Measurements and money

Jonathan Morgan asked on the Share page:

Another thing I have noticed is the translation of weights and measures in Bibles. Some Bibles will try to stick to the original units (e.g. “cubits”, “talents”, “denarii”, “ephah”, “bath”, etc.). Others will try to render them into modern units. Both lead to problems. Any thoughts on which is the better way to do it? (Something Wayne particularly talks about) How would modern translators translating between modern languages handle differences in the units used?

Problem 1: Different English measurement systems
There are two major systems of units in use in the English speaking world (metric and imperial). I, along with I think most of the English speaking world, use metric, but a lot of translations come from the US and use imperial. If they published 100% correct* metric versions in metric countries I might care less… (and if they used the Biblical units both sides would be equally fogged 🙂 ).

Problem 2: Anachronistic readings from the translation
What really got me thinking about this was reading in the HCSB that distances between different parts of Ezekiel’s temple were “22 3/4 feet” apart, or “43 3/4 feet”. While these things make perfect sense as exact measurements if you have a long cubit of 21 inches, I just read it as an English speaker and think “Why is this so precise?” (whereas if I see a number like “10 cubits” I have no trouble at all understanding why that number is chosen). (I also wonder whether some of the original measurements were actually approximations, like we might say something was “10 metres across” or someone was “6 feet tall” (yes, we do use imperial for some isolated things) without meaning exactly 32 3/4 feet across or 183 centimetres tall. Similar thoughts apply to other units of measure – maybe we would be better rounding them rather than trying to represent exactly (a tenet I learnt in science was that it’s an error to represent your results after calculations as having more accuracy than the original source of the results – I loved adding lots of decimal places to prevent rounding errors, etc.).

In particular, if the quantity is 1 or 2 or something small, changing it to something different seems anachronistic. An example that occurs to me is the talent, which changes to 75 pounds in the HCSB. When we come to Gehazi asking Naaman for money in 2 Kings 5, we get the following dialog:
“Please give them [two sons of the prophets] 75 pounds of silver and two changes of clothes”
But Naaman insisted, “Please, accept 150 pounds”. He urged Gehazi and then packed 150 pounds of silver in two bags with two changes of clothes.

This feels very weird in English (why exactly did Gehazi ask for 75 pounds of silver? Why not 50 or 100? Why then did Naaman press him to take 150 pounds rather than say 100? And why then two bags?) This passage makes much more sense when we realise that he asked for 1 of something (1 talent), a very natural starting point to ask for, and Naaman suggests 2 (presumably 1 for each of the sons of the prophets). The record in talents inherently makes sense if I just treat a talent as “a unit of money” rather than “a weight which needs translating”. [I do note that “talents” is used in the parable of the talents, rather than translating it into a weight].

In a similar way, I haven’t changed “a miss is as good as a mile” to “a miss is as good as 1.6km” or even “a miss is as good as a kilometre”.

Problem 2: Comparisons between units losing power
I read in Isaiah 5:
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.

From that, I could guess that this was a bad thing (they weren’t yielding what they were supposed to). I couldn’t get any numbers on it though (I can never remember whether it’s 1 to ten or ten to 1, and I don’t know how many baths ten acres should make or even really what a bath is). I wondered how the HCSB would translate it (hoping desperately it would not be 22 litres produces 2.2 litres), and was glad to see the kind of translation I had thought would be good myself: “10 bushels of seed will yield only one bushel”, which is probably completely off in raw numbers but gives the meaning of the text – you aren’t even recouping your expenditure, let alone growing more. [I note that the NIV text gives the homer and ephah with footnotes, while the NIV Study Bible notes gives the (more logical?) 10:1 explanation].

(I wondered how “an omer is the tenth part of an ephah” would be translated – obviously we can’t translate both of them. It turned out to be in the HCSB “Two quarts are a tenth of an ephah”.)

Problem 3: Trying to represent the real value of money.
I have seen translations that try to translate money into the current value of that money. As the translation gets older and inflation continues, this becomes less and less representative. For example, I have seen translations that replaced “denarius” with $20 in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Now $20 may have been a day’s wages then, but now it most certainly isn’t and would change the meaning of how much the samaritan was giving for his “neighbour” and how much trouble it caused him. Saying “a day’s wages” might be more accurate. Leaving it at denarius might also be accurate [if I’m reading a book about India I see no problem using “rupees” rather than “dollars” because that’s what they use – I don’t think denarius needs to be different]. (on a related note, our perceptions of value may have changed enough that directly converting from a weight of gold/silver to a value today doesn’t necessarily give an accurate representation of what the money was worth then. For example, I have read that silver was much closer to the value of gold then than it is now. If that is true, just using the silver price now to estimate a value will be even less useful).

Anyway, I’ve given lots of examples of problems and gone on longer than I expected, but the original question still stands: Are there good guidelines on how to translate units, and if there are what do you think they are, and how does that relate to modern translation practices?

* I have seen an NIV that was obviously changed from imperial to metric with a quick search and replace, and any numeric references that didn’t have the unit afterwards were not converted. This turns the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16 into something quite different:
“How much do you owe my master?” “3 kilolitres of wheat” “Well, take your bill and write 400″.

Consulting an imperial NIV showed that it was actually meant to go from 800 gallons to 400 gallons, which made some amount of sense.
I’d also add that we here at least would rarely use kilolitres in ordinary speech, and would probably say 3,000 litres of wheat (if we even measured wheat in litres). You may well use 3,000 and 1,500 in preference to 3 and 1.5 anyway.

Jonathan, you have obviously given a lot of thought to a problem that is a cause of headaches to Bible translators.

Your first question was how modern translators would handle this. In my experience, modern translators would adapt and convert into what is used in the language and culture they are translating into. Fahrenheit becomes celsius, miles becomes kilometres, gallons becomes litres, etc. In the case of money the original amount and currency is sometimes given in a parenthesis after the converted amount.

For Bible translation, we have the traditional approach where the foreign terms would be transliterated and kept. That is where you find your homers, and omers, and ephas and baths. Where this approach is still used today, an equivalent is usually given in a footnote. The other approach (preferred by linguists and professional translators) is to follow what is normally done in translation outside the Bible. So, the first question for the Bible translator is: What style do you want to settle on, the traditional one or the modern, linguistic one, or maybe a mixture? The choice depends on who your intended audience is.

The solution to your problem 1 is in principle very easy. Americans should as soon as possible adopt the metric system that is used in the rest of the world. 🙂

Your problem 2 is a challenge. The most common length measurement in the Bible is the cubit, which is the distance from your elbow to your fingertip. Since it is close to 1½ feet, it works quite well to change to feet for the longer measurements. Noah’s ark was 300 x 50 x 30 cubits. When this is changed to 450 x 75 x 45 feet we still have the fairly round numbers. It does not work quite so well when it is changed to 133 x 32 x 13 metres. The problem becomes much worse when the measurements are ½ cubit, 1 cubit or 1½ cubit. In the British GNB, a cubit is normally given as 45 cm and half a cubit as 22 cm. The first edition of the NLT had 3 3/4 feet and 2 1/4 feet in Exo 37:6, but this was changed to 45 inches and 27 inches in the revised NLT. They could have said 3′ 9″ and 2′ 3″. In cubits it would be 2½ and 1½. An added problem is that there were different lengths for the cubit in different times and cultures. Because of that we chose in our Danish translation to use an old term of approximately the same length. Most people would not know the exact length since it is no longer used. It would correspond to the English cubit, so I’ll translate it into the English term cubit (from the latin word for elbow). The advantage was that then we could keep the same numbers as the original. When this term was first used in Gen 6:15 we had a footnote: “The cubit used here is either the Babylonian cubit of 50.3 cm, the Egyptian cubit of 52.5 cm, or the old royal Hebrew cubit of 7 handbreaths or 51.8 cm. Later a shorter cubit became the norm. It was 6 handbreaths or 44.5 cm.” The first time it occurred in Exodus we again had a footnote, but a much shorter one. So, if I was doing an English translation, I would probably use the cubit with footnotes, but as you say there are pros and cons for each choice.

In a book like Revelation, we have the added problem that numbers were meant to be symbolic. In Rev 14:20 we have 1600 stadia. It is symbolically significant that 16 = 4×4, since 4 is the number for humans. That is lost when we read 180 miles (NLT) or 200 miles (GNB-US) or 300 kilometres (GNB-UK). As long as there is a footnote, not all is lost. The same applies to the 12,000 stadia (furlongs) in Rev 21:16. 12 is an important symbolic number (pointing to the people of God). One has to choose whether to focus on communicating a more understandable length or a symbolic number.

When it comes to weights we have similar problems. One is that actual weights varied over time and we are not sure of the exact measurement at different times. The other is that the conversion process may introduce an accuracy perception that was not part of the original. You mention 2 Kings 5:5. In our Danish version we translated as 10 sacks of silver, 2 sacks of gold and 10 sets of beautiful clothes. A donkey would normally carry two sacks, one on each side. The original terms of talent and shekel were put in a footnote with approximate metric equivalents.

In your problem 2 you mention Isa 5:10, and I agree with your sentiments. In Danish we used a common, but old way of referring to the size of land, literally one barrel of land. (The idea is that it would require one barrel of seed to plant that size of land.) For the wine we used the kind of word that is often used for wine and beer (an anker), somewhat like the English cask. So we said: A vinefield/vineyard of 10 barrels of land will only give one cask of wine. (A barrel of land corresponds to 1,363 acres, and an anker of wine is about 40 litres, but the exact measurements are not important here.) For the second half of the verse we said: 10 sacks of seeds will only produce one sack of corn (that is wheat or barley, not maize).

Your problem 3 is money, again quite a challenge for the reasons you mention. I would say the solution depends on the context. Is the exact amount important or not? At Exo 30:13, we used ½ shekel with a footnote. The additional information about gerahs were placed in the footnote. I think the GW rendering of “one fifth of an ounce of silver” is too complex, and the concept of a half shekel in temple tax occurs other places in the Bible. Because of that, we chose not to leave it out completely as the GNB did (the required amount of money).

In Gen 24:22 we said a nose-ring of gold and two heavy gold bracelets (with a footnote giving the original terms of bekah and shekels).

In Exo 38:24 we used 900 kilos (rather than 2193 pounds) with a footnote about the 29 talents and 730 shekels. In the next 2 verses we said: “More than 3 tons of silver was used corresponding to the personal tax of registered people over 20 years of age, that is a ½ shekel from 603,550 people.” The footnote said: “In Hebrew 100 talents and 1775 shekel, the same as 301,775 shekel or about 3018 kgs.” The mathematically inclined reader can divide the 603,550 with 2.

For the NT denarius we would sometimes keep the foreign word “denar” but usually clarified with a day’s wages. For instance, in Mat 20:2 we said: “He agreed with them that they would be paid the normal daily wage of one denar.” In this way we can easily use the denar as a back reference in v. 9 and 13. The KJV does sound funny today: “a penny a day.” In the case of Matt 18:24 we said: “The first one owed him millions” (Footnote: Literally 10,000 talents. It is probably a symbolic number for the greatest imaginable amount of money at the time. It would be about 20 tons of gold. A talent was 6000 denars, and a denar was a normal day’s wages.) Then in 18:28 we said “who owed him a few thousand”. Now, the reader would think of a few thousand kroners, and that is fine compare to millions. The footnote here says: “Literally 100 denars. This is 600,000 times less than the previous amount.”

Much more could be said, but I hope this gives a feel for the kind of challenges translators need to grapple with.

4 thoughts on “Measurements and money

  1. Rich Rhodes says:

    This is a nice taxonomy of the problems. What’s only implicit and should be highlighted is the fact that often measures can have meanings beyond their direct reference. That’s a big part of the reason that the population of the US is so resistant to change to metric.

    For example, if I look at a weather report, and I see that it’s going to 60° out today (Farenheit), I know how to dress. But if I read it’s going to be 15° (Centigrade) I don’t.

    (I’m cheating, of course, because I, personally, have spent so much time in countries with Centigrade that I’m more or less acclimated.)

    But the corresponding things are a problem for linear measure. Americans know what it means to be 6′ tall, but 185 cm doesn’t mean anything.

    Or for money, $10 is chump-change to most Americans. Something between $55 and $65 dollars a day is minimum wage (depending on the state). You are working poor if you make $13,000 a year (i.e., high end minimum wage). $50,000/yr makes you middle class, especially away from the really expensive cities, etc., etc.

    So the translator’s task is to figure out when the actual amount, however it will be expressed, is the clearest expression of the intended meaning (like the size of Noah’s ark), or whether the intended meaning is implicit in the amount (like the day’s wages case).

    Only those who are, for other reasons, deeply committed to literality would argue against making plain Jesus intention of communicating that the Samaritan put up more than a trivial amount of money, or that the disciplines intention in Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000 was that it would cost an enormous amount to buy enough food.

    BTW, I’m not averse to updating versions when inflation demands. To her dying day (in 1995) my grandmother thought $10 was a lot of money. I don’t think twice about spending $10 (or $20) for that matter.

    Interestingly, silver and gold tend to be inflation resistant, so if you get the weights right, the value whatever amount of silver (i.e., it’s buying power) is pretty much the same now as it was 2000 years ago — and maybe even back to Naaman’s time. (OK, so books and transportation are much cheaper now, and food can be volatile in the short-run, but clothes, housing, and long-term average food prices are about the same. This is something free market fundamentalists point out constantly: a high end toga in Augustus’ Rome cost about the same as an ounce of gold. A high end suit today costs about the same as an ounce of gold.)

  2. Theophrastus says:

    Interestingly, silver and gold tend to be inflation resistant, so if you get the weights right, the value whatever amount of silver (i.e., it’s buying power) is pretty much the same now as it was 2000 years ago.

    This is not correct.

    2000 years ago, a Roman gold aureas was worth 25 times the value of a silver denarius. The were both equal sized, and gold has a specific gravity 1.84 times that of silver, so we can determine that the ratio by weight of the price of gold vs. silver was 25/1.84 (approximately 14).

    At this moment, the price of gold is $1483, and the price of silver is $34. The ratio is approximately 47. That’s a three-fold difference — hardly stable.

    The price of gold is not even stable over the short term. Ten years ago, gold was priced $265 — an increase of approximately 460%. However, inflation in the US has only increased by 23% during that time.

  3. Cameron Beeler says:

    Really interesting question and answers on this topic!
    As a kind of analytical Bible reader, I’ve found that the numbers of scripture can usually be found to be both literal and symbolic. Not limited at all by Revelation, though certainly in that book as well. I rather suspect that all of the discussions on dimensions of construction in the Bible are both literal and symbolic. Such as the Ark of Noah, the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s Temple, the tabernacle of Moses, the temple of Ezekiel, etc. The literal dimensions are sufficient for describing the appearance, but the numerical suggestion in symbol is significant as well, and translating into feet or Metre simply masks (hides) the underlying messages God is sending.

    Further, I find that if I’m curious enough about relating to common current measurements for some way of making a message meaningful to my current reality, then I check both the numeric symbolism, and then hope to find a measurements page to do my own math to my current reality. Or simpler, I look on the internet to see what it looks like for real (with validation of measurements).

    I’ve discovered that I really don’t want in-line translations into English measure of any sort.

    Appreciate the discussion in the specifics, it is definitely interesting!

    Your Bro,

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