Thursday, February 10, 2011

The languages we speak

From Elaine Yeung's review of No Strings Attached: "In addition, it is quite hard to picture a Filipino setting where all the characters speak in perfectly straight English."

Elaine brings up an excellent point, which I wanted to blog about, in case an international reader wanders over.

I made a deliberate decision when I prepared my very first manuscript for publication that I would write it mostly in English. In reality, middle-class twenty-something women living and working in Metro Manila would be at least bilingual, speaking Filipino and English (or "Taglish") with ease at home, at work, with friends. But this doesn't yet capture exactly how we speak -- I know people who speak Bisaya, Ilonggo, and other regional languages at home. The slang I speak with close friends can be hard to understand, and I know because I have to translate sometimes for my husband later, even though we heard the exact same thing at dinner.

It's difficult to get that absolutely note-perfect, for me. International readers would notice that I do have the stray Tagalog word here and there, though, because I chose to retain some "untranslatables." Maybe it provides a hint of local color to some, but it doesn't do justice to the way we actually do use our native languages. I really just use them to avoid a more awkward English translation, so I say "kuya" rather than "older guy who isn't related to me but could be older brother also" or "bulalo" instead of "beef bone marrow soup."

The decision to go mostly-English has to do with a lot of things, but first of these is that if I did it any other way, I wouldn't be able to finish anything. I've tried, and the pressure to "get it right" just kills every draft, every time. So, kudos to writers who can craft characters and give them the right slang and language and make it sound real.

The upside of my earlier decision? The stories produced in this way found an international audience. I wonder if it's possible to have both (the correctly-represented languages AND the international audience) but since I haven't successfully finished an attempt, I don't personally know.


  1. Thanks for this feedback! I understand your point, and naturally, it really is hard to write something that is in a mix of English and Filipino. I also believe that it does have to be in one language only - whether straight English or Filipino. It wasn't really that much of a major issue for me, and I loved the book regardless. :) I hope this is not something that you have lost sleep over. Haha. :) Thank you very much, and please, keep writing! I look forward to your next book. :)

  2. I don't understand why it is so hard "to picture a Filipino setting where all the characters speak in perfectly straight English." I am a Filipino and I can speak in perfectly straight English. All my friends can speak in perfectly straight English. We paid attention in class, okay? We read a lot. We use the language regularly in both professional and social contexts. We interact daily, both personally and online, with people who speak only that language, and we have to speak the language to navigate the distances between us.

    Honestly, it's just like saying, "It's so hard to picture a Filipino setting where all the characters get their math right." There will be some people who can't do math, but it's a safer assumption that people CAN do math. Unless lack of ability is part of the character's wiki, ability is the baseline.

  3. Elaine - Don't worry about it! I've been thinking of writing this post for a long time and your review gave me the right prompt. I was thinking of how to address this for the international readers kasi.

    caesuras - That's one way of looking at it, as a matter of if we CAN. I know someone (Pinoy, teenager) who thinks that if people don't speak to him in English it's because they CAN'T. (Wrong.)

    I had a teacher naman who told me that it was my duty to write only in Filipino, and I couldn't finish anything din for a long time after that.

  4. To be honest, I liked that you used mostly English in your book. I used to cringe when I read other books where there was just too much Filipino, where I felt it would have been more understood if it was in English. I agree that in some instances it was fitting to use Tagalog lest it be "lost in translation" which would do injustice to the story and to the book. Thanks to you, I feel more free now to write and pepper it with Filipino terms because I agree, trying to find a fitting word would mean that you wont be able to finish it. It will stall your writing & frame of thought.

  5. When we choose to read something translated from its original language into English, we don't normally quibble over the translator's inability to capture the original local color. We don't complain that the story loses credibility because the dialogue isn't in authentic Mandarin. We take it and read it as it is presented to us: a work in English, where the narration is in English and the dialogue is in English.

    I'm glad you write your books this way. When there was a need to use a Filipino term, you went ahead and used it. But there was (thankfully) no excessive code-switching. I certainly thought that your characters were believable. I believe that you don't have to put an excessive amount of 'naman's and 'kasi's just to capture the contemporary Filipino zeitgeist. If we as readers don't demand this from our established Filipino writers in English, then why should we demand it of our chick-lit writers? It's a bit strange if we begin to criticize well-written works in English just because they didn't contain enough Tagalog.

  6. Hi, Mina! I'm more comfortable writing in Filipino and I want to publish my work online. The problem I think is I can't use Amazon, Kobo, and other platforms due to language restrictions. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    1. Hi! Amazon and Smashwords are not so strict with language anymore, so you might be able to find homes for your work there. You can also approach the local ebook retailers (Buqo, Flipreads, Vibe, Smartebook etc) and they'll have no problem with selling your book that's in Filipino.