December 6, 2005

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"Talents" in Matthew 25

Peter Kirk has a post on Better Bibles Blog concerning the TNIV's decision to render the Greek word talanton as "bag of gold," instead of the traditional "talent." This is another translation vs. transliteration issue, so let's go back to the Oxford English Dictionary and look at some more etymology.

The word talent is first attested in 893, in the usage which is the proper interpretation of this verse: that is, it was transliterated (not in a Bible translation!) apparently from the Latin talentum, to mean a certain measurement of weight. Most of the cultures of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world had a measurement of weight known as the talent, and from very early times large sums of currency was measured in talents of gold or silver (as early as Homer we have discussion of a talent of gold). Unfortunately, in many cases we don't know how much a talent weighed (as in the Homeric case). Eventually, the word came to be used as a sum of money far more often than a measure of weight (as the use of "pound" in England, for instance). The usage of talent as a sum of money in the ancient world is first attested in the same work that has its first use as a weight, in 893.

Now, ordinarily, it is perfectly correct, and better than any alternatives, to use the ancient names of weights, measures, and sums of money, footnoting some equivalent. This is especially true with sums of money, since the value of our currency fluctuates so much, and so no estimate can remain correct for long. As a result it is common, for instance, to see the Greek word drachme transliterated (usually spelled "drachma" in English), with a footnote that this was one day's wages for manual labor. In classical Athens (c. 5th cent.), the drachma was worth 6 obols, and the talent was worth 6000 drachma (yes, that's over 16 years' wages - the lowest paid full-time employees in our society make around $20,000/year, so we can think of the Attic talent as nearly $330,000). That was 57.75 pounds of silver. (The above information on the Attic talent is from the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon.)

Now, as I said, ordinarily, for a translation, rather than a paraphrase or "transculturation" (like the Cotton Patch Bible), I would support transliterating and footnoting, because we're never going to get it just right. But in this case something funny happened: the usage of this word in the Bible altered it's every day meaning. I've discussed this phenomenon before. The Bible is (or at least was) so widely read and refered to by English speakers, that it's usage of words has sometimes altered their meaning, and this has sometimes had the effect of importing interpretations and/or theological assumptions into Bible translations. In this particular case, around 1450, the word talent began, according to OED, to develop the meaning "Power or ability of mind or body viewed as something divinely entrusted to a person for use and improvement: considered either as one organic whole or as consisting of a number of distinct faculties; (with pl.) any one of such faculties." This meaning developed out of an interpretation of this passage! Today, this etymology is not something English speakers think of when they hear the word "talent." It is, in fact, a "dead metaphor." What I mean by that is that, centuries ago, the actual meaning of the English word "talent" was "about 60 pounds of silver," or something along those lines, and a metaphorical sense of the word developed based on Jesus' parable. Today, this metaphorical sense is the only definition of the word talent for English speakers who are not students of ancient history and/or literature. As a result, transliterating in this case can be misleading to those who are new to studying the ancient world.

The solution may be simply to footnote and, because the word comes up so often, hope everyone will figure it out. I'm not completely satisfied with this solution, because it ruins the immediate effect. Given the context, one cannot help but think about talents in the everyday sense, and this is not what Jesus is saying at all (or rather, it is not part of the story of the parable - it certainly is part of the meaning of the parable).

Another solution might just be to write "6000 drachmas." I think this is the one I'm in favor of. This isn't anachronistic, and it won't be misinterpreted. Some people might not know what a drachma is (we'll give them a footnote), but they will not be likely to think it means something it doesn't, or to lose the meaning of the parable. This is also a good translation because there wasn't a 1 talent coin (have you ever seen a coin that was 60 pounds? Would you like to carry that around in your pocket?). If you wanted to give someone a talent, you would coin it out as 6000 drachmas.

A third solution is to do what the TNIV does and give it meaning in terms of weights of metal. I think that by just saying "bags of gold" we may be losing a lot of the meaning. For one thing, when Jesus' audience hears "talent," they probably think "more money than I have," rather than "lots of shiny metal." We are no longer used to using precious metals as currency, so we see these as two separate things.

Finally, one could give a dollar amount. A talent was a nice round sum that was well beyond the reach of most of the audience, and in the context just exactly how many days' labor would earn you a talent is not very relevant, so I would propose rounding it off and translating "one talent" as "one million dollars." This would leave the sense very well intact, and produce much the same effect that Jesus' words would have had on the original audience. The cons of this approach are that it is terribly anachronistic and America-centric, and for these reasons may not come off as very serious.

What does anyone else think? Which of these is best? Or should we use something else altogether?

Posted by Kenny at December 6, 2005 3:07 PM
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Since you asked, I'd probably vote for 6000 drachmas with a footnote. The $1,000,000 might be appropriate in a paraphrase, but I'd be wary of putting it into a translation.

Posted by: Lauren at December 6, 2005 7:51 PM

6 kilodrachmas?

Posted by: pferree at December 7, 2005 4:53 PM

Seriously, though, I think a change from "talent" might be good. I've actually heard the pun preached as if it were a pun intended by God, as if the Bible were originally written in English, and "talent" has always had its present-day meaning, so God intended the passage to be about our talents (abilities) rather than our resources in general. Since that sort of naivete results in circular reasoning (if you are right about the etymology of the word "talent"), switching from transliteration to translation may be a good idea.

My joke about kilodrachmas stems from me thinking about the many thousands of drachmas kicked around in that passage -- I'd rather stick with the small numbers, so it's easy to figure out that everybody is doubling their investment except for the 1 talent guy. However, I'm blanking on a measurement that would be a good compromise.

Perhaps we could transliterate even more than is already being done, and call the unit a "talentum" (plural: talenti)?

Posted by: pferree at December 7, 2005 5:04 PM

The Latin is second declension neuter, so the plural is "talenta." Since the text is in Greek it would make more sense, if we were going to transliterate more completely to use the Greek "talanton" (pl. "talanta"), which because of the 'a' is also slightly less likely to be confused with the English word talent.

By the way, I lifted the etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary (which is by no means infallible, but certainly knows more about etymology than I do!). The OED etymology of definition category III, "Mental endowment; natural ability," reads "From the parable of the talents, Matt. xxv. 14-30, etc." (whereas definition category I is listed as being from Latin, and definition II from old French - instead of a language we have this text). Additionally the earliest uses of the word in this sense cited in OED all have explicit reference to a "talent" being something entrusted to us by God which we must then give account for our use of.

Posted by: Kenny at December 7, 2005 7:31 PM

Hi Kenny, The actual meaning will be the meaning given by God himself. This meaning therefore has to be contained in the Bible. If you wish, I can provide you with the references in the Bible. I believe this is what is meant. - The possesion left by the master -God is his Church = The Body of Christ. The servants are those who wish to spread infuse the word of God into this Church. God gave the servants according to their abilities to one 5, to one 2 and to the other 1 "to everyone according to their abilities" in infusing the Word of God into

Posted by: Thiagan at June 17, 2006 5:46 AM

Thiagan, or course the correct interpretation of the parable is determined by its context in the Bible, but we must remember that God intended to make revelation to ordinary human beings, and so he spoke in simple, plain language. The Bible is not written in some bizarre 'Holy Ghost language,' because if it was it wouldn't actually reveal the Word of God to us. The linguistic facts are highly relevant because the language (in this case, Greek) is the tool God chose to use to reveal his truth to us.

Posted by: Kenny at June 17, 2006 11:43 AM

It occurred to me that capitalizing the transliteration might work with this. It indicates that something unusual is going on, which might lead people who don't normally look at footnotes to give it a glance. Of course, the average Bible reader doesn't even know how to tell if there is a footnote for a certain verse, so footnoting isn't always going to trickle down to the less educated.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at September 19, 2006 10:23 PM

Jeremy - I wonder if this would be more or less helpful than pferee's suggestion that we transliterate more thoroughly and write talanton for singular and talanta (or, I suppose, talantons) for plural? At any rate it is the same general sort of idea and would at least (we hope) prevent people from supposing that the ordinary meaning of the English word talent is what's intended here.

Posted by: Kenny at September 19, 2006 10:36 PM

I really detest putting amounts in the text that will change due to inflation.

Great solution to use 6000 drachmas with a footnote. Can be used consistently and footnote can put a money amount with a year date. Nice

Posted by: andyzc at February 9, 2008 4:32 PM

Your blog entry is extremely interesting and enlightening. I've heard and read the "talents" passage from Matthew all my life and once again this morning at Mass. For the first time, I wondered at the etymology of the word and became curious as to why "talent" represented a sum of money in the gospel and an inherit ability today. The link to translation vs. transliteration was especially helpful. (I didn't find the "boring part" boring at all. :)

PS - I vote for 6000 drachma with a footnote.

Posted by: Texas Grrl at November 16, 2008 5:07 PM

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