formal pronoun: Jesus and Pilate

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, Pilate is addressing Jesus with an informal pronoun and Jesus Pilate with the formal, respectful form.

Voinov explains: “Pilate, as governor of Judea, would consider himself superior to Jesus, a carpenter and itinerant teacher, on the power hierarchy. This is especially visible when Pilate reminds Jesus that he is the one who decides whether Jesus lives or dies. An informal pronoun is appropriate in Tuvan to render this attitude. The more difficult question concerns the form Jesus should use in responding to Pilate. On the one hand, it can be argued from passages such as John 18:33-37 and 19:11 that Jesus did not accept Pilate’s authority. There Jesus affirms himself as king and lets Pilate know that Pilate’s authority is subordinate to God. On the other hand, it seems likely that Jesus would show due respect to the authorities, not out of fear for his life, but rather because this constituted a part of the Jewish concept of righteousness. (…) One potential problem with this solution is that readers may think that Jesus is trying to curry the favor of these powerful people in order to save himself. Before making a final decision the Tuvan translators did comprehension testing concerning this point. None of the readers interpreted Jesus’ use of the informal pronoun in this way, but rather said that Jesus was showing respect appropriate to the position of his addressee.”