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In for a Penny, in for 0.45359237 Liters?

Iver Larsen has an interesting post at Better Bibles Blog about how to translate references to biblical weights and measures. This is a notoriously difficult problem for Bible translators. In my review of the Common English Bible, I noted the inconsistencies in how that translation handles weights and measures:

The way CEB handles weights and measures is inconsistent and sometimes mystifying. First the inconsistent: linear and spatial dimensions are converted into feet and inches, thus eliminating archaic units of measure such as cubits, rods, etc. Terms for measurements of weight and capacity, however, are transliterated rather than translated, so we still get homers, baths, and talents in the text, with a footnote to the approximate U.S. English equivalent. The same procedure is followed for monetary values….

The mystifying part comes in the front matter, where the translators provide a list of “weights and measures.” Fortunately, most of these do not seem to appear anywhere in the actual CEB text. I say “fortunately” because some of the chosen transliterations of Greek terms are, frankly, barbaric. These forms seem to be consistently relegated to the footnotes, but I can’t fathom how anyone arrived at some of them at all!

To elaborate, the CEB provides the following list of weights and measures:

  • denarion, plural denaria. This is actually correct with respect to the original Greek, in which this coin is called a δηνάριον (plural δηνάρια). In Bibles that name this coin, we usually get the Latin equivalents denarius and denarii.
  • drachme, plural drachmen. Usually this is rendered as “drachma” and “drachmas.” In Greek it is δραχμή (drachme) or plural δραχμαί (drachmai)
  • kodrantes. This is also the correct transliteration for κοδράντης, although this is itself a Greek transliteration of Latin quadrans (plural quadrantes).
  • lepto, plural lepta. The singular form of this coin’s name is λεπτόν (lepton). The plural form is correct for λεπτά. A widow gave the temple two of these small copper coins in Luke 21.
  • litra. This is the correct transliteration of λίτρα, a loanword from Latin libra, “pound.”
  • maneh, plural manehs. This is the Hebrew term (מנה). In Greek, it would be μνᾶ (mna), which often comes over by way of Latin as mina. It is another name for litra.
  • plechon. Greek πῆχυς (pechys or perhaps pechus). Most readers of the English Bible are more familiar with the English translation, “cubit.”
  • stadion, plural stades. The singular is correct for Greek στάδιον (stadion). Occasionally you see “stade” as an English transliteration, from which the CEB plural form apparently derives. The proper Greek plural is στάδιοι (stadioi), although you also often see stadia, to the extent that this form is listed as the plural of stadium in English dictionaries.
  • talanta, plural talantas. In Greek, this would be τάλαντον (talanton), plural τάλαντα (talanta). Usually in English we see this word as “talent” or “talents.”

Some of these words are simply transliterated incorrectly. I’m not talking about the choice of denarion over the more familiar denarius, I’m talking about drachmen as the plural for drachme and talanta (which ought to be the plural form) taking the place of singular talanton while talantas as the plural form is simply ungrammatical. I have no clue where plechon came from. Furthermore, when the transliterations are correct, they are not always consistent. If stades is the plural, why isn’t stade the singular, for example?

At the same time, I praised the CEB for how it handled monetary units in at least some contexts. I think it handles Luke 19:12-13, 15-19 particularly well.

At any rate, check out what Iver has to say. This is definitely one of those issues where a “one size fits all” solution is likely to fail.

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3 Comments

  1. White Man says:

    “In for a penny, in for a pound” was the original expression. “A pint’s a pound the world around” was another. This appears to be a mutilated mixture of the two sayings, except that a pint of WATER, not copper, weighs a pound–and there is no correlation whatsoever between a pint of water and the monetary value of £1.

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  2. Darrell Pursiful says:

    A pound of water has a volume of 0.4535937 liters. The total lack of correlation is part of my point: we do strange things when trying to translate biblical weights and measures. 🙂

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  3. White Man says:

    Okay. I guess you see that happening where “a bag of money” is translated as a specific weight of silver.
    In this post I give example’s of the NIV’s inconsistency in both translating and converting cubits. Note the growing cubit in the ONIV, TNIV and NNIV translation note at Ezekiel 40:5!
    a.Ezekiel 40:5 The common cubit was about 1 1/2 feet (about 0.5 meter)[=9 feet or 3 meters]. –ONIV
    a.Ezekiel 40:5 That is, about 10 feet or about 3.1 meters; also in verse 12. The long cubit of about 21 inches or about 52 centimeters is the basic unit of measurement of length throughout Ezekiel 40–48. –TNIV
    a.Ezekiel 40:5 That is, about 11 feet or about 3.2 meters; also in verse 12. The long cubit of about 21 inches or about 53 centimeters is the basic unit of measurement of length throughout chapters 40–48. –NNIV

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