This post this time is not really about sex. It's about money. And the power (or poverty) of translation.
In a recent post in which I mentioned sex, I translated a Greek term for money into English and nobody commented about that. Now, here, I'm asking for help with the translation.
The thrice repeated Greek word in that earlier post is “δραχμὰς” transliterated “drachmas,” which I translated “Greek silver coins” or just “coin.” This word may have been precisely the one that Jesus used when telling his parable of the woman who lost the “coin.” In other words, maybe she’s a Greek woman or a Hebrew woman who has ten of these Greek coins. But could it be that she has Hebrew coins, which Jesus mentions specifically? Is the coin she loses maybe a Hebrew (שֶּׁקֶל) “shekel” or a (צִית הַ) “gerah” which Jesus says in Hebrew or Aramaic, which Matthew then translates as “δραχμὰς” (or “drachma”)? Or is it a Roman mite or denarius for the woman of the parable of Jesus? And is Matthew just sticking with a Greek coin because it’s the more familiar terminology of the readers?
There seems to be precedent for this kind of translation of Hebrew currency into Greek. But the translators divide into two very different directions, making mistakes exchange-rate mistakes in both cases:
The Septuagint translators of Exodus 30:13 and of Leviticus 27:25 translated Hebrew (שֶּׁקֶל) “shekel” and (צִית הַ) “gerah” into Greek and they produced this respectively: “εἴκοσι ὀβολοὶ τὸ δίδραχμον” and “εἴκοσι ὀβολοὶ ἔσται τὸ δίδραχμον” Literally this is “20 obols = 1 drachma.”
However, in Numbers 3:47 and Numbers 18:16 we still see “obols” for (צִית הַ) “gerahs” but no “drachmas.” Instead the translators translate the Hebrew unit (שֶּׁקֶל) “shekel” into Greek that sounds like Hebrew: “σίκλος” (which in English we might pronounce as /siklos/). The resulting translations look and sound like this, respectively: “εἴκοσι ὀβολοὺς τοῦ σίκλου” and “τὸν σίκλον τὸν ἅγιον [εἴκοσι ὄβολοί εἰσιν].” In English, that’s literally “20 obols = 1 shekel” and “the holy shekel = 20 obols”
Now if we look at the encyclopedia entry, the historic rate is “6 obols = 1 drachma.” And there are at least these 3 caveats for the translator:
- “Drachmas were minted on different weight standards at different Greek mints.”
- “It is generally considered very hard or even meaningless to come up with comparative exchange rates with modern currency due to the fact that the range of products produced economies of centuries gone by were very different from today, which makes Purchasing power parity (PPP) calculations very difficult. However, some historians and economists have estimated that in the 5th century BC a drachma had a rough value of…”
- “The name drachma is derived from the verb ‘δράττω’ (dratto, ‘to grasp’). Initially a drachma was a fistful (a ‘grasp’) of six oboloi (metal sticks), which were used as a form of currency as early as 1100 BC.”
Immediately, the English reader should recognize the relationship between “obol” (or its plurals “obols” or “oboloi”) and the word “obelisk.” An obelisk is also a kind of “stick” if you will; it is (from that same encyclopedia) “ὀβελίσκος [obeliskos], diminutive of ὀβελός [obelos], "needle")…a tall, narrow, four-sided, tapering monument which ends in a pyramidal top.”
Aristotle doesn’t use the word for “drachma” (or a “fistful” coin named δραχμὰς) in the Rhetoric. He doesn’t even use the word for “obol” (or “metal stick” coin named ὀβολος).
But he does use the rare money unit ἡμι-ωβέλια, or “hemi-obolia.” What does that mean? And how should we best translate it into English? Well, I’m really open to helpful suggestions. Here’s how the word has been translated into English:
“vessels of small price” (H. C. 1686);
“vessels” (Thomas Taylor 1818);
“half-pence of money” (John Gillies 1823);
“half farthings of property / money” (Theodore Buckley 1890);
Here’s the Greek context for this first verse of Chapter XIV of Book A of the Rhetoric:
Here’s Freese’s translation (the first to transliterate obols):
What’s the best translation of ἡμιωβέλια or “hemi-obolia”? It looks like Aristotle is asking whether these little coins or half-sticks of silver are no big deal. Is the translation, then, a really big deal?
(ps: there are other webpages with photos of the Greek, Hebrew, and Roman money and endless speculations about the weight of these coins in exchange: