The Translation of One Word Can Make a HUGE Difference

This is an ancient Roman funerary stone, with an epitaph, of Aurelius Hermia and his wife Aurelia Philematio, from c.80BC.  The original is housed in the British Museum.

This couple were former slaves who were Roman citizens by the time they died. Although the wife died at age 40, before the husband, both share the same stone. The left-hand side is the epitaph for the husband, Aurelius Hermia. The right-hand side is for the wife, Aurelia Philematio. The epitaph describes the man as a butcher, and his wife as chaste, modest, and “not gossiped about”.

Upon first glance, this is a very sweet epitaph of a husband to his wife,  depicting a loving couple.  It also showcases a very common Roman event (which is uncommon in modern slavery) – the freeing of slaves by their owners.

However, the epitaph also raises the possibility that Philematio was a child bride.  The epitaph states that they met when Philematio was only 7 years old (the line: “septem me naatam annorurum“) and that the husband, depending on the translation “took her on his lap”, “took her onto his knee” or “took her into his bosom” (the word: “gremio”).    

Amazing how the translation of one word can completely change the meaning of an entire artefact.

Source: Photo [British Museum Catalogue: 1867,0508.55] and Info [British Museum blog: Mary Beard post]

This entry was posted in Ancient Rome!, Ancient Times, European History, Family Life, Museum Artefact, Women's History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Translation of One Word Can Make a HUGE Difference

  1. auntadadoom says:

    Totally. I think Thomas Paine spends like half of The Age of Reason talking about what the Bible means by “prophet” and “prophesy” in particular verses. Which is less exciting than this potentially-WHAT!? example but illustrates your point I think 🙂

    • Good example!! I love how intellectuals can debate a handful of words for that long – I would just give up after a page or so. I remember reading Aristotle’s Poetics for a university class and having to debate about the word ‘mimesis’ for a good month. Goodness, Paine and Aristotle are one million times more meticulous and patient than I am! 🙂

  2. Gypsy Bev says:

    What a difference a word makes or the interpretation thereof. Guess that means we should be extra careful in the words we say and write.

    • Imagine how much of what we write will be “lost in translation” to someone reading it thousands of years from now. I hope they at least get some of my lame history jokes. 😉

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