inclusive vs. exclusive pronoun (John 8:39)

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.

complete verse (John 8:39)

Following are a number of back-translations of John 8:39:

  • Uma: “The Yahudi people said: ‘Our(excl.) father is Abraham!’ Yesus said: ‘If you are truly descendants of Abraham, certainly you follow his behavior.” (Source: Uma Back Translation)
  • Yakan: “The Yahudi said, ‘Our (excl.) father is Ibrahim.’ Isa said, ‘If you were truly descendants of Ibrahim, you would resemble Ibrahim in his deeds.” (Source: Yakan Back Translation)
  • Western Bukidnon Manobo: “And they answered, ‘Our ancestor is Abraham.’ And Jesus said, ‘I wish that you were true descendants of Abraham because then you would do what Abraham did long ago.” (Source: Western Bukidnon Manobo Back Translation)
  • Kankanaey: “Upon which the Jews said, ‘It is indeed Abraham who is our (excl.) father.’ But Jesus answered, ‘If it is the-case that you are children of Abraham, you would follow what he did.” (Source: Kankanaey Back Translation)
  • Tagbanwa: “The Judio again replied, saying, ‘Abraham is the one who is our (excl.) father.’ ‘Well, if your father is Abraham,’ said Jesus, ‘well why are you deviating from his actions?” (Source: Tagbanwa Back Translation)
  • Tenango Otomi: “Then the people said, ‘Our father is Abraham.’ Jesus said, ‘If it was Abraham who was your father, you would do just as Abraham did.” (Source: Tenango Otomi Back Translation)

formal pronoun: Jesus addressing his disciples and common people

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 his disciples, individuals and/or crowds with the formal pronoun, showing respect.

In most Dutch translations, Jesus addresses his disciples and common people with the informal pronoun, whereas they address him with the formal form.