The primary authoritative translation of Bede’s Abbreviated Psalter is Gerald M. Browne’s The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede, Eerdmans, 2002. It is a fairly bare translation without the Latin text and a slight introduction. The translation is based on the authoritative Latin edition: Collectio Psalterii Bedae Venerabili adscripta, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana (K G Saur Verlag, Munich and Leipzig, 2001). Browne notes (p. 13) that his translation “draws freely from various versions of the complete Psalter” and he used Cassiodorus’s Exposition of the Psalms as a “guide”. The ascription of the abbreviated psalter to Bede is based on three Latin copies written about a century after his death (c. 835). They all have scribal errors but Browne asserts that the original can be determined “for all practical purposes” by comparing the three texts (p. 13). He quotes Ward on Bede’s purpose, so I will comment on that when I cover her work.
We know that Bede used the Vulgate psalter of Jerome for his text. This was a conscious choice of Bede because he had several other Old Latin versions available and Jerome’s was not yet universally used. Browne makes the helpful observation that Cassiodorus’s work was “well known to Bede”, and so I will need to consult it also.
There are four notes on the text and translation that need to be discussed; the first three noted by Browne.
- Jerome’s substitution of “Jesus” for “salvation”. Like most early medieval theologians, Jerome and Bede both believed that the Old Testament allegorically referred to the New Testament. Jerome ‘translated’ the Hebrew word salvation as “Jesus”, and Bede follows suite. It is jarring to today’s readers to see the name Jesus in four of Bede’s abbreviated psalms (Vulgate psalm 50, 78, 84, and 149), such as Ps. 50:14 “Restore to me the joy of your Jesus, and with powerful spirit strengthen me.”
- Bede’s allegorical substitution on Vulgate psalm 136 (our psalm 137). Bede substitutes “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord” for the psalms’ “Blessed is he that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones”. This is the only time that Bede deviates from scripture. I will have to refer to Cassiodorus on this psalm, but this certainly doesn’t seem like the essence of this psalm to me. It may also help to see if Bede uses this verse (Vulgate Ps. 136:9) elsewhere in his works.
- Partial verses: Browne leaves open the possibility that Bede’s text itself contains further abbreviations of what Bede actually intended (ie that there are abbreviations in these abbreviated psalms). He concludes that he will only translate what the text says. I suspect that this shows Browne’s puzzlement over just how short some of these abbreviations are and again perhaps is making him question the standard rationale scholars give for Bede’s project.
- Odd translation of psalm 41 (V)/42. I happen to like both translations, but the metaphors of a deer vs a garden are quite different.
“quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus” (Vulgate Psalm 41 in Latin)
“Like a garden prepared for the irrigation of the waters, so my soul is prepared for you, God.” (V Ps. 41, Browne trans, p. 40)
“As a deer longs for the water-brooks, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Ps. 42:1)
There is a significant difference between “my soul is prepared” and “my soul longs”. Cervus translates directly as deer. The modern translation appears to be correct. Looks like I will need to find the Latin edition of Bede’s psalter to see if this is Browne’s translation or his original text. Benedicta Ward does give the usual translation in her edition. If this difference is due to the translation, then it is good example of the possibility of significant differences between translations. Given that Bede would have been translating these texts in his head as he was fluent in Latin, the verses of the abbreviated psalter may have meanings to him that neither translation reflect, especially if he paid no attention to the separation of psalms, as I suspect. The surviving texts shown in Browne’s illustrations do not distinguish were one psalm ends and the next begins. They all run together and context would effect translation.