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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