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 Paxbooks.com. 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.