As Filipino culture becomes more popular overseas, young Filipinos are at the forefront, er, back office of this push, making sure our voice is heard or—better yet—understood
When we hear the word ambassador, we may think of gilded posts in prestigious or exotic locations around the world, raising your family in multicultural settings, all while hobnobbing with the most influential people in order to forward national interests.
Or maybe we envision glamorous people from matinee idols to former Miss Universe queens being paid a year’s salary for a single Instagram post endorsing a can of tuna or a bottle of sunblock. In the case of South Korea, we might even consider K-Pop idols as ambassadors. The South Korean government does.
But how about writers? Artists? Film crews? How about the legions of translators helping translate our komiks, books, movies, and teleserye?
Tangible and intangible exports
With the rapid export in recent years of Filipino films and series through direct screenings abroad, international cable TV, or distribution in streaming platforms with worldwide reach coupled with foreign productions mainly featuring the Philippines, like that Disney UK Christmas ad, or the latest Gundam movie, it’s safe to assume that the world is taking more interest in—not just awareness of—Philippine culture.
This is anecdotal, but it was nice to hear from an African exchange student over Ilocos empanada that his mates from back home were hoping he’d get them autographs from the likes of John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo.
This global awareness of our culture and cultural products parallels the rise of Filipino and Filipino-inspired restaurants (and Jollibee branches) in places like Tokyo, the UK, and the US as sinigang ranks high in polls on world soups, sisig evolves into a popular taco and wrap meat, and ube becomes a darling in the international dessert scene.
Filipino creative culture has long been mediated by translation. Fr. Roque Ferriols translated Greek and German philosophy into Filipino, Rio Alma into Filipino translated numerous pieces of world literature, from poetry to fiction, and even the nation’s foremost literary work, Rizal’s Noli, had to be translated from Spanish into Filipino for it to be more accessible.
This wasn’t always a one-way street, however, as many times in the past century, during the golden age of Philippine cinema, many of our movies were translated into foreign languages, especially as Oscar bets. The current ascendance of video-on-demand and streaming platforms, coupled with the rise of indie productions, has made this exportation all the more relevant today.
In 2016, Rio Alma said that “the need to share knowledge and experience alongside the endless creation of new technologies reinforces the importance of translation as a medium between world cultures.” And yes, I translated this from Filipino.This importance applies to sharing the Filipino experience to a world audience through the form of pop culture, and Filipino youth are at the forefront of this endeavor.
The year before, the teleserye Forevermore was purchased by African countries as well as by Kazakhstan and Vietnam. Around this time, Africa emerged as a market for Filipino serye and sine while in 2020, seeing shows like Ang Probinsyano take the new title of Brothers highlighted growing markets in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Doing God’s work
Paulo Coelho once wrote that translators are doing an unglamorous but essential if not life-saving task. In the world, where ignorance and xenophobia have always hounded humanity, the moments of peace and accord can be attributed to translators throughout history.Achim Mendoza, a University of Southern California film production student who worked with Big Dipper, ABS-CBN’s in-house translation arm, reveals what goes on in translating the network’s serye for a global audience.
“[Although there’s a] notion that translation work is simply translating Filipino dialogue to English, we’re essentially rewriting a piece of work in a different language, making sure that even the most “Pinoy” concepts can be appreciated and understood by anyone,” he says.
Kim Nunez, who worked for Viva Communications under Viva Films, translating restored Filipino films from the 20th century, asks: “Is there an English counterpart for the word, concept, and experience of kilig?”Mendoza adds that translation is a balancing act in different directions: between the original audience and a new audience, a question between fidelity to the original text without alienating a foreign audience, all this while considering that film and TV, being largely visual mediums, may suffer from walls of text.
This balancing act has a time element as well, as attested to by Nunez. She shares that initially, a lot of old terms, slang, and expressions were “a culture shock” for her.
In translating, a lot of thinking goes into what is disregarded and what is kept. “One of my pet-peeves,” Mendoza confesses, “is seeing translations that are so literally translated to English from Filipino that they sound stilted and unnatural.” Nunez confirms the source of this sentiment as her orders were to stick to simple, conversational English, despite wanting to take into account the nuances of Filipino vocabulary.
This challenge is compounded by the translators in non-English speaking areas where the serye is shown, where they have to translate into local languages based on Big Dipper’s Filipino-to-English. While English is a second language in the Philippines, this isn’t so in other countries that do have English education, where “English is part of their curriculum, but it doesn’t revolve around English [unlike in the Philippines],” according to Nunez.
‘If western audiences can appreciate and use foreign words such as sushi, bushido, je ne sais quoi, I feel like there’s space for us to leave Filipino words untranslated.’
Nunez continues this train, challenging the supposed universality of English, as nuances, emotions, and jokes are always at the risk of loss in translating for a non-English speaking global audience, while in translating from Filipino for an English-speaking Filipino audience, the risk lies in the loss of original impact. Which hurts more? P.I. or S.O.B?Another barrier, Nunez reveals, is taboos. Libre, for example, is something light and easy among Filipinos, especially as people become more familiar with each other. This “pa-burger ka naman!” attitude, however, is considered highly offensive in other cultures.
The best of both worlds
Despite the challenges, there’s a growing global demand for Filipino cultural content. With hope, it assures translators like Mendoza and Nunez that the struggles of their work are contributing to an emerging big picture, one that is full of promise.
Nunez and Mendoza agree on the main consideration in translating, and the latter puts it this way: translating “in such a way that even if it doesn’t correspond one-to-one with the original text, the emotional beats, the humor, or the nuances remain and are appreciated by a foreign non-Filipino-speaking audience.”
Mendoza thus had to find workarounds, such as retaining some Filipino words.“If western audiences can appreciate and use foreign words such as sushi, bushido, je ne sais quoi, I feel like there’s space for us to leave Filipino words untranslated, like honorifics, and dish names like adobo and sinigang,” he says.
Just as French phrases and Japanese expressions have become English expressions, why can’t we go beyond the boondocks and into the keeleeg?