Thursday, October 25, 2007

I know enough that I know nothing

My cousin IM'd asking how to say, "We stand on their shoulders" in Tagalog. The literal translation she got from a friend was, "nakatayo kami sa kanilang balikat". When I first started taking Tagalog, I might have rushed to the dictionary and gotten her a word for word translation. But 12 years since taking my first class, and French lessons in between, I know enough that I know nothing about how to translate English into Tagalog.

I was chatting with a friend about his story telling voice. At first it was difficult to read but once I caught onto the rhythm reading his story was fine. He mentioned how many of the stories were repeated from his childhood of listening to immigrant Filipinos tell their stories.

There is a Tagalog translation of English and then there's English speaking of Tagalog and both are tricky to understand in the other language. Particularly in storytelling, Filipino languages are filled with metaphor and indirect phrasing and lots of repetition as it is a performance piece more often than not. In English, sometimes this sounds like you're not saying anything as English tends to be very direct and very actor focused. English doesn't care about the scenery as it cares about who is doing what. Tagalog, as with Philippine culture, doesn't like the emphasize the self, it emphasizes the other and everything else that isn't the speaker and uses indirect tenses that are considered arcane in English where the actor is buried almost 4-5 levels in. Try diagramming that sentence!

The other thing is that in translation, there is the literal and then there is the intent. The intent of language, what you actually want to communicate is the harder part to understand as if requires the translator to understand the "mind" of the native speaker. It's one thing to get the words and phrases, it's another to capture the essence and that's where we get into the "there's no real equivalent" because it's not part of the thought process of the other language. How do you translate utang ng loob or kapwa in a language and culture that emphasizes the individual and independence?