This week I am editing the translations of Luke 21. Communicating the meaning of God’s Word across languages is always fascinating but is a highly complex task. Take Luke 21:1-4 as an example. It says that the widow put in two lepta. Luke’s original audience understood Roman coinage and new that a lepton was the smallest coin around, made of copper or perhaps bronze, and worth about what a day laborer would earn for 3-4 minutes of work. Most of us, and especially unchurched Roma, don’t possess that background knowledge, so we need to translate it as “only two small coins.”
By the way, some translators are tempted to translate it into modern currency, such as “two cents” or “two dinar,” but that is fraught with difficulty since it incorrectly assumes, first, that we know the exact buying power of these coins two thousand years ago, and secondly, that our currency will not change or highly deflate within the lifetime of those who read our new translation. This is more than just theoretical as can be seen by the fact that 25 years ago when we first moved to Croatia, they used a currency called “dinar,” whereas now they use “kuna,” besides the fact that the exchange rate 25 years ago to the US dollar was 1 to 44,000, whereas now it is 1 to 6! Add to that the reality that the Roma who speak these languages live in multiple countries with different currencies, and you can see how dangerous it is to peg a translation with an exact modern equivalent of money which is used in only one country.
This is only one potential trap to avoid in translation. In that same passage, we have to be careful to explain that the people were putting money not into a literal “treasury” but into “collection boxes for offerings to God,” which an unchurched Roma would not automatically know. And when Jesus says that the widow put in more than the rich, He did not mean that literally the amount of currency she gave exceeded the amount given by the rich, but rather that in His eyes (i.e., in the only estimation which matters), what she gave was worth more than all the others put it. Again, a footnote may need to be added in the translation to make it clear that Jesus is not spouting nonsense.
Also, there is no Roma word for “widow,” so we either have to borrow a term from Croatian or Serbian or else put an additional phrase in the translation: “a woman whose husband had died.” That phrase makes the meaning clear, but the style clumsy. Yes, Bible translation is an art, as well as a science.