inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (John 8:33)

Many languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive first-person plural pronouns (“we”). 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: Velma Pickett and Florence Cowan in Notes on Translation January 1962, p. 1ff.

formal pronoun: common people addressing Jesus

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, the crowd (or individuals within the crowd) addresses Jesus with the formal pronoun, expressing respect.

complete verse (John 8:33)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 8:33:

  • Uma: “They retorted: ‘We(excl.) are the descendants of Abraham! We have never been slaves. Why do you (sing.) say that we (excl.) will be free?'” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “They answered, they said, ‘Oy, we (excl.) here are descendants of Ibrahim. We (excl.) have not been slaves of anybody. Why do you say that we (excl.) will be free from what enslaves us (excl.)?'” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And the leaders answered, ‘Our ancestor is Abraham, and we have never been a slave to anyone. Why is it that you say that we will be set free from slavery?'” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Whereupon they said, ‘We (excl.) are descendants of Abraham. We (excl.) have not been enslaved to even anyone. Why do you (singular) say that we (excl.) will-be-set-free?'” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “‘We (excl.) are indeed descendants of Abraham,’ was the answer of those Judio, ‘and we are not aware that we have been enslaved by anyone. So why can you say we will be released?'” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “The people replied, ‘We are descendants of Abraham. And we never had those who bossed us. How come you say that we should be saved?'” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)