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.”
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).”
Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). (Click or tap here to see more details)
The inclusive “we” specifically includes the addressee (“you and I and possibly others”), while the exclusive “we” specifically excludes the addressee (“he/she/they and I, but not you”). This grammatical distinction is called “clusivity.” While Semitic languages such as Hebrew or most Indo-European languages such as Greek or English do not make that distinction, translators of languages with that distinction have to make a choice every time they encounter “we” or a form thereof (in English: “we,” “our,” or “us”).
For this verse, translators typically select the exclusive form (excluding Jesus).
Source: SIL International Translation Department (1999).
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 14:17:
Uma: “His disciples answered: ‘We do not have anything, just five breads and two fish.'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
Yakan: “His disciples said, ‘We only have here five pieces/loaves of bread and two fish.'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
Western Bukidnon Manobo: “‘What?’ they said, ‘we only have here five pieces of bread and two fish.'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
Kankanaey: “Then they said, ‘Five breads and two dried-fish only is what is here.'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
Tagbanwa: “Those disciples of his answered saying, ‘Lord, well, how can that be since there really isn’t anything here, except five units of little-bread and two units of little-fish?'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
Tenango Otomi: “The learners said to him: ‘But there are only five breads that we have brought and two fish.'” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
We have only may better be rendered as “All we have” or “The only food that we have.”
Bread (particularly barley bread instead of wheat bread) and fish comprised the basic diet of the poor in Galilee. The mention of five loaves may be deceptive, since people of the western world are accustomed to thinking of a loaf of bread as sufficient for several people for several meals. The Palestinian bread loaves were much smaller, and three loaves were generally considered sufficient for one person during a meal. Five loaves then would have been approximately enough bread for two people.
Some translators will put the information about the size and nature of bread in Galilee into footnotes. But others will render five loaves as “five small loaves of bread.” In 4.3 and later we suggested “bread” is often a figure for food in general. That is not the case here with loaves, where it is actually bread being referred to.
The two fish would have been either smoked or pickled; these were considered a delicacy when eaten as a relish for the bread.
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Stine, Philip C. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1988. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .