Perhaps it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Holy Bible is the most widely translated book in the world. By the 20th century, portions of it had been translated into 3,384 languages. As Jean-Claude Loba-Mkole wrote in his paper History And Theory Of Scripture Translations, “From a historical perspective, it rightly can be argued that Christianity owes its very being to translations.”
Filipinos’ familiarity with the English language has made the country an attractive market for English books. We have long since practiced translating classics from the likes of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Ernest Hemingway into Filipino, producing often cheaper variations found in common bookstore chains. In the 2000s, popular Young Adult hits like Twilight and The Fault in Our Stars hit the shelves, broadening the accessibility of Filipino-translated books.
However, the translation industry is far from perfect—with the practice itself raising questions about cultural identity and colonial nuances.
Lost (and found) in translation
While she is no stranger to penning novels, translating English books to Filipino is a whole new world for Luna Siclat Cleto, author and professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman Filipino and Philippine Literature Department. Every day, she would sit in a corner in the faculty center with a view and work on the manuscripts throughout the afternoon.
She’d get to know the characters intimately, like when she translated John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. “I saw how interesting the characters were…The protagonist was a nerd, but a likable one…Naka-relate ako doon,” Cleto narrates.
(I related to that.)
She also translated Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy. This time, Cleto had to immerse herself in the fantasy genre. “Nakita ko na…isa siyang pag-aaral sa kung paano dinedisenyo ang dystopian narrative,” she expounds.
(I found that it was a study on how dystopian narratives are designed.)
“I suppose the translator’s task is really to convey the author’s message as faithfully as she can,” Cleto says. But of course, a translator can have their own opinions on the original text, too. Sometimes, Cleto would find the worldbuilding or the characterization spotty. In these cases, unintentional ‘betrayals’ can happen in the conveyance,” as Cleto puts it, and a translator’s own style could seep in. She adds, “Dahil nagtatanong din sa sarili ang translator, hindi ko alam kung evident din ‘yun sa pagkakasalin ko.”
(Because a translator asks themselves questions, I am not sure if it’s evident in my translations.)
The price of borrowed words
In an ideal world, Cleto continues, there would be a meeting of the minds between the author and the translator to ensure they are both on the same page. A genuinely faithful translation takes time and should not be rushed. But of course, this is rarely the case for the publishing industry.
After all, publication houses have their own timelines and profit margins to consider when commissioning translations. In the crunch to meet deadlines, authenticity and quality are often the first to go. “Kahit na anong tago mo diyan, pera-pera pa rin ‘yan,” Adrian Joseph Caparas, author and head teacher of Filipino at Colegio de San Juan Letran Calamba, laments.
(Regardless of how much you try to hide it, it’s still about the money.)
Caparas notes that Filipino translators today are often treated and compensated poorly. “Dito sa Pilipinas wala, kapag gusto mong mag-translate,” he divulges, “pa-cake lang at pa-kape.”
(Here in the Philippines, if you want to translate, they’ll pay you in cake and coffee.)
Moreover, spelling mistakes and typographical errors are common among Filipino translators due to the lack of standardization. Caparas chalks this up to the conflicts in principles and ideologies when it comes to the Filipino language. But he also brings up that these issues more often than not stem from inadequate government support.
The combination of this chronic undervaluation of the Filipino language and the need to maximize short-term profit leads to a struggling translation market. It’s shadowed by Western literature—a reflection of our colonial history in more ways than one. “Laging sinusunod ng mga propesor at tsaka ng mga tagapagsalin..ang mga kanluraning pag-iisip pagdating sa pagsasalin,” states Caparas.
(Professors and translators always follow Western ideas when it comes to translating.)
Down the rabbit hole
It is then such a shame that these reasons limit the practice of translation. As Argel Joseph Bernardino, a Filipino teacher at Elizabeth Seton School notes, “Ano bang pangunahin na gampanan ng wika? Pagkakaunawaan. Hindi maging hadlang.” He firmly believes that when the practice of translating literature is allowed to fully capture the diversity of cultural identity, it can construct a more nuanced worldview.
(What is the primary aim of language? Understanding. Not to create barriers.)
Bernardino also asserts that we look down on Filipino translated books because of the notion that one language is superior to the other. He says, “Hindi ‘baduy’ ang Filipino. Naging ‘baduy’ [ito] dahil, sa palagay ninyo, may wikang superior.”
(Filipino is not ‘low-class.’ It became ‘low-class’ because, in your opinion, there is a superior language.)
In fact, for Bernardino, the accessibility brought by translation can only enrich the original text. He cites The Little Prince as an example, which was first written in French. The language and symbolism can be difficult to parse through, but when translated to Filipino, “mas naunawaan [nila] sa wikang gamay. Hindi ito nakabawas puntos sa Filipino, ito ay nakakadagdag.”
(When it was translated, they understood it in the language they are familiar with. This doesn’t cheapen Filipino, but instead adds value to it.)
From the heart
Translation, at the heart of it all, cannot be reduced to mere theoretical concepts. Caparas explains, “Hindi natin nakikita na ang pagsasalin ay isang sining.” The connections it makes allow us to understand the world—and for the world to understand us too.
(We don’t see that translation is a form of art.)
But to fully harness this potential, it’s high time we move away from English to Filipino translations and instead set our sights on the diverse pantheon we already have. Caparas questions why we place primacy on English in the first place, saying, “Bakit hindi na lang natin i-translate ang sarili nating akda…sa iba pang mga wika dito sa Pilipinas?”
(Why don’t we translate our own works into other Philippine languages?)
Bernardino echoes the sentiment, emphasizing the legacy of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. He says, “Hindi [lamang sila] panitikan ng Pilipinas; ito ay panitikan ng mundo. Mas maraming tao ang nakakaunawa…tungo sa kaisipang kamalayan na nagpapamulat.”
(They aren’t just the literature of the Philippines; they are the literature of the world. A lot more people would understand…the consciousness that liberates.)