Verbum in Verbis

In a post not too long ago I discussed some of my preferences regarding English translations of the Scriptures. If you thought that post was painfully pedantic, wait until you read this one (if anyone actually reads it). This post is about my preferences regarding Latin translations of the Scriptures and, yes, I do have some. Preferences, I mean.

Some Catholics--primarily those who do not really read much Latin--confuse the Sixto-Clementine version of the Vulgate (1592), which was the official Latin text of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church until the 1970s, with the translation of the Scriptures made by Saint Jerome in the 4th century and also commonly refered to as the Vulgate. My own preference is for Jerome's version. The later edition, promulgated by order of the Council of Trent and lightly revised over the years, makes certain improvements based on the texts that were available at the time (particularly the textus receptus of the New Testament), but Jerome's version has many virtues, in my opinion. First, I am attracted to its prose style: it is written in the crisp and vivid common Latin of the 4th century that, while clearly different from the classical prose of Cicero or the sublime poetry of Virgil, nevertheless has a freshness and clarity that brings these texts alive for the reader. Jerome was a master of style--he was quite capable of writing either Ciceronian or common Latin, and his translations of the Scriptures represent one of the truly great artistic accomplishments in history. Never before had the entire text of the Scriptures been rendered into the common tongue by a single hand.

Second, I am attracted to the antiquity of Jerome's text. I mentioned in my post on English translations that the accuracy of the text is, for me, a secondary matter. I can read Greek fluently, so when I am interested in important textual questions I use the Greek text. My Hebrew is less good but eventually I hope to achieve something like a useful knowledge of it that will enable me to study the Old Testament in Hebrew when the need arises. So I am not particularly worried that Jerome's text may contain errors of translation or interpretation. It has been an approved document of the Church so it contains no doctrinal error, and that is enough for me still to enjoy reading it. Given its antiquity, I can count myself among many thousands of others who have enjoyed reading it before me, and given its status as a classic i can count myself among many more thousands of others who will enjoy reading it in the future. For the conservative, this is the place to be: in the midst of a massive throng stretching into the future as well as into the past and feeling one's obligations to both directions of that throng in maintaing and handing on the Tradition. It is a foretaste of heaven, where the Tradition is no longer something to be taken from others and passed on like a baton in a relay race, but enjoyed like the prize at the end of the race.

One place where the use of Latin can be particularly enjoyable, if you are able to understand it, is in the Liturgy. If, like me, you live in the middle of Nowhere, you are not likely to be within easy distance of a Mass in Latin, either under the rubrics of 1962 or the more recent rubrics. That is a shame, because the Latin language has available to it cadences, rhythms, and melodies that are not available in English translations, and many of these cadences, rhythms, and melodies are part of an ancient tradition that is well worth maintaining and handing on. However, that does not mean that your Liturgies must be devoid of Latin. The Liturgy of the Hours in Latin is fully within the domain of any layman. You can get the Latin text from the Vatican Press--I ordered mine via the website Two editions are available: one bound in a kind of vinyl, another bound in leather. The leather is much more expensive but, in my opinion, having owned both, well worth it. Like the English Liturgy of the Hours, the Latin Liturgia Horarum is in four volumes, so whether you order it in vinyl or leather you are looking at a hefty chunk of change. But these volumes, treated well, will last you a lifetime, and they will enable you to share in a devotional practice that is many centuries old and continues to be the official prayer of the Church outside of Mass.

The new Liturgia Horarum differs from older breviaries in the use of the Nova vulgata (the text of this "new vulgate" is available on the Vatican's website here). I'm not altogether sure which edition of the vulgate was used by the breviaries produced during the 20th century--different editions appear to have used different texts. During the 1950s the Psalter in most breviaries was an entirely new translation of the Psalms done by Cardinal Bea. This Psalter, sometimes called the Pius XII Psalter, is actually quite beautiful, with delightfully classical Latin vocabulary and phrasing, but it was widely criticized as not being very "traditional". (Those were the good old days, when a Latin translation could be so criticized. Today any Latin version would, simply by virtue of being in Latin, be criticized as being too traditional.)

Jerome's Vulgate actually contains two Psalters, one of which is a translation from the Greek Septuagint, the other from the Hebrew. The reason why there are two is interesting from a modern point of view, because it illustrates how certain kinds of disputes never go away. The Psalter that was in use liturgically in Jerome's day was an older Latin translation from the Septuagint, but Jerome felt that the Old Latin texts did not adequately reflect the original Hebrew, so he made a new translation of his own and had it inserted into his text side-by-side along the Old Latin version. The Old Latin was the more "traditional" version, and so it was widely favored in spite of its differences from the Hebrew.

In order to see how some of these Latin Psalters differ, let me illustrate them with one or two of my favorite Psalms. Here are the opening lines of Psalm 41, first in the Old Latin, then in Jerome's translation of the Hebrew (alternative readings are indicated by putting a "|" between two possible words):

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum
ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus
sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem|vivum
quando veniam et parebo ante faciem Dei

Sicut areola praeparata ad inrigationes aquarum
sic anima mea praeparata est ad te Deus
sitivit anima mea Deum fortem viventem
quando veniam et parebo ante faciem tuam

Here is the version from Cardinal Bea's Psalter:
Quemadmodum desiderat cerva rivos aquarum
ita desiderat anima mea te, Deus.
Sitit anima mea Deum, Deum vivum:
quando veniam et videbo faciem Dei?

The Nova vulgata follows the Old Latin rather closely:
Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.
Sitivit anima mea ad Deum, Deum vivum;
quando veniam et apparebo ante faciem Dei?

Here are verses 4-6 of Psalm 90:

in scapulis suis obumbrabit te
et sub pinnis eius sperabis
scuto circumdabit te veritas eius
non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante in die
a negotio perambulante in tenebris
ab incursu et daemonio meridiano

in scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi
et sub alis eius sperabis
scutum et protectio veritas eius
non timebis a timore nocturno
a sagitta volante per diem
a peste in tenebris ambulante
a morsu insanientis meridie

From Cardinal Bea:
Pennis suis proteget te, et sub alas eius confugies:
scutum et clipeus est fidelitas eius.
Non timebis a terrore nocturno,
a sagitta volante in die,
a peste quae vagatur in tenebris,
a pernicie quae vastat meridie

The Nova vulgata:
Alis suis obumbrabit tibi,
et sub pennas eius confugies;
scutum et lorica veritas eius.
Non timebis a timore nocturno,
a sagitta volante in die,
a peste perambulante in tenebris,
ab exterminio vastante in meridie.

What to do with this rich banquet? The new vulgate represents a return to the "traditional", but Bea's translation is sublime. Jerome's Latin is arguably the most authentic, but it simply isn't in most breviaries. I suppose one could take a helping of each, but that would require carrying too many books around. With the internet things are a little different, of course. You can get Jerome's text here, and the Sixto-Clementine is available here. But bibliophiles like me prefer to have something, well, a little more "traditional". Something you can use when you're hiking in the mountains or waiting for a plane, something you can carry in your backpack and that doesn't run out of batteries.

There are lots of websites out there that deal in old liturgical books, but the best one I've found is LoomeBooks. The actual store itself is amazing--it's located in an old church, and I've never seen so many cool old books in one place in my life. Take a lot of money and an empty suitcase with you if you go there--you won't be able to leave empty handed.


Pontificator said…
What is your evaluation of Ronald Knox's translation of the Bible? TIA.
Scott Carson said…
I think it's a very fine work, actually--I had thought about mentioning it in my post as another example of a translation of the whole of Scripture by a single hand, but I wasn't altogether sure that he didn't have some help with it.

I wrote in praise of the Authorized Version in an earlier post, but I do think that Knox's translation is a little artifical in its attempt to recapture some of the grandeur of the AV and the Challoner Bible. But given the enormity of the task and his remarkable skill in carrying it out, I have to say that I'm very impressed with the thing overall.

Having said that, I'm sad to say that I actually gave away a beautiful two-volume edition of it about ten years ago, and now I can't find anything like it in print!
Darwin said…
Interesting. I hadn't realized that the differences between the Clementine and Jerome vulgates were so great. My own copy is a Clementine vulgate, though it has Bea's Psalter as an appendix.

So now I'm curious: Being the bibliophile that you are, I assume you know where one can get hold of a nice edition of Jerome's vulgate? Does anyone currently have it in print?
voltape said…
Sunday April 13, 2008

Dear Scott – more than two years after your Feb 19, 2006 most interesting article I happen to find it. I have devoted more than half a century to Latin liturgy (I’ve just turned a happy and youthful 73 – born 1935) and of course, I was trained in pre-conciliar liturgy – so much so that I was married in Latin in an – of course, Tridentine Mass – on December 5, 1964, when I was already 30 years old. As a matter of fact a few days later, on January 1, 1965 the post-conciliar Mass began – The Divine Office continued as before until the end of 1972. I was happy to sing Lauds, Tierce, the Mass, Sext and None every morning as a “sochantre” (a lay guy dressed with a cassock and a surplice) with the Canons of the Cathedral of Lima, Peru.
I was always fascinated with Latin liturgy, and I learned Latin by myself, and got used to praying the breviary ever since 1960. At that time I had the 4 volume, 3-nocturn matins, etc. breviary; then I got a John 23rd Breviary in 2 tomes, and an assortment of breviaries of all times, even one from 1843. Even the updated Liturgy of the Hours.

Now as to the psalms, my first breviary and my experience with the canons, was the Versio Piana (the Pius XII Psalter) and so I got used to them. A man would not like the Gallican, unless he did learn it first and let himself be captivated by tradition. Not my case. My first experience was the Versio Piana and just could not get used to … -could I say “inaccuracies”? – of the Gallican. Too many past tenses: “Sitivit” instead of “Sitit”; “Dominus regnavit” instead of “Dominus regnat” and a lot more. Piana is smooth and fully understandable. Sentences make sense.

My problem now is that I have finally – with a lot of years of delay – decided to pray the office with the Liturgy of the Hours. Now, the logic for a Latinist would be to buy the Official Latin Version; but … it has the Nova Vulgata Psalter! To me it is a hybrid. You forego tradition in favor of a patched and mended version of Gallican which keeps a lot of the old inaccuracies. A particularly irking passage is Psalm 44: “Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum” - It is “eructavit” in Gallican and so it has remained in the Nova. Now, for Spanish speaking persons like me, “eructavit” is the Latin verb that gave rise to modern Spanish “eructar” – well “eructar” is Spanish for “belch” and it is anti aesthetic to sing: “My heart belched a good word” (even the belch is in the past tense). Piana says beautifully “Effundit cor meum verbum bonum” – which has no flatulent connotations.

So I have heroically decided to make my own modern breviary. I dug into internet and couldn’t find the Versio Piana, so I began to copy all Psalms. I am using the 1985 New Vulgate For the Cantici which were not in the old breviaries. I have printed them in order week after week. As to the hymns – those which were in the old breviaries, I have included them in my project, but utilizing the form in which they were in the old breviaries, that is, with the corrections of Pope Urban, instead of the same hymns in their pristine form as they appear now in the L of the H. I want to pray as closely as I have done all my adult life. The rest of the office, I pray in Spanish, as I have bought the last versions of the Liturgy of the Hours, here in Lima,

Well, there is a lot to talk and I hope you’ll be around to read this (just as you say in your article.

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