‘Magtanim ay ’di biro’ mistranslated | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

‘Magtanim ay ’di biro’ mistranslated

Arayat, when visible from the North Luzon viaduct, reminds me of a childhood summer when my cousins planned a hike from my grandmother’s compound in San Fernando to the majestic mountain. We woke up early, brought packed lunches and started the trek through rice paddies where we would stop and sink our tired feet in the cold mud, ignorant of leeches, worms and other dangers lurking within. We stopped by a haystack for

merienda  and decided to climb to the top and slide down repeatedly, until an angry farmer and his mongrel dog chased us away.

After walking for a number of hours, we asked ourselves why the mountain that seemed so near from my grandmother’s home seemed to move farther away as we thought we were getting closer. We turned back before dark, and when we got home, the adults who heard of our adventure laughed and told us it would take about two hours by car just to get to the foothills of Arayat. We were also warned about Huks and the enchantment of Mariang Sinukuan who lived there, she who was cousin to the other Marias in Makiling, Banahaw and other magic or mystic mountains of the Philippines.

Now, many years later, and as a historian, I look upon Arayat as the only mountain that breaks the monotony of the Central Luzon plain. I also know it as a place made sacred by Rizalistas, who used to troop there on pilgrimage on Jan. 6 and listen to Apu Birhen Maria Sinukwan or “Apung Panyang” (Epifania Valdejos Castillejos), who claimed she was the reincarnation of Jose Rizal.


Arayat has been depicted many times in art by Fernando Amorsolo and Jose B. David before World War II and in the 1980s by E. Aguilar Cruz and Romulo Galicano, whom I accompanied on one of their ocular visits. Amorsolo captured Arayat best, often as a backdrop to his cheerful sunlit paintings of beautiful maidens and hardy men working in the fields, while someone cooks a fresh noonday meal in the background. Amorsolo idealized the rural life and captured the carefree days before the Japanese occupation that old-timers remember as  pistaym  (peace time).

Actual rice planting is not as easy as Amorsolo makes it out to be. One works long and hard in the sun, and that experience is best expressed in the folk song that goes: “Magtanim ay ’di biro/Maghapong nakayuko/’Di man lang makatayo/’Di man lang makaupo.“ The song is better known in an English mistranslation as “Planting rice is never fun/Bending over ’til the set of sun./Cannot sit, cannot stand/[Plant the seedlings all by hand.]“

Of course, planting rice is not fun, but a closer translation of the original Tagalog should be “Planting rice is no joke/Bent all day/Standing all day/Can’t even sit down.“ The last line about planting the seedlings by hand is not in the original Tagalog.

Rice is the staple of Southeast Asia, the symbol of Asean unity as depicted in its logo of 10 separate rice stalks bound by a string, which also suggests that each country is weak by itself but strong when united with each other. Rice will surely be a design element on banknotes, if and when the Asean decides to have a common currency like the euro of the Schengen states.


So much work goes into the rice we eat that I sometimes wonder why Filipinos take it for granted. I see so much wasted rice in restaurants that you will never see in Japan, where people consume everything in their bowl to the last grain. Rice is so ingrained in their culture that the two competing car companies make reference to rice: Honda means a “rice field,” while Toyota means “abundance of rice.”

Each time I go to a convenience store in Manila to buy pack lunch and refuse the rice, the cashier always states that the price is the same whether I take the rice or not. I reply that I am not asking for a discount, but am not claiming the rice because I do not want to throw the uneaten rice in the waste can. I often tell the cashier to give my rice free to someone who wants an extra helping, but I guess by refusing mine it messes up the store inventory.


Some years ago, someone suggested reducing rice consumption levels on a national scale by deworming the population, since a lot of wastage was caused by intestinal parasites. Planting rice is no joke, and we have to appreciate the sweat and hard work that went into every grain that we eat or waste.

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Looking Back, Planting, rice, summer

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