The Greek terms that are translated as “five thousand” and “four thousand” in these verses have to be translated descriptively in some languages, such as “ant heap” (Shona) or “large/uncountable number” (Chichewa, Yao).
See also numbers in Kombai.
Following are a number of back-translations of Matthew 14:21:
Many languages use a “body part tally system” where body parts function as numerals (see body part tally systems with a description). One such language is Angguruk Yali which uses a system that ends at the number 27. To circumvent this limitation, the Angguruk Yali translators adopted a strategy where a large number is first indicated with an approximation via the traditional system, followed by the exact number according to Arabic numerals. For example, where in 2 Samuel 6:1 it says “thirty thousand” in the English translation, the Angguruk Yali says teng-teng angge 30.000 or “so many rounds [following the body part tally system] 30,000,” likewise, in Acts 27:37 where the number “two hundred seventy-six” is used, the Angguruk Yali translation says teng-teng angge 276 or “so many rounds 276,” or in John 6:10 teng-teng angge 5.000 for “five thousand.”
This strategy is used in all the verses referenced here.
Source: Lourens de Vries in The Bible Translator 1998, p. 409ff.
Those who ate may require an object: “those who ate the bread and fish.” It is interesting to note that some Greek manuscripts do include “the loaves” as object of the verb, and one Latin manuscript even has “bread and fish.”
Both Matthew and Mark (6.44) note that five thousand took part in the meal, though only Matthew emphasizes the number by the additional comment besides women and children. Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch translates the verse “About five thousand men had taken part in the meal, in addition to the women and children.” Besides women and children may necessitate restructuring as a complete statement: “In addition some women and children had also eaten all the bread and fish that they wanted.”
The separate mention of the women and children makes it very clear that five thousand refers specifically to the men. It would not be correct, therefore, to say “five thousand people.”
Translators will find many ways to restructure this verse to make it more natural. Examples are “There were about five thousand men who ate (the bread and fish), not counting the women and children who were there too” and “Altogether, about five thousand men as well as women and children were given food (or, bread and fish) to eat.”
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 .