Part Four: St. Augustine, the Bible, and the Art of Translation

Ian Mosley, Director of Curriculum Development, Sager Classical Academy

St. Augustine, (354-430 AD) bishop of a town in northern Africa called Hippo, is unquestionably one of the all-time intellectual heavyweights of the first few centuries of the church. He wrote what was essentially the world’s first autobiography, The Confessions, and also an all-out attack on the worldview of pagan Rome, The City of God, in addition to numerous other works, enough to weigh down many a bookshelf.

In this part of our series on the purposes of Latin in the classical curriculum, we are particularly interested in a work of his called De Doctrina Christiana, or On Christian Teaching. There he reflects on the distinctively Christian purposes of education, including the importance of translation. You see, reading the Bible in translation is nothing new. The Jews of Jesus’ day would have relied heavily on the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Ancient Greek. In Augustine’s day, the western, Latin-speaking Roman empire embraced the Old Latin translation and then the Vulgate, a kind of revised version of the scriptures by St. Jerome. Ancient translations also included an assortment of other languages, such as Syriac and Ethiopian.

But there are issues in reading a translated work that don’t arise when reading works in your own language. The old Italian proverb traduttore, traditore (“translator, traitor”) succinctly states one of the issues: it’s not always possible to match both the clarity and the power of the original language simultaneously. Consider the magazine Glamour. What does “glamour” mean? One of my classes paraphrased it (accurately, I think) as being rich and pretty. But imagine if they had called the magazine Being Rich and Pretty! You would lose all the force and mystique of the original word.

In translation, though, trade-offs like this happen all the time. Glamour is a great example of a word that frequently lacks an exact equivalent in other languages, so that a translator must sacrifice either the force of the original word or its clarity. Sometimes these problems lead to ingenious coinages, as when William Tyndale came up with the word atonement (at-one-ment) to convey the Hebrew כָּפַר. But at the very least, all readers of the Bible would do well to be educated and equipped with an awareness of the kinds of issues that can arise in translations.

And that, in essence, is the point Augustine makes:
Contra ignota signa propria magnum remedium est linguarum cognitio. Et latinae quidem linguae homines, quos nunc instruendos suscepimus, duabus aliis ad Scripturarum divinarum cognitionem opus habent, hebraea scilicet et graeca, ut ad exemplaria praecedentia recurratur, si quam dubitationem attulerit latinorum interpretum infinita varietas.

An important antidote to the ignorance of literal signs is the knowledge of languages. Users of the Latin language—and it is these that I have now undertaken to instruct—need two others, Hebrew and Greek, for an understanding of the divine scriptures, so that recourse may be had to the original versions if any uncertainty arises from the infinite variety of Latin translators.
A modern textbook author gives further illustrations of the kinds of problems that can arise:

When Jesus says of communion, “Drink ye all of it” (Matt 26:27; KJV), what does the “all” refer to? All the drink, or all the people? When Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8) what does “this” refer to? When Paul asks, “Do all speak in other tongues?” (1 Cor 12:30), is he implying that the answer is “Yes”?

Of course, the ideal remedy for these issues is the one Augustine names—learning the original languages of the Bible. But learning the art of translation through any language, including Latin, helps to make one aware of the kind of issues that can arise in translation, and so to be less naive when approaching the Bible as a text in translation.

But wait—why not just learn Greek, instead of Latin? It’s also a classical language, and it’s the language of the New Testament, to boot. Why give Latin the preferential spot in the curriculum? We’ll consider that question in the next and final section of our series.