Augustine, Religious

Master/Slave Language in Augustine’s Confessions (Trans. Sarah Ruden)

Image result for sarah ruden confessionsI just tweeted my initial impression of Sarah Ruden’s 2017 translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Thanks to Spooler for making the unrolling of my thread possible. I hope to write more in-depth blog posts about this translation at a later date.

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Currently reading and loving Sarah Ruden’s recent (2017) translation of Augustine’s Confessions. Her decision to translate dominus as Master rather than Lord is most appropriate for 2 reasons. 1) Augustine’s contemporaries associated dominus w/ the head of a household and slaves. 2) Augustine considers the relationship between God and humanity as a relationship between a Master and a slave. It is this slavery that Augustine believes leads to true freedom. Humans are either slaves of sin or they are slaves to God. There’s no in-between. This is Pauline.

Of course, master/slave language is very off-putting today. Augustine owned slaves, while we rightly condemn slavery. Furthermore, most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves to God. We want to have free choice.

Now, I’m not going to get into Augustine’s teachings on the human will (it’s complicated), but suffice it to say that Augustine does not believe post-Adamic humans have libertarian free will (a will free from all determination). God’s role in human salvation – and conversely, original sin’s role in human damnation – leaves little room for personal autonomy. According to Augustine, conversion entails the exchange of one master for another.

Tl;dr : Sarah Ruden’s translation of dominus as Master and servus as slave perfectly captures Augustine’s theology of salvation.

Because Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey appeared in the same year, Ruden’s translation was overlooked by literary critics. Her translation has received virtually no buzz. That’s too bad. Ruden’s translation is excellent, and everyone should read it!


Translation is Always Political

In my quest to learn about the history of Protestantism (this year is the 500th anniversary of the so-called Nailing of the 95 Theses), I have been reading two books about the Reformation: Reformations (2016) by Carlos Eire and The Givenness of Things (2015) by Marilynne Robinson. Eire’s study is a fairly comprehensive introduction to the movements of the 16th century, and Robinson’s essay collection is basically the musings of a self-professed Calvinist on a wide range of past and contemporary issues. I’m reading both books at the same time to get a wide perspective on the event millions of Christians are celebrating this year.

The second essay in The Givenness of Things is titled “Reformation”, but it does not address the theological vision of the Protestant Reformers. Rather, it is a meditation on the democratizing power of translation. As you can imagine, this essay appealed to me as a language student.

For centuries, religious art was the only medium of religious education for a large sector of society. Indeed, Pope Gregory the Great defended religious imagery as the “book of the illiterate”. The most radical Protestants in the 16th century opposed religious imagery not only because they thought it was idolatry but also because it reinforced the social hierarchy. Translating Sacred Scripture into the vernacular languages of Europe effectively raised those languages to divine status. French too could be the language of God.

Marilynne Robinson is particularly interested in William Tyndale’s English-language translation of the Bible in the early 16th century. His translation contributed to the restructuring of English society, first, because the Bible was now widely available in the language of the non-cleric and second, because the translation of Sacred Scripture coupled with a sola scriptura theology encouraged educational reform. Tyndale and others assumed that the poor should have the same access to resources as the rich. Biblical literalism has a terrible reputation today for good reason, but in the 16th century, this hermeneutic encouraged lay interpretations.

The bookishness of the Reformation might be said to have generalized itself to become an expectation of legibility in the whole of Creation. If Tyndale felt he was effectively giving Scripture to the unlearned in the fact of translating it with art and skill, he was necessarily dismissing the interpretive strategies – allegorical, tropological, and anagogical – that were traditionally applied to the reading of it, and which gave it meanings only available to those who were especially trained in these methods.

I am personally very interested in late medieval readings of the Bible (literal, allegorical, anagogical, and moral), but it is true that these approaches assumed a philosophical background that the vast majority of people simply didn’t need or have. The bottom line is that education should be accessible to all. Calvin and others established schools where there were none. I may dismiss Tyndale’s approach to the Bible as overly-simplistic, but I can’t help but celebrate the democratization and widespread literacy that resulted from his translation.

So what’s the takeaway from all this?

Translation is always political. How often do we as readers acknowledge the translators of the international books we read? Translators influence and sometimes even challenge societal structures by encouraging the dissemination of new ideas. Like the 16th century translators of the Bible, modern translators help restructure society. However, unlike the 16th century translators who helped promote nationalism, translators today often challenge nationalism by sharing culture across national borders.

Who are your favorite translators? Mine are Edith Grossman, Keith Harrison, and Howard and Edna Hong (the translators of the writings of Kierkegaard).