Translating obsolete measures

How much is a “seah” and how would you translate it into a language in Ghana? Stumped? I would be too. A “seah” is a measure of volume found in the Bible.

And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” (Genesis 18:6 ESV)

The footnote says that a “seah” is about 7 quarts. Anyone out there up for kneading 21 quarts of flour to make bread? Abraham had decided to throw one big party!

Recently the Ghanaian organization Dayle and I are loaned to, GILLBT, got together translators from ten different Ghanaian languages to help them better translate the book of Genesis. I was not there, but my friend and colleague, Naana Nkrumah, told me about it. One of the subjects was weights and measures. (You see the weird stuff we Bible translators think about?) Here is Naana talking about the option of using standard weights and measures and illustrating that with the 500 milliliter bottled water one finds most places in Ghana. The problem with standard measures, Naana pointed out, is that they may not be well-known in some rural areas. That raises an interesting translation question. Is a term accurate if nobody understands it? While an English speaker could pick up a dictionary or Google a word, many Ghanaians won’t have that option.

So the translators talked about the measurements of volume that are common in their areas. A number opted to use the “olonka” tin which is widely used in markets to measure grain and other farm products. It holds a little less than a gallon. So three seahs equals five olonka.  And no one else would have told you that today!