In Kuy the term the woman uses for what is translated in English as “sir” implies that she was older than Jesus (see verse 4:11), and the term Jesus uses for what is translated in English as “woman” in verse 4:21 reflects this, as he addresses her as “younger aunt.”
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 the woman with an informal pronoun whereas she addresses him with a formal pronoun, showing respect.
In Gbaya, where God is always addressed with the second person plural pronoun ɛ́nɛ́, the common way to address superiors, the woman addresses him with the less courteous nɛ́ in verse 4:9 but then switches to the courteous plural form ɛ́nɛ́. (Source Philip Noss)
In most Dutch translations, both Jesus and the woman use the formal pronoun, whereas in Afrikaans and Western Frisian Jesus addresses the woman informally and she addresses him with the formal pronoun.
Following are a number of back-translations of John 4:11:
- Uma: “That woman said: ‘From where that living water that you (sing.) say, for you (sing.) do not even have a dipper, and the well is deep.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
- Yakan: “‘Sir,’ said the woman, ‘where would you get/fetch water that gives life? You have, surprise, nothing for drawing it with and this well is hep deep.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
- Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And then the woman said, ‘Sir, you don’t have any dipper and this well is deep. Where are you going to get that water that gives life?” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
- Kankanaey: “Whereupon the woman said, ‘Sir, you (sing.) have nothing to dip-out-with and that well there is deep. Where perhaps will you (sing.) get water that gives life?” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
- Tagbanwa: “When the woman heard, she said, ‘Master, this well sure is deep, and it seems you have no drawing-vessel. Well from where would you get that living water? (In Tagbanwa, living water refers to water at the very source of a spring).” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
- Tenango Otomi: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, there isn’t anything for you to draw the water and the well is deep. How can you get the water which gives the new life in order to give me?” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)
The word translated Sir in Good News Translation (as in most modern English translations) may simply indicate polite address, or it may have the specialized Christian meaning of “Lord.” It is used again by the woman to address Jesus in verses 15 and 19. Though it is possible that the term translated in Good News Translation as Sir could have the meaning of “Lord,” this meaning would seem to be particularly inappropriate in verse 19, where the Samaritan woman acknowledges Jesus to be a prophet; it would be strange for her to acknowledge him as a prophet if she had already recognized him as “Lord.” The context would certainly seem to indicate that such a meaning as “Sir” is required. However, in some languages this type of formal address is not employed and the terms should simply be omitted in translation.
The reply of the woman to Jesus in this verse and in verse 12 reflects her misunderstanding—a technique John uses to further the discourse. In this verse the Greek word for well is different from the one used in verse 6. The word used in verse 6 (pēgē) technically means “spring” or “fountain,” and it is used again in verse 14 (Good News Translation spring). The Greek word used in verse 11 (phrear) comes closer to the meaning of “cistern” or “well.” On the basis of this distinction, some scholars conclude that in the discussion of natural water Jacob’s well is spoken of as a “spring” (verse 6), while in this verse, where the reference is to spiritual water, Jacob’s well is referred to as merely a “cistern” or a “well.” However, most translators and commentators do not make this distinction. Moffatt is one of the few who consistently maintain the etymological distinction; in verse 6 he has “spring” and here he has “well.” New English Bible refers in verse 6 to “the spring called Jacob’s well,” and then states that Jesus “sat down on the well.” Most other translations render both words as well, here and in verse 6, while giving the meaning of spring in verse 14.
In some languages the reference to a bucket implies “a bucket and a rope,” that is, a bucket typically used at the end of a rope to draw water from a deep well. It is also possible to use a general descriptive statement, for example, “You do not have anything with which you can draw water from the well.”
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Nida, Eugene A. A Handbook on the Gospel of John. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1980. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .