How large the debts?
At the heart of the parable Jesus tells in yesterday’s Gospel is the contrast between the immense debt owed by a king’s servant and freely forgiven him by the king and the relatively trivial debt owed to that same servant by one of his fellow-servants, which he refuses to forgive him (Mt 18:24, 28). In the Greek original the first debt is described as “ten thousand talents.” A talent was the largest unit in currency, and ten thousand was the highest figure used in ancient accounting. The combination results in such a huge debt that it would have been impossible for the servant ever to repay it. The comparatively trivial amount owed by the fellow-servant was “one hundred denarii,” a denarius being the common silver coin of the day, equivalent, we are told, to a day’s wages for a laborer.
I was struck while reading the parable at Mass that the New American Bible, which is the only translation authorized for liturgical use in the USA, departs from the literal text and offers instead an interpretive translation: The first servant is said to have owed the king “a huge amount”, while the other servant is said to owe the first servant “a mere fraction of what he had owed.” I did not like this translation at all. It turned the very concrete numbers offered into abstractions: “a huge amount,” “a mere fraction.” This in fact is the point of the two figures, but should interpretation or exegesis shunt aside the actual text?
Is this the sort of thing that is meant by “dynamic or functional equivalence”? If so, I don’t like it here. And it makes me wonder if that theory of translation had been used by the first translators of the Bible into English, whether our language would have been as enriched as it has been by such literal translations as the King James and Douai-Rheims versions. What is the dynamic equivalent of “the apple of his eye”?
I looked to see what other translations made of the two sums. Many of them retained the “ten thousand talents” and “one hundred denarii” (although both the KJV and Douai-Rheims give “an hundred pence”), but here are some other efforts: “ten thousand bags of gold” vs “a hundred silver coins”; “millions of dollars” vs “a few thousand dollars” (or hundreds of dollars”; “whose debt ran into millions” vs. “a few pounds”.
What think ye all?