Translating the Untranslatable: What Filipinos are Really Saying (Part One)

The Finnish have a word for people like me:  pilkkunusija.  In English, we’d say “Grammar Nazi” and – believe it or not – that’s actually the polite term.  But there’s so much more to the Finnish term than any English idiom can encompass.

Now, because my mother and other people’s mothers read my blog from time to time, I feel somewhat awkward in telling all of you the streetwise translation – so if you’re curious, click here and scroll down to the bottom of the new page.  For those of you still here, the mother-friendly translation for a pilkunnusija is —

“A person who believes it is their destiny to stamp out all spelling and punctuation mistakes at the cost of popularity, self-esteem, and mental well-being.”

For a logophilic pilkunnusija such as myself, knowing that one can so succinctly wrap all of that into a single word is simply mind-blowing…and it makes me wonder if there’s a word to describe people like my friend from Lyon, France, who loves pointing out almost every time we talk that “English is so imprecise” (complete with a sigh and a roll of the eyes on the italics).  As frustrating as he is in such moments, in true French form he is quite level-headed and rational…and I have to admit that I do think he has a point.  English falls terribly short of the mark when it comes to having single words that encompass so much more than one aspect of life.

To my nerdy chagrin, I must admit that discovering new weird words in foreign languages is probably one of my life’s little guilty pleasures.  The more I think about it, though, the more it makes sense and the more I embrace that part of myself.  You see, I’m a naturalised Canadian. Sure, I’ve assimilated pretty well (and that’s to expected, since we landed in Canada when I was only two years old).  I will bleed maple syrup if you cut me open – but that’s because I’ve had transfusions.  If you put it under a microscope, you’ll see that my blood is actually also part patis (a brown, salty, and smelly sauce made from fish that is a staple condiment of Filipino cuisine).  Ethnic food aside, though, in any cross-cultural child’s life there is an issue of language.  There are several posts out there in the blogiverse that compile untranslatable Filipino words, so it probably seems trite of me to be writing one of my own.  However, while I grew up hearing the adults of my family speak Tagalog, I never actually learned to speak it myself.

What I know and understand of Tagalog has been stewing in my brain for the last twenty-three-and-a-half years, and most of it was learned through constant immersion without any English aid.  Basically, growing up was sometimes like watching a foreign film without any subtitles:  whenever Tagalog was used around me, I pretty much had to take into consideration body language, tone and volume of voice, and environmental indicators to understand what was going on.  For example, when sternly asked one time by my mother if I knew the meaning of tigas ng ulo, my four-year-old self promptly replied, “Messy and bad!”

Well, actually, it means “hard-headed,” but it always came up in discourse concerning the disaster I called my bedroom.  As you can see, my whitewashed brain has built some pretty interesting linguistic bridges between English and Tagalog – simply because I’ve had to spend most of my life explaining to my non-Filipino friends what these words mean without actually knowing Tagalog.  While most of my puti friends have come to accept and love the quirky side of me that sometimes throws random Tagalog words into conversations, there’s a New Person in my life for whom a deeper understanding of these words is vital to their survival.  And if I’m going to go through the effort of translating key words and phrases for them, I might as well share the love with all of you.

(By the way, puti literally means “white.”  It can be used to describe anything animal, vegetable, or mineral that actually is white, but is also used in reference to people who are not from the Mother Island or any sort of physically identifiable ethnicity.)

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LESSON ONE:  THE FAMILY

Because Tagalog is often described as untranslatable in its entirety and because I don’t speak it fluently, I’ll have to break this crash course into smaller modules of related vocabulary.

So, let’s start with family-centric terminology.  The Filipino culture is based on an obsession with hierarchies, so it’s only natural that the nuclear family has a rigid hierarchy of its own.  Multi-children families in all cultures have a distinct “pecking order” but we Filipinos actually take it to a whole new level.

I am the youngest of five, which makes me the bunso.  In English, this would be “baby of the family,” but there’s so much more to the Tagalog term than mere birth order.  To be the bunso is to be forever free and easy, always coasting through life on the charms and wiles that youngest children have engrained in their psyche.  To be the bunso means you’re never taken seriously because you’ll always be super kulit and nakatiwangwang (more on these two later).  The bunso is chattel for much longer than the others, even if they get delusions of grandeur into their head and move out when they’re clearly not ready to.  And, being a bunso, I will always resent this while simultaneously loving it.  When somebody uses, “Oh, they’re the bunso” as an explanation for behavioural ticks or outbursts, all of what you’ve just read is immediately implied by the one offering the explanation and acknowledged by the one receiving it.

Alright, let’s take a breather.

All good?  Okay.  On to the siblings who rank higher than the bunso:  the kuya and the ate.  If you’re lucky enough to be born in a position that gives you this ranking (basically, if you’re not dead last and thus a bunso), you’ve got it made.

A kuya, or oldest brother, is not just the firstborn son.  If a son is the kuya everyone knows exactly what that means as soon as the word is mentioned.  The kuya has paternal authority over the younger kids when Papa’s not around, and I’ve briefly touched upon that before.  The kuya is a protector and a mentor, and even if he seems to throw you under the bus during public shaming, in private he usually ends up taking all the hits for you because he’s supposed to the one keeping you out of trouble.

However, the ate (oldest sister) has supreme power over the brood, especially if she happens actually be the oldest child.  She’s not just the firstborn daughter:  she, like the kuya, has a title that embodies everything that she is.  To simply translate ate as “oldest sister” is an insult to them all.  The ate is the right hand of the gods known as Papa and Mama. The ate will get into the most crap for her younger siblings’ transgressions because she is responsible for all of them.  But a younger child would never dare put the ate in such a position knowingly, because she’s a demi-goddess. She has the power to be judge and jury of her own volition whether or not Papa and Mama are around to do it themselves.  That’s right – in a Filipino family, your oldest sister has the power to ground you.

Now, the bunso can usually get away with it if they don’t tack the title onto the kuya’s name, but Heaven can’t help them if they forget to address the ate as such.  And this doesn’t apply exclusively to biological siblings, either.  A good bunso will inform their Significant Other of this; in turn, the Significant Other will obligingly add the word ate to their everyday vocabulary.  Plus, it’s not just the bunso with a butt on the line here:  it’s everyone who’s not the ate. 

I’ve mentioned three expressions already that Filipino parents apply to their children:  tigas ng ulo, kulit, and nakatiwangwang, and you already know what the first of this trifecta means.  Now, kulit can be simply translated as “pesky” or “annoying” – but of course, it’s inadequate.  It’s word that covers a wide range of actions:  where my puti crew has to be specific with their younger siblings (“Get out of my room!”  “Stop following me around!” etc.), my older siblings only need one phrase to cover every scenario:  “Stop making me kulit!”  Therefore, to make somebody kulit is to follow them around, to hover incessantly, to ask so many unnecessary questions, and to do everything else that makes an annoying person so annoying.

Filipino parents use nakatiwangwang to describe either one of two things:  the first being a physical state of something or someone; the second, the manner in which one conducts oneself.  In either case, nakatiwangwang can be described in English as “having everything bursting out of something,” or “the way a place looks when somebody’s broken in and ransacked everything.”  This can describe a child’s bedroom or the living room (sala) when everyone’s playing in it, but it can also be used when somebody is taking up the entire couch or spilling their guts to everyone who enters the room.

Of course, every family has its share of disagreements and squabbles.  Filipino families have a certain propensity towards fierce arguments, and we prefer to use raised voices rather than physical altercations to settle them.  And there’s always that one member of the family who totally loses it in the heat of the moment.  We call this state nagjujuramentado.  Now, in English you’d probably describe this as acting like “a chicken with its head cut off” or “going on and on and on” or “running around in circles” but – you guessed it – it’s actually a lot more than that.  It includes all of those things and more besides, because nagjujuramentado is a way to describe somebody who is uncontrollably emotional, who is experiencing a Chernobyl-esque meltdown over nothing, who is in a terrifying berserker rage, who cannot be reasoned with and will only stop once they’re dead (and you might have to kill them for this to happen).

*          *          *

Now, go have some merienda (a snack between meals – that is a meal unto itself – often taken in the afternoon when one gets home from school).  You’ve earned it after all of this – and make sure you get back into time for Lesson Two!


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