Our friends at New City Press, a cosponsor of The Augustine Blog, announced recently that this month they are publishing the 45th volume in their landmark translation series The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. This latest volume, Morality and Christian Asceticism, includes five Latin-to-English translations by Robert P. Kennedy: De mendacio, Contra mendaciumDe opere monachorum, De utilitate jejunii, and De patientia. Below is an interview with Kennedy that offers insight about his relationship with Augustine and translation process:

Q: When did you first start reading Augustine and do you remember which of his works you read first?

A: I was fifteen or sixteen when I first read Augustine’s Confessions in Rex Warner’s translation. I was bothered by the problem of evil. A family friend and Catholic priest loaned me a modern theological work (whose title and author I have long since forgotten), but I thought the argument simplistic. I don’t know who recommended the Confessions, but I do remember my fascination with Augustine’s story of his life and my feeling that he was honestly and profoundly tackling the problem of evil in Book VII. I also read and enjoyed the Pusey translation a few years later. I did not read much else of Augustine until I was in graduate studies.

Q: What are some things about Augustine’s writing you think can get lost in translation between Latin and English?

A: I am mainly interested in Augustine’s thought rather than his style. One example that comes to mind is the connections among concepts: When Augustine defines time as a “distention of the mind” (distentio animi) in the eleventh book of his Confessions he clearly has in mind the relationship between distendere, attendere, and extendere. Such connections are much clearer in the Latin than in an English translation. Conversely, even a good translation will inadvertently suggest connections where none exists.

Q: As a translator, how do you balance trying to convey precisely the content of Augustine’s ideas without losing his sense of style and the rhythm of his Latin prose?

A: My goal was to produce a translation that my upper-level undergraduate students could read without much difficulty. In other words, my focus was on a readable English text, with little attention to capturing the style of Augustine’s Latin. I devoted a lot of time to rendering Augustine’s long periodic sentences into shorter declarative English sentence structure. Sometimes, in order to reveal the meaning of the Latin I found it necessary to supply names or nouns for pronouns and to rearrange the sequence of ideas. An exception to this practice was translating Augustine’s characteristic brief and striking statements of his argument: His famous pondus meum amor meus (Conf. XIII,9,10), for example, might be translated “my attraction to good things pulls me in one direction or another” but this loses the impact of the brief, if somewhat enigmatic, “my weight is my love.”

Q: Are there any particularly challenging words/concepts to translate into English?

A: Oddly enough, I gave a lot of thought to the translation of enim. Augustine uses the word some 128 times in The Work of Monks, and it seemed at first tedious to translate it consistently as “for” (as in the English, “for he’s a jolly good fellow”). Even worse, I thought, would be to translate it sometimes as “It is for this reason that” or some such phrase. Other translators justifiably treat the word almost as a filler, translating it “you see” – this captures the fact that the word is post-positive, never the first word of a sentence. So, in Chapter 25 of The Work of Monks, Augustine states, Omnium enim Christianorum una respublica est, which could be rendered, “There is, you see, one commonwealth of all Christians.” In the end, however, I decided to stay with “for” because Augustine seemed to me to be using the word as a rhetorical device to call attention to the reasonableness of his position (and the unreasonableness of the wayward monks in their refusal to work).

Robert P. Kennedy is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier University.