Monday, September 25, 2006

Difficulties in idiom and mood

I've posted some of my short stories and novel excerpts up at the Cre-W website of Mensa Philippines. I'm not a member of Mensa, mind you. I'd probably flunk the IQ exam. But they asked me to be a member of the Creative Writing special interest group.

Cre-W member Steve Ladan was kind enough to post a short critique of my short story, Ricochet. His comments:
I just read your short story, Ricochet. It was really nice! I liked the message and the theme. However, I would just like to comment that your choice of words at the beginning is a tad disconcerting. The phrase "punch to the gut" probably wasn't used back in Biblical times (which I infer, is your setting). I also found some words like faculty and speediest too technical and modern and it somewhat broke the mood of the narration. Sometimes, it is better to use the plainer words in order to create the right atmosphere.

Steve's comments were right on the mark, and those are the first things I'll fix if (when!) I rewrite the story. But his comments also brought to mind some of the difficulties of idiom, especially when one is writing across cultures.

I think the problem happens on two levels: 1) whether the dialogue is actually representative of the setting; and 2) on the perception of the reader as to (1). Now, I don't speak Aramaic and I'm guessing that not too many people do, either. So there's no way for us to verify (1). Then
again, that's immaterial because I messed up on (2). I suppose the safe answer is to always write a piece so that it satisfies (2).

If Aramaic seems a bit too distant, then we can try something closer: English stories in the Filipino setting which gives us some confidence as to (1). Some questions for consideration:

1) How do you handle Filipino idioms in an English-language story? Do you translate literally? Or do you use an equivalent English-language idiom?

2) How can you use Filipino expressions in the dialogue effectively, without making it look like a crutch that shouts "this is a Filipino story!" (I particularly dislike dialogue that adds "iho" and "iha" gratuitously. It just sounds pretentious.)

3) Can you still safely use English idioms without the story sounding too foreign?

Anyway, just some thoughts.


  1. hi, i sometimes see the same dilemma in local theater. i saw a REP production a few months ago that transposed an english period play into a 1930s filipino setting -- but still in english. the dialogue had terrible lines like, "i was so angry kasi." or, "don't tell me she's pilay." and yes, "iho, iha," too. colegiala talk in the pre-war era! :)

  2. Something often gets lost in translation. In some of his works, F. Sionil Jose translates Filipino idioms word for word into English. The translation loses flavor as well as intelligibility in the process. For example, he translates "Putangina mo" into "Your mother is a whore."
    Eric Gamalinda tries to get around the problem by leaving the Filipino words as is. When his characters speak, they speak in their native tongues and not in English.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Gibbs and Miggy. I wonder if it's not because we are already familiar with the original language that we feel this way. I mean, if we were non-Tagalog speakers, would the disharmony still jump out at us, or would we be charmed by the local twist given to English? (On the other hand, colegiala talk is just so grating.)

    How do transcultural authors like Amy Tan handle these problems, I wonder.

  4. amy tan has this essay on mother tongue:,1871,10186-142069-11-14148,00.html

  5. oops, too long. it got truncated.