At the beginning of the month, I sat down and started the first ever Tagalog draft of my story, The Malicious Wind. In the last year, I’ve been trying to hone my Tagalog skills by reading a lot more in this language. So while I didn’t think the translation process would be smooth sailing, I thought I could churn out perhaps a chapter a night of translations.
I was wrong. Heh. It turned out I was still very much unprepared for the challenges of translating. How unprepared? Well, I think it’s safe to say that for every sentence, I have had to look up at least one word in the dictionary.
But don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be all complaints. Actually, there are a lot of interesting quirks I’ve noticed and want to share. So here are a few challenges and a few conveniences of writing in Tagalog I’ve experienced so far.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s not that I’m helpless in Tagalog. It’s just that as someone who has mostly used it to converse with a few people in my life, I haven’t developed the wide array of vocabulary required to write even a children’s novel. I thought that I made some progress to address this limitation when I began reading more Tagalog books last year, but despite my improvement, I found myself often unequipped with the right words when I needed them.
To my surprise, these words aren’t even deep or rarely-used. They’re pretty common place, sometimes words that we speak every day. At times I feel the translation at the tip of my tongue, my mind clamouring for some vague memory of where I’ve heard a Tagalog word with a similar definition. At other times, my mind was just totally blank! I didn’t know an equivalent word at all! Funnily enough, some of these words include fantastical concepts in my story that I never thought about in Tagalog, like ‘mage’ and ‘magic’ and ‘scripting.’ Haha! Imagine my embarrassment when I couldn’t even write the name of the first chapter!
Let’s take another example, the word ‘run.’ I’m familiar with the equivalent Tagalog word, takbo. However, in the first two chapters of my story, there was a pretty extensive chase scene, where I described characters not just running, but also ‘sprinting,’ ‘sneaking,’ ‘taking off,’ ‘bolting,’ and ‘pounding away.’ I quickly realized I knew no other synonyms for takbo that I could weave into those scenes. And using takbo over and over again would just be redundant and… well, a sign of poor writing, really.
Here’s another example. ‘Shrug’ and ‘arms crossed’ are two gestures that we often encounter while interacting with other people, but I rarely hear them verbalized. However, they often appear in writing. Because I never heard anyone say ‘shrug’ or ‘cross your arms’ in Tagalog, I didn’t know the translation for them. Surprisingly, there is no equivalent term in Tagalog for ‘shrug,’ but rather, it uses the phrase magkibit-balikat, which roughly translates to “raise your shoulders.” Likewise, ‘arms crossed’ took me forever to translate. I kept looking up an appropriate translation for ‘cross’ that doesn’t refer to a crucifix, the symbol ‘X,’ or the verb ‘to go to the other side of the road.’ (Thanks for giving me a laugh at that last one, Google Translate. No, my character’s arms do not wish to go to the other side of the road.) It turns out that rather than a phrase, there is actually an exact word in Tagalog that means ‘to cross your arms:’ maghalukipkip. I have never heard of that word before, and to be quite honest, I can see why! It’s a mouthful!
Avoiding Loan Words
My story takes place in a magical world that is analogous to precolonial Tagalog society. However, Tagalog, as is used today, borrows a lot of loan words from Spanish and English — results of the Philippines’ time under Spanish and American colonial rule.
I knew from the outset that it would be almost impossible to avoid loan words. There are many words these days for which an equivalent Tagalog word is obsolete or too formal (or too pretentious) or doesn’t exist at all, and many Filipinos use the Spanish or English equivalent. However, it makes me worry about how the usage of these loan words would affect the way my setting would come across.
Here’s an example: ‘bag.’ In Tagalog, we just say ‘bag’ these days. It’s an easy, three-letter word that doesn’t even require any modification in the pronunciation to make it fit in our language. But while saying “bag” in a premodern setting in English sounds all right, saying ‘”bag” in a premodern setting in Tagalog sounds like an anachronism, because “bag” was only absorbed into Tagalog recently.
Then there are cases where the Tagalog word exists but using it doesn’t make for a good flow. I always have to remind myself that my story’s target audience are children and young teens, and sometimes I feel that resorting to certain Tagalog words would not be appropriate for their reading level. It’s true that reading should help expand children’s vocabulary, but do I really want to sacrifice my story’s legibility just for the sake of authenticity?
Sometimes I sit back and wonder why I’m so concerned about loan words anyway. I feel like there’s a double standard with English here. When we write in English, even if the story we’re writing about takes place in medieval times, we don’t expect the text to be written in Old English. We don’t give English writers a hard time for including French loan words even if their story is in a setting where France never existed.
So why do I feel as if somehow my Tagalog writing is inauthentic whenever I use loan words? I remember listening to some Tagalog pop song on YouTube a few years ago, and I saw a comment by a foreigner who said he doesn’t even consider that song to be a “true” Filipino song, because he could detect Spanish and English words in it. And that just really riled me up! We didn’t ask for our languages to be colonized, and yet somehow there are people who would invalidate our languages for reasons we never wanted to happen in the first place. And perhaps I’m just taking that guy way too seriously — he’s probably a troll and should be the last authority on Filipino authenticity. But language in general is a very touchy subject in the Philippines. (Which is exactly why it’s a major theme in my story!)
Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression there, but going forward, I really want to try and focus more on the legibility of my story rather than a vague sense of authenticity. I don’t know which writer said this anymore, but I once read someone say that all writing is a form of translation. You’re taking an idea and you’re putting it into words so that you can share them with an audience. In that case, it’s probably more important for my story to be understandable.
Active and Passive Sentences Have Equal Status
Okay, one of the most convenient and exciting traits of Tagalog is that I can write passive sentences whenever I want, wherever I want, and I don’t get any flack for it! I mean, sure, technically you can write passive sentences in English, but it is heavily discouraged and even those who are permissive about it tend to use it sparingly. But in Filipino, you can write all your sentences passively if you wanted to!
By “passive,” what I really mean is that the focus of the sentence is on the object, not the actor. In English, most people will consider this sentence kind of awkward: “The pot was snatched off of its hook by Sano.” Most editors would encourage me to rewrite it to “Sano snatched the pot off of its hook.” But what if I want to prioritize the pot? What if the focus is really more about what’s happening to the pot than Sano?
This is why I’m so excited about this language trait. It gives me so much flexibility on how I want to construct my sentence. And instead of always focusing on the actor, it really makes me think about the purpose of that sentence. What should I really be focusing on? The actor or the object?
A large part of why active and passive sentences are both equally valid in Tagalog is because the language is verb-oriented. I don’t know if that’s a proper linguistic concept or not, but that’s how I’ve come to think about Tagalog. Most of the time, the most important part of the sentence isn’t the actor or the object, but the verb.
You can easily see this by the preferred usage of the “inverted word order,” where the verb comes first and the nouns later. So, for the sentence “Sano ran,” we can say:
Si Sano ay tumakbo.
And in this order, Sano comes first, before the action. But this order is not used as frequently as this one:
Tumakbo si Sano.
Here the verb comes first.
And I find that because I’m writing an adventure story, and there are a lot of high-energy action scenes (at least in the first couple of chapters), this inverted word order gives my story a very active feel.
I have readjusted my timeline for the first Tagalog draft to 3-4 months instead of the 1-2 months I first anticipated. If all goes well, I will still be able to finish a draft by the end of the year. I have also decided not to sprint through the writing like I usually do with my English drafts. I find that translating requires a lot of energy and a lot of time (cross-referencing three to four dictionaries for every word I look up is incredibly time-consuming).
Well, there’s a glimpse of the first 2.5 weeks of my translation work. I will be sure to document my progress as I go along, and if you have any tips, feel free to let me know! And if you just want to talk about languages in general, don’t be shy to comment as well!