Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Sex, Money, Power: Help!

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 “δραχμς” 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 “δραχμς” (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: εκοσι βολο τ δίδραχμον” and “εκοσι βολο σται τ 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: εκοσι βολος το σίκλου” and “τν σίκλον τν γιον [εκοσι βολοί εσιν].” 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:

  1. Drachmas were minted on different weight standards at different Greek mints.”
  2. 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…
  3. 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) “βελίσκος [obeliskos], diminutive of βελός [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 δραχμς) in the Rhetoric. He doesn’t even use the word for “obol” (or “metal stick” coin named βολος).

But he does use the rare money unit μι-ωβλια, 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);

half-obels” (John Freese 1926; Hugh Lawson-Tancred 1991; George A. Kennedy 1991/2007)

Here’s the Greek context for this first verse of Chapter XIV of Book A of the Rhetoric:

δκημα δ μεζον, σ ν π μεζονος δικας: δι τ λχιστα μγιστα, οον Μελανπου Καλλστρατος κατηγρει, τι παρελογσατο τρα μιωβλια ερ τος ναοποιος: π δικαιοσνης δ τοναντον. στιν δ τατα κ το νυπρχειν τ δυνμει: γρ τρα μιωβλια ερ κλψας κν τιον δικσειεν. τ μν δ οτω τ μεζον, τ δ' κ το βλβους κρνεται.

Here’s Freese’s translation (the first to transliterate obols):

Wrong acts are greater in proportion to the injustice from which they spring. For this reason the most trifling are sometimes the greatest, as in the charge brought by Callistratus against Melanopus that he had fraudulently kept back three consecrated half-obols from the temple-builders; whereas, in the case of just actions, it is quite the contrary. The reason is that the greater potentially inheres in the less; for he who has stolen three consecrated half-obols will commit any wrong whatever. Wrong acts are judged greater sometimes in this way, sometimes by the extent of the injury done.

What’s the best translation of μιωβλια 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:







Nathan Stitt said...

Monetary translations in the Bible are a pet peeve of mine. I prefer the commonly accepted transliterations such as drachma, denarius, etc. So in light of that, I think the use of half-obol is totally appropriate. If you do an internet search for this term in English you will find that it is already in use by sites that discuss ancient coins. The Bible is a historical work and I'd rather see the facts of history correctly retained within it's pages, and my preference there would carry over into any other historical work. I would say this is particularly true when specialists already use English terms for ancient sources.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for sharing, Nathan! Yes, monetary translation peeves. If the exchange rate would just stay constant. I like what your linked site says about using the Ox as the universal value. What's the cost of a loaf of bread (leavened or un)? A bar of gold (on April fools day)? It's stuff we're so careful with, until translation. I am quite leery of transliteration as my example in the post shows. But I do follow your choice and think "half-obol" might do. (One last muse: some day, when it's all digital, what will translators then say about our metal coins and paper bills?)

Daniel said...

Context is always important to keep in mind when interpreting and translating a text. Not just the textual context but also the cultural and historical context. If we translate something that is specific to a particular culture like money or measurements we have to choose between losing cultural and historical context or being less comprehensible. I thought about this recently when reading the story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24:13 it says,

Καὶ ἰδοὺ δύο ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἦσαν πορευόμενοι εἰς κώμην ἀπέχουσαν σταδίους ἑξήκοντα ἀπὸ Ἱερουσαλήμ, ᾗ ὄνομα Ἐμμαοῦς

'σταδίους ἑξήκοντα' is translated in the KJV as 'threescore furlongs' in the NIV, ESV, NASB as '7 miles'. While 'furlong' is not very familiar, it is a little troubling seeing '7 miles' because it creates a greater distance from the walking culture of the NT. Wikipedia says, "The furlong was historically viewed as equivalent to the Roman stade (stadium), which in turn derived from the Greek system." Although in terms of the actual measurement (1 furlong = 660 feet; 1 stadium = 625 feet) a furlong is less 'accurate', in terms of cultural equivalent a furlong is closer than saying '7 miles'. Do you sacrifice cultural context or comprehensibility? Personally I usually prefer a translation to be more careful with context if I can educate myself about what I don't understand. (I don't see any reason to use threescore anymore.) Ideally we want a word that is both comprehensible and keeps more of the context.

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks Daniel. you've said some important things. and you inspired my next post.