On the Talents of Matthew 25 and Translation

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a great example of the pastoral implications of Greek translation. It demonstrates the intersection of translation philosophy and how translation affects interpretation.

Talents (Greek τάλαντον/talanton, often the plural τάλαντα/talanta throughout this passage) were a monetary denomination worth roughly 20 years of wages. Matthew 18:24 is the only other location in the New Testament that this monetary unit is used. Translating τάλαντον as ‘talent’ in English is phonetically correct, though meaningless as a unit. Without additional comments, usually reserved for a footnote in English Bibles, using the word ‘talent’ does not communicate monetary value to an average reader.

But translating τάλαντον as “20 years wages” is both inaccurate, and unhelpful. 25:15 would have to read, “To one he gave 100 years worth of wages, to another 40, to another 20…” This is not a translation, but an explanation. It also unnecessarily complicates 25:18, where the final servant buries a single talent. It would read as if the servant buried a physically large quantity of money, rather than a single unit worth a lot. Translating this into the currency of the reader is also problematic for the same reason: saying that one talent is $622,000 is an explanation, not a translation. It also must be constantly updated (annual median wages change annually), must be modified for every country, and pulls the reader from the text and world of the Bible into their own setting.

So why not just translate τάλαντον phonetically as ‘talent’ and have a footnote for explanation? Because the word ‘talent’ already means something in English. 25:14-30 is a followup to Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins and the kingdom of heaven in 25:1-13. 25:14 says that the kingdom of heaven is like the following parable. “For to everyone has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from one who has not, even what he has will be taken away,” in 25:29 is Jesus stating through the parabolic master the nature of the kingdom of heaven. τάλαντα are used to describe the degree of giving and withholding of the kingdom of heaven.

However, because in English the word ‘talent’ means something like “ability, skill, or aptitude,” readers automatically import that definition into the parable. Almost without exception, every time I have heard this parable discussed it is in terms of using and investing our God-given talents (abilities, skills, aptitudes, resources) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The English definition is so engrained in our minds that is almost impossible, even with a footnote, to get people to think of this passage in its contextual meaning. The meaning (what has God given to me?) has been inverted (how do I serve the kingdom of heaven?). The phonetic translation of τάλαντον into a pre-existing English homonym actually clouds, rather than clarifies, the text’s meaning.

And I have no solution for a better translation, other than translating τάλαντον in a non-phonetic manner into a single, distinct “word.” And that is not translation. For pastors, this is a reminder that we need to sometimes read the Bible the way our congregants are, or we will be blind to their assumptions about a text that need to be addressed.