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Literature Study GuidesI And ThouUse Of The Pronoun You

I and Thou | Study Guide

Martin Buber

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I and Thou | Use of the Pronoun "You"


The first English translation of the text by Ronald Gregor Smith in 1937 used the familiar and somewhat archaic second-person English pronoun thou to render the German pronoun du. Smith did so because thou as retained in modern English is reserved to address God as a special being, as in formal texts like the Bible. Because the realm of I-Thou is sacred in Buber's philosophy, in that human beings first approach God through their I-Thou relations with others, Smith thought it proper to translate the German pronoun as thou. God is the only thou that cannot be turned into an It, another reason for Smith's choice.

However, in a later translation by Walter Kaufmann (1970), the pronoun thou is retained only in the title because this famous text would otherwise be unrecognizable to the reader. Past the title, Kaufmann translates the German pronoun du as you. His reason is that in German, family, lovers, and friends use the informal pronoun du with one another, and du does not carry the same tone as the oratorical English pronoun thou—spoken from religious pulpits. Further, when people cry out to God from the heart, they address him—the male image of God in Judeo-Christian tradition—as you in English, not as thou. Since this study guide is based on the Kaufmann translation, it follows Kaufmann in referring to I and you rather than I and thou.

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