is a ground-breaking work in the fields, among others, of spirituality, autobiography, and psychology, and clearly continues to thrill and inspire its readers.

The Confessions has had many translations, including, in modern times, those of the splendidly named R. S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin, 1961), Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1991), and Maria Boulding (New City Press, 1997). An obvious question, then, is why a further translation is necessary. Two reasons particularly stand out.

First, and most obviously, the format of the Loeb Classical Library means that, unlike the other editions, this one makes available on facing pages both the Latin text and the English translation. For those of us who, like Augustine himself, want but find it difficult to read texts in foreign languages, Dr Carolyn Hammond’s translation, while always elegant and lucid, stays close enough to the Latin to give us invaluable assistance.

Second, Hammond pays tribute to James O’Donnell’s 1992 commentary on the Confessions as the “scholarly foundation” for her offering. O’Donnell’s three-volume work of daunting erudition catches almost every conceivable resonance (and perhaps a few more) between Augustine’s work, on the one hand, and the Bible and works of classical literature on the other. Hammond makes many of these insights available to the more general reader, with a lightness of touch that O’Donnell’s commentary and, indeed, his subsequent biography, Augustine, Sinner and Saint (2005), do not always have.

At the start of each volume, an accessible and scholarly introduction provides a way into many aspects of Augustine’s thought which will reward both those who are new to Augustine and more experienced students. Among other topics, Hammond covers the background of the Confessions in Augustine’s life and intellectual development, his understanding of mysticism, scriptural exegesis, language, rhetoric, time, and history.

In a short preface to the second volume, Hammond tells us that an aggressive form of breast cancer made it difficult for to finish her introduction and, at one stage, left her uncertain whether she would ever see her work in print. The strength of this new translation and accompanying notes is thus in its way a testimony to what Augustine, following St Paul, describes as “the sweetness of (God’s) grace, through which everyone who is weak becomes strong when — through grace — they become aware of their own weakness” (Confessions 10.3.4).


The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, in the diocese of Chichester.

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