During the translation of one of the miracles of feeding or crowds with fish and bread into Yami, Graham Ogden tells this story:

“A small population on tiny Orchid Island, off the S-E coast of Taiwan, depended to a large extent on fishing as a source of food. When translating the story of the Five Loaves and Two Fish the translator asked a question that took me by surprise. He asked what kind of fish they were. I said they were just fish! But he said, I have to know what kind of fish they were because we have no word ‘fish.’ How come? I asked. He said we have no general word, because every fish has a name. So I suggested he choose a common type. He then said, But was it a fish that only men can eat or only women? Do you mean that there are cultural restrictions on who can eat which kind of fish? Yes, he said. Is there not one kind of fish that everyone can eat, given the circumstances? Oh yes, he said, there is one kind. Then that’s the name to use, I said. He was satisfied with that answer.”

bread, loaf

The Greek term that is translated in English as “bread” or “loaf” is translated in Samo, it is translated as “Sago,” which serves “like ‘bread’ for the Hebrews, as a generic for food in the Samo language. It is a near-perfect metonymy that has all the semantic elements necessary for effective communication.” (Source: Daniel Shaw in Scriptura 96/2007, p. 501ff.)

In Chol it is translated as waj, the equivalent of a tortilla. (Click or tap here to see the rest of this insight)

John Beekman (in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 180f. ) explains: “The word ‘bread’ in Scripture primarily occurs as either a specific term for bread (including the Lord’s Supper), or as a generic term for food. It is not surprising, however, the some aboriginal groups use something other than bread as the staff of life. The Chols, with their cultural focus in the cultivation of corn, use waj, a type of thin corn flake. Since a meal is not complete without this main item of food, the term has been extended to include any other foods which may be served along with waj. While bread is known to them, its use is limited to a few occasions during the year when it functions as a dessert. In translating this term in the Chol New Testament, consistent use has been made of the word waj whenever the function of bread as a basic food was in focus. John 6:35, “I am the bread of life,” was thus translated with this word. If the word for bread had been used, it was feared that the Chol would compare Christ to the desirable, but not absolutely necessary, dessert.”

Robert Bascom adds his thoughts to this in relation to other Mayan languages (in Omanson 2001, p. 260): “In many Mayan languages, ‘bread’ can be translated waj or kaxlan waj. The first term literally means anything made from corn meal, while the second term literally means ‘foreigner’s waj,’ and refers to the local wheat-based sweet breads which are so popular within the broader European-influenced culture of the region. On the one hand, waj would be a better dynamic equivalent in cases where ‘bread’ meant ‘food,’ but in cases where the focus is literal or the reference well-known, kaxlan waj would preserve a flour-based meaning (though in biblical times barley was more in use than wheat) and not insert corn into a time and place where it does not belong. On the other hand kaxlan waj is not the staff of life, but refers to a local delicacy. In cases such as these, it is even tempting to suggest borrowing pan, the Spanish word for ‘bread,’ but native speakers might respond that borrowing a foreign word is not necessary since both waj and kaxlan waj are native terms that cover the meaning (though in this case, perhaps not all that well).”

complete verse (John 6:9)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 6:9:

  • Uma: “‘Here is a child who has [lit., food-bundled] five pieces of bread and two smoked fish, but what use is that for those many people?'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “He said to Isa, ‘There is a small boy here, he has five units of bread and two fish. But this really isn’t enough to feed all these people.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “‘There is a child here who brought a lunch of five pieces of bread of barley flour and two fishes. But what good would this be since there are so many people?'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “‘Here is a male child who has taken-as-lunch five barley breads and two dried-fish. But this is by-contrast very-few (CVC redup. of how-many) with this many people (lit. manyness of people).'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “‘There’s a child here, a young-boy, with packed-food-for-a-trip, however what is to be done with five units of small-bread and two units of small-fish? It really wouldn’t be enough to go around all that crowd of people.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “‘There is here a boy who has five breads and two fish. But where will they do any good, there are a lot of people.'” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
  • Chol: “‘Here is a boy. He has five unites of food made of cebada (barley) and two fish. Is this enough for so many of us (incl.)?'” (Source: Larson 1998, p. 107)

Translation commentary on John 6:9

The word translated boy in Good News Translation and New English Bible appears only here in the New Testament. It is a double diminutive, but this form does not necessarily mean “a small boy” (Jerusalem Bible). In the Septuagint of Genesis 37.30 the same word is used of Joseph, who was 17 years old at the time. The word may also mean “servant” (Moffatt), a meaning well attested elsewhere. In the Greek translation of 2 Kgs. 4.12, Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, is referred to by this word. Since this chapter contains the account of Elisha’s miraculous feeding of one hundred men, in which he is assisted by his servant, some believe that John’s choice of this word was influenced by the Old Testament account. However, it is not a necessary assumption, and most translators prefer the meaning boy rather than “servant.”

Barley bread was the ordinary food of the poor, since it was cheaper than wheat bread. In the parts of the world where barley is not known, it may be possible to use such a phrase as “a wheat-like grain called barley.” Or a classifying expression may be used, for example, “a grain called barley” or “barley grain,” in which a term for “grain” would be applicable to any type of grain (rice, kafir corn, maize, etc.).

Originally the word translated fish (Greek opsarion) meant cooked food eaten with bread. However, it acquired the specific meaning, fish, especially dried or preserved fish, which seems to be the meaning here and in verse 11. In John 21.9,10,13 the word is used of freshly caught fish.

But they will certainly not be enough for all these people translates a rhetorical question in Greek, which in earlier editions of Good News Translation appeared as a question (“But what good are they for all these people?”) It was a valid question, especially since Luke 11.5 implies that three loaves were looked upon as the amount required for one meal for one person. This question may be rendered “But how will they help all these people?” or “How will they satisfy…?” or even “How will these be enough for all these people?”

Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of John. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1980. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .