Last year, the United Nations declared that Sept. 30, the feast day of Saint Jerome, who worked on translating the Bible, should be designated International Translation Day. The United Nations noted that translators “bring nations together, facilitating dialogue, understanding and cooperation.”
Not said is the risk of serious failures of diplomatic procedures arising from faulty translation and interpretation, and that might even bring war.
Translation is tricky. As I’ve written several times, there’s an Italian phrase that succinctly captures the dilemma: “traduttore, traditore,” or “translator, traitor.” Whenever we translate, we lose part of the meaning, sometimes even murdering the word or sentence. Sometimes, too, you just can’t translate a word or phrase, or its complicated contexts, how something is said, and in what circumstances.
We see this even in local politics. Was President Duterte cursing someone or “just” making an exclamation? Are we, as spokesperson Harry Roque sees it, interpreting the President’s every utterance too seriously, when maybe some were meant as “joke only”? But when, then, can we take the President seriously?
Appropriately, just last Saturday or the day before the International Day of Translation, I was in Cotabato with a group of UP Diliman faculty who had been working with Notre Dame University researchers.
(I will now have to omit names for reasons of research ethics and confidentiality, except to say the communities in the area are composed of indigenous peoples [IPs]).
We visited a community to hold a seuret-uret, meaning a group discussion to come up with a consensus on a difficult or disputed issue. One of the leaders used the English word “caucus” to refer to the process, which can be not just for larger community issues, but even for friends and family where disagreements or disputes arise, to allow negative feelings to surface and be resolved.
The day before our seuret-uret, community leaders had been to Notre Dame University in Cotabato City to listen to researchers present their findings about their community. UP and Notre Dame University, following the lead of many universities around the world, are now pushing for this community validation, coming out of our experience with colonial research where foreigners would research us, and publish their findings without ever asking the “natives” if the interpretations were correct. When you think about it, so many of the negative stereotypes we have about Muslims and IPs come from the mistranslations and misinterpretations of researchers and writers.
At the research presentation in Cotabato, community representatives had disagreed with some of the findings, and suggested having the seuret-uret with community leaders before moving on with other validation processes and publication.
The community leaders were excited about the prospects of the research being published as a contribution toward preserving their heritage. At the same time, they were worried that if misinterpreted findings are published, it could lead to biases against their communities and be a source of shame for generations to come.
I was impressed with the vigilance of the community about research, and how they were invoking a traditional practice, the seuret-uret, to validate findings. In essence, they wanted to be sure that the research, involving people speaking different languages, would have proper translations.
I will give an example of how mistranslation can go awry from another region of the country: the Bontoc ulog, a kind of dormitory where young unmarried women could sleep. Men could go and court the women, all under supervision of older women. Early anthropological work about ulog created a misconception that these were dorms where young men and women could engage in indiscriminate premarital sex. A movie, “Ang Babae sa Ulog,” was even made about this in 1981, with all the sensationalism.
Anthropologist June Prill-Brett eventually contributed an article for Filipino Heritage clarifying what ulog was.
Mistranslation then can occur not just in conversations or meetings, but also in publications and even scholarly research. Mass media practitioners should reflect as well on this need to validate news-gathering processes, as part of our work to counter fake news.
One of the leaders in the community we visited said that clarification by consensus is important, because allowing wrong information to pass uncorrected would be an injustice and would affect proper governance. I also liked the way he said that a seuret-uret can help to surface ill feelings resulting from such misinterpretations and translations.
Once these misinterpretations are cleared, then people achieve—and here he used the Filipino term—ginhawa, a sense of well-being.
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