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 (Mark 6:38)

Following are a number of back-translations of Mark 6:38:

  • Uma: “Yesus said: ‘Take a look, see how much bread you have.’ After they looked, they said: ‘There is some, only five, and two fish.'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “Isa asked them, he said, ‘How many pieces of bread have you there? Go and look.’ When they knew it they said, ‘Five (pieces) of bread and two fish.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And Jesus said, ‘Find out how much food we have.’ When they found out, they said to Jesus, ‘Five pieces of bread and two fish.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Jesus inquired, ‘How many breads do you have? Go see.’ When they had gone to see, they said, ‘Five breads and two dried-fish is what there are.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “But Jesus said to them, ‘How many breads do you have? Check there.’ When they had checked, they said, ‘There are just five units and two little-fish.'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)

formal pronoun: Jesus addressing his disciples and common people

Like many languages (but unlike Greek or Hebrew or English), Tuvan uses a formal vs. informal 2nd person pronoun (a familiar vs. a respectful “you”). Unlike other languages that have this feature, however, the translators of the Tuvan Bible have attempted to be very consistent in using the different forms of address in every case a 2nd person pronoun has to be used in the translation of the biblical text.

As Voinov shows in Pronominal Theology in Translating the Gospels (in: The Bible Translator 2002, p. 210ff.), the choice to use either of the pronouns many times involved theological judgment. While the formal pronoun can signal personal distance or a social/power distance between the speaker and addressee, the informal pronoun can indicate familiarity or social/power equality between speaker and addressee.

Here, Jesus is addressing his disciples, individuals and/or crowds with the formal pronoun, showing respect.

In most Dutch translations, Jesus addresses his disciples and common people with the informal pronoun, whereas they address him with the formal form.

Translation commentary on Mark 6:37 – 6:38


apokritheis eipen (cf. 3.33 for this construction) ‘he answered.’

dote … humeis ‘you … give’: the personal pronoun here is emphatic – ‘you yourselves give (them something to eat)’ (cf. The Modern Speech New Testament, Moffatt, Goodspeed, Translator’s New Testament).

dēnariōn diakosiōn artous ‘loaves of two hundred denarii’: the genitive expresses the price, ‘two hundred denarii worth of loaves.’

dēnarion (12.15; 14.5) ‘denarius’: at the time of Jesus the coin is generally supposed to have been the equivalent of a rural worker’s daily wage, as in Mt. 20.2.

artos ‘bread,’ ‘loaf’: in this incident probably barley loaves are indicated (cf. Jn. 6.9).

posous echete artous; ‘how many loaves have you?’

posos (8.5, 19, 20; 9.21; 15.4) ‘how much,’ ‘how many.’

ichthuas (6.41, 43) ‘fish’: here, of course, not fresh fish but prepared fish, either cooked or pickled (cf. Jn. 6.9).


Answered is not used in the sense of ‘answer a question,’ but ‘reply to their statement’ or ‘speak in return.’

The question of the disciples is probably best interpreted as a rhetorical question, not a request for permission or authorization to go and buy; a kind of exclamatory question, implying the utter foolishness of such an idea (compare the parallel passages: Mt. 14.13-21, Luke 9.11-17, and John 6.5-13).

Denarii poses a problem in translation, for though it was a coin for which the silver content would be equivalent to about 20 cents in American money, its buying power was much greater, as a result of the relatively low standard of living prevailing in Palestine in those days among the lower classes. It would not be reasonable to translate it by some equivalent coin equal to 20 cents U.S. Moreover, if one chooses any local currency the translation may be badly out of line within a short time, due to extreme inflation, as has occurred in so many parts of the world. (Some countries have seen inflationary pressures within the last two or three years change currency rates from as much as 100 to 1 – in terms of the dollar – to as much as 10,000 to 1.) In areas where there is a relatively stable currency and there is a unit of currency roughly equivalent to a day’s wage of a common laborer, such a coin may be used. In most instances, however, it has seemed best to borrow the Greek word denarius, and speak of ‘bread worth 200 denarius coins’ (or ‘pieces of money’). One can then use a footnote and explain that a denarius (or whatever the appropriate transliterated form might be) was equivalent to a day’s wage. It is recommended that one employ a short table of Weights and Measures (see appendix) in publications of New Testaments or Bibles, and that in such a table the various units of currency be related to the basic unit of the denarius.

Five, and two fish must be reproduced in full grammatical form in some languages, ‘we have five loaves and two fish.’

Quoted with permission from Bratcher, Robert G. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1961. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .