Thursday, October 21, 2010

Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568 - 1961: Part 8.2 - The New Psalter of Pius XII and Card. Bea

In the year 1945, Pope Pius XII approved for use in the Divine Office a new Latin version of the Psalms, the work of professors at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. The project was done under the guidance of the Institute’s rector, Augustin Bea, S.J. (later Cardinal); for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “Bea Psalter”, a term which I will also use for brevity’s sake. In the Motu proprio In cotidianis precibus Pope Pius declares that modern critical study of the Hebrew Bible and of the various ancient translations has made it possible to recover the original sense in many places where the Vulgate is obscure. For this reason, he ordered the preparation of a new translation, “which will follow the primitive texts more closely and faithfully”, though he is careful to note that “the Vulgate…is most closely connected with writings of the holy Fathers and the interpretations of the Doctors (of the Church)…” and furthermore, “that not even the Hebrew text has come down to us entirely free from (scribal) error and obscurity.”

The Bea Psalter is not a revision of an earlier Latin version, but a new translation made directly from the Hebrew. Its Latinity is wholly classical, both in vocabulary and grammar; one might say that, unlike the Gallican Psalter, it would be completely intelligible to Cicero, and completely unrecognizable to Saint Augustine. To give an idea of the character of the Bea Psalter, we may compare its version of Psalm 1, 1 with that of the Vulgate.

Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum, et in via peccatorum non stetit, et in cathedra pestilentiae non sedit. (Vulgate)

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence. (Douay translation)

Apart from the word pestilentiae (of pestilence), the Vulgate is a perfectly literal translation of the Septuagint, which is a perfectly literal translation of the Hebrew. The authors of the Septuagint made a bit free in translating the Hebrew word lētsīm (of the scoffers) with loimōn (of the pestilent) ; the original Latin translator made even freer in translating loimōn with pestilentiae. St. Jerome chose not to alter the traditional reading in his revision, but in his re-translated psalter according to the Hebrews he writes in cathedra derisorum (in the chair of the scoffers).

In the Bea Psalter, the same line reads (changes in bold):
Beatus vir qui non sequitur consilium impiorum, et in viam peccatorum non ingreditur, et in conventu protervorum non sedet.

Blessed is the man who followeth not the counsel of the ungodly, nor entereth into the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the assembly of the scoffers.

Sequitur consilium and in viam…ingreditur express the same idea as abiit in consilio and in via…stetit, but in a more classically Latin way. The change in tense from perfect to present is unfortunate, since the perfect tense in Latin and Hebrew (as well as the Greek aorist) can also represent the idea of a constantly recurring or general notion, (the gnomic use of the tense), which is clearly the intent of the psalmist. The Greek loan-word cathedra is substituted by the Latin word conventu, for the Hebrew mōshab (a sitting down together). Most tellingly, as an example of classicizing vocabulary, lētsīm is translated with protervorum (of the impudent). The adjective protervus and its derivatives occur eight times more often in the writings of Ovid, and five times more often in those of Horace, than they do in Jerome’s Biblical translations. Overall, where the final result of the Septuagint, of the Old Latin, and of St. Jerome’s work is mostly very literal and very Hebraic, the Bea Psalter's version is an accurate and very Latin paraphrase.

It should be noted that no new versions of any of the antiphons were made to correspond to the new Psalms; had this been done, it would have created insuperable difficulties for the singing of the Office. As a result, when the new Psalter is used, a very large number of antiphons no longer correspond to the words of the Psalm with which they are sung. To give just one example, the first antiphon of Holy Saturday Tenebrae reads “In pace in idipsum dormiam et requiescam”, the ninth verse of Psalm 4. The same verse in the Bea Psalter reads “In pace, simul ac decubui, obdormisco.”

The goal of this translation is clarity, and it is certainly very easy to understand for those who know Latin reasonably well. It is also difficult to think of a more artless and insipid piece of writing in the history of the Roman Rite. The translation may gain much in a certain kind of accuracy, but it loses far more in poetry and rhythm. The classic case is found in Psalm 92, 3: “Elevaverunt flumina, Domine, elevaverunt flumina vocem suam; elevaverunt flumina fluctus suos. – The rivers have lifted up, o Lord, the rivers have lifted up their voice, the rivers have lifted up their waves.” The Bea Psalter reads “Extollunt flumina, Domine, extollunt flumina vocem suam; extollunt flumina fragorem suum. – The rivers raise up, o Lord, the rivers raise up their voice, the rivers raise up their noise (or ‘crash’). ” Regardless of whether the Hebrew is better represented by the new version, the Vulgate simply sounds much better, in this and nearly every other case.

In an act of great pastoral wisdom, Pope Pius XII did not require, but simply permitted, the use of the new Psalter. Among those monastic and canonical communities which were wont to sing any part of the Office regularly, few chose to avail themselves of this permission, finding the text quite unsingable. Although initially greeted with enthusiasm by many liturgists, it lost a great deal of its prestige in the reign of Bl. John XXIII, who detested it, and refused to allow it in any service at which he was present.

In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council seems clearly to have repudiated the Bea Psalter when it says “The work of revising the Psalter, already happily begun, is to be finished as soon as possible, and is to take into account the style of Christian Latin, the liturgical use of Psalms, also when sung, and the entire tradition of the Latin Church.” (parag. 91) Subsequently, yet another Latin Psalter was produced for liturgical use, that which is now found in the Liturgia Horarum and the New Vulgate. This latest Psalter is an extremely conservative revision of the traditional text of the Vulgate, and one which happily takes no account of the Bea Psalter. In it, Psalm 1, 1 reads “Beatus vir qui non abiit in consilio impiorum, et in via peccatorum non stetit, et in cathedra derisorum non sedit” : word for word the same as the Vulgate and the Old Latin, with the one correction originally proposed by Saint Jerome.

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