Lost in Translation: Dirty Money

Checking translated Scripture is full of surprises. You can be sailing along, verse after verse, with only short pauses to clarify the meaning. Then all of a sudden you run into a concept that takes the better part of an hour to get right. That happened in Luke 16:9. Jesus’ parable in the preceding verses may be his most difficult to understand, and I will not attempt to discuss it now, but here is what tripped up the translators:

And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9, NASB)

The Nuasué and Numala translation teams, which are two distinct languages among the 270 languages spoken in Cameroon,  translated most of the verse correctly but not the phrase underlined above. It came out reading something like “your money of deceit of this world.” The problem: their translations sounded like Jesus wanted his followers either to earn money by deceit or to use it in deceitful ways.

“Put your hand in your pocket and pull out a piece of money,” I suggested. We do not know who has handled that money or how it has been used—possibly even to pay for some evil deed. However, we came by the money honestly and use it for good purposes even though, as one French translation puts it, the money is “stained by the unrighteousness of the world.”

The translators understood the intent but still could not come up with a translation that would not be interpreted as an endorsement of deceitful dealings. One person suggested just saying “the money of this world,” since readers of the Bible usually recognize “this world” as referring to a system in rebellion against God. But Jesus deliberately used the word “unrighteous” to describe the money, so we assume that it is important for understanding his meaning. This seems to be one of the “worst case scenarios” Jesus often used to make a point. We recently saw one of these in Luke 11:13: “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father…” Similarly, in Luke 16:9, Jesus shows that the sin-stained money of this world can be used for godly purposes.

Now the translators were convinced that “unrighteous” needed to stay.  But how? After much discussion, they decided in their languages “soiled money,” if associated with “this world,” would communicate the idea.  So they translated it as “your soiled money of this world.” It took awhile to get there, but in the end, we all gained a better understanding of one of Jesus’ harder sayings.

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