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 15:38:
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.
Whereas in 14.21 the number of men are said to have been “about five thousand,” the Greek text here says specifically four thousand. Die Bibel im heutigen Deutsch, on the assumption that the number was intended to be a round number instead of a precise number, translates “about four thousand men.”
Those who ate were four thousand men can be expressed in different ways: “The number of men who ate was four thousand” (Good News Translation), “There were four thousand men who ate,” or “Four thousand men had eaten.”
Besides women and children may be translated as a separate sentence: “Many women and children also ate” or “This does not count the women and children who ate.”
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 .