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Crossed Wires: The Necessity of Translation

by Wina Puangco

A few weeks ago, I was listening to (read: eavesdropping on) some strangers in Fully Booked complain about the Filipino translation of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. Not the actual translation, mind you (they would never read that), but just the existence of it. Somehow, these people were offended by the fact that someone had taken care to translate a book they liked (I’m assuming) so that more people (Filipino people, in particular) could experience what they had experienced while reading it.


This reaction isn’t something new. (Case in point, right here on Bookbed: Allana’s thoughts about reading books in Filipino.) It seems to be the knee-jerk reaction to anything we like that is translated/dubbed into our mother tongue. There seems to be this popular view that this is somehow a bastardization of the original text. It is something we both despise and refuse to experience. We are “critical” of something without understanding it, and so, in effect, not really critical of it, just kind of blindly hating it.

All that, and yet we feel proud of ourselves for having endured Tolstoy, for appreciating Murakami’s surrealism, for including Kundera in our life’s canon, not realizing these things we claim mean so much to us were translated for us. We refuse to acknowledge that we have only understood these things second-hand, that we have benefited from the very thing we are condemning.

Now, if you truly loved something, wouldn’t you want to give other people the chance to experience it, too? Here is a little something in defense of the necessity of translated books, particularly in the Filipino setting. Here is an attempt at ironing out this colossal misunderstanding, and how we think it can be remedied.

1. It is not a matter of how you view translations, but of how you view the Filipino language.

With all the Heneral Luna buzz, I have been thinking about the fact that the movie was subtitled even whilst showing in our own country. Yes, there are foreigners here, but if we expect all Filipinos to read books in English, then why not expect other people to learn Filipino?

I suspect that the aversion toward the TFIOS translated isn’t so much that it was done—it has been translated before, into Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Hebrew, Chinese and Portuguese—but that it was translated into Filipino.

Again, let me venture a guess and say that this aversion comes from an unwarranted and unnecessary embarrassment at not being able to speak, or in this case, read in English. We somehow have this misconception that someone who speaks English well is someone who knows while someone who cannot is someone who doesn’t. This is extremely problematic seeing as how a big chunk of us speak, think and write in Filipino (and in a multitude of other dialects). If we don’t expect ourselves to learn Norwegian to read Sophie’s World, then I don’t think we should expect everyone here to learn English to be able to experience a plethora of incredible books.

2. Not knowing how to speak or read in Filipino is not something to be proud of.

Again, this is something no one will admit to which permeates the air when you join a literature class or when you sign up for a writing workshop or when you start talking about text translated into Filipino. It is the most commonly used excuse to get out of watching local films or supporting local publications – one passed off with pride masked as self-deprecation: “My Filipino isn’t too good.” This infuriates me, most especially when I see it in my self and in people close to me. We should know better. We also should know we can’t blame the educational system forever.

Looking down on Filipino translations of texts is a way to turn the tables and to make us the ones who know, when we are actually the ones who don’t. The solution, I think, lies again, in a willingness to re-educate ourselves: to think about how we think. We should try to be proficient in Filipino—and if we can’t, then we should expand the options for those of us who are because it is those of us who don’t understand who are at a loss and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Depriving other people of good literature because you don’t speak the language is ludicrous.

3. We need book diversity in this country, on a more pragmatic level than you think.

Another reason why the prevalent attitude toward foreign books translated into Filipino gets my goat is that there are only a few books available to the Filipino reader as it is. We NEED these translations. The channels through which we are able to obtain literature in this country are limited enough, even when it comes to locally produced publications.

I can’t help but think about David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech, and how much good that would do in a practical sense if more people, especially here in Manila, where I am writing from – could experience that. And by experience, I don’t mean in a vague, I-kind-of-know-what-he-is-saying-because-all-Filipinos-sort-of-understand-English way, but in the real, multi-layered way you can only understand something in your own language: thick with context, figurative meaning and packing an emotional punch. How many overpasses would go unlittered? How many women passing by a construction site would get through unscathed by cat-calling? How many grocery store cashiers would go un-yelled at? How many MRT trains only properly loaded? You tell me.

Thanks for sticking around and we hope you enjoyed this post. We’ll see you next Tuesday with a post on Comics! 




3 responses to “Crossed Wires: The Necessity of Translation”

  1. I find that this doesn’t just happen with translations (prints, dubs, etc.) but


  2. I find that this (aversion to localization) doesn’t just happen with translations (print, dub, etc.) but with bringing foreign entertainment to the masses. Take a peek at, for example, some K-Pop online communities. Or a Pinoy forum for a Brit show. There’ll always be a comment saying they don’t want that particular group or show to get popular here. What gives? Don’t you want more people to love your fave, or your fave to possibly earn more and be more successful via a new audience?


    1. Hi Suki! It’s sad bordering on disappointing. It’s as we said, if you truly loved something, wouldn’t you want to give other people the chance to experience it, too? Hopefully, we here at bookbed can help do something about it, such as review more books in Filipino and other Philippine languages, original or translated.

      Liked by 2 people

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