My Carabao English

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2020 - 12:00am

Way back in the 1980s, when my fiction in English was already translated into so many foreign languages, I was criticized for my “Carabao” English, that it wasn’t English enough. It was also the time when the biggest publisher in the United States, Random House, took interest in my work. I had several sessions with my Random House editor, Samuel Vaughan, who was himself very distinguished having been president of the publishing house, Doubleday before Random House bought it. He was also the editor for President Dwight Eisenhower as well as for the famous California writer, Wallace Stegner.

I told Sam to do whatever he wished with my manuscripts, but to remember only one thing: don’t make me less Filipino. Those who have criticized me for using so-called Filipino English should compare the original texts of my novels with that of the Random House editions. They will recognize that Sam did very little editing.

It was another situation in 1955 when Malcolm Cowley, then editor of Viking and the literary agent, Ann Watkins, suggested that I make some minor changes in my novel, Tree. They wanted to put it out in their Spring list of 1956 but that I had to explain some terms that may not be understood by Americans.

The novel was already serialized in Telly Albert’s, Weekly Women Magazine and I had no criticisms of terms or words not understandable to Filipinos. I realized early then that I was not writing for the Americans for which reason I never sent Tree back to Viking. This minor question on terms with which Americans are unfamiliar was resolved by Random House with a glossary.

All of us who write in English, however, should realize that we often think in our mother tongue and automatically translate it into English. This gives our English a particular nuance, unique and very Filipino.

Fr. Miguel Bernad, the literary critic, stated it simply that the difference between Irish English and English English is in timbre. Those who have read a lot of literature in American English as  well as English English soon realize that American English is a door wide open, and English English is not.  Language also reflects the nature of a people, their character. In writing in a borrowed tongue, I know instances when I find English inadequate. There are so many descriptive words in our languages, words pertaining to the senses that have no equivalent in English. Our languages are very sensual but not essentially descriptive and precise when it comes to measurements.

How did I get to be translated into so many languages with my Filipino English? My being published by Random House is illustrative. The Harvard professor, Stephan Haggard, was in Manila for a World Bank project, and when he returned to New York, he told his friend Samuel Vaughan about my books. Sam wrote to me to send him my books; he was senior editor at Random House. Similarly with Fayard; Jacques Decornoy, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, visited Manila and came upon my story collection – “The God Stealer” and he reviewed it in his journal. The French editor, Ghislain Ripault, read it and asked for my books. His wife, Amina Said, who is herself an outstanding poet, read them and decided to translate them.

All my foreign publishers came to me with the exception of Maeva in Barcelona. My New York agent dealt with Maeva. It is for this reason why I tell Filipino writers in English to write as best as they know how in the English as we use it; for sure its excellence and uniqueness will be recognized and broadcast beyond our shores. I recall very well a discussion I had with my Russian translator, Igor Podberezsky. He studied in Diliman and had written books on Rizal and our history and culture. Why was he translating me? Was it because he saw some Marxism in my work? He laughed and said there are so many Marxist writers in Europe and Asia. He was translating me, he said, because my writing portrayed Filipino life so well, and that I was writing in a very Filipino manner.

I like to think that this Filipinoness in my writing as with the writing of Manuel Arguilla, Nick Joaquin and even Rizal sprang from rootedness, not just to a specific place but to a culture and most of all, to history. This rootedness is not all that conscious – in fact, I never really think about it – only in the lonely quiet of the self that its realization surfaces and suffuses the many facets of creative thinking. Roots became me; I can’t take them off like my skin or the nerves that wire all of me.

To perpetuate and to nurture these roots demand our consciousness of the realities wherein we act our fates, to be engaged, as the French put it, with events that dictate our future. This knowledge is instinctive with us who write (and therefore, think) for as artists and writers, we are also prophets – unappreciated and ignored. Only the future will legitimize us.

Whatever the language, it, too, is part of those roots.

Our languages must develop for scientific and intellectual discourse. The truth is that we cannot conduct profound discussions in philosophy or in the sciences for our languages are inadequate. We have to switch to English.

Many young writers have opted to write in our vernaculars. Their development continues but many of the languages that are spoken by fewer and fewer people will die out, while English which continues to grow and gain adherence will live far into the future.

Those of us who write in English will be comforted by the fact that what we write will endure. What is important is for us to develop this “Carabao” English as best as we can for it identifies us, and this ennobles and dignifies our country as well. More than this, language will enable us to modernize faster and bond us with the world.

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