Lost in Tagalog-English cross-translation

15

IN a posting in response to my analysis last October 18 of the negative construction “I didn’t (see, saw) her” (tinyurl.com/molq5vp), a reader who identified himself only as Dustin observed that most Filipinos don’t seem to know that “him” and “her” are male and female pronouns, respectively. “I think that needs to be understood before they learn about ‘see’ & ‘saw’ & when to use ‘each’ or ‘either,’” he said.
As I promised Dustin, I’m now sharing my thoughts about his observations:

Advertisements

In Tagalog, the base language of Filipino, there’s a common singular pronoun, nonsensitive to gender, for the third-person in the objective case. That Tagalog pronoun is “siya,” into which both the English objective masculine pronoun “him” and the objective feminine pronoun “her” gets translated. Thus, the Tagalog sentence “Mahal ko siya” is gender-blind; unless the antecedent noun is known or given, we won’t know whether “siya” refers to a male or female object. The English translation therefore can either be “I love him” if the object of affection is male, or “I love her” if that object is female.

The same gender-nonsensitivity applies to the Tagalog third-person singular pronoun in the possessive case. That pronoun is “niya,” into which both the English possessive masculine pronoun “his” and the possessive feminine pronoun “hers” gets translated. Thus, the Tagalog sentence “Hindi ko tinanggap ang pag-ibig niya” is likewise gender-blind; unless the antecedent noun is known or given, we won’t know whether “niya” refers to a male or female object. The English translation therefore can either be “I didn’t accept his love” if the object is male, or “I didn’t accept her love” if that object is female.

Of course, the gender distinctions between “him” and “her” and between “his” and “her” are supposed to be taught to and learned by every Filipino child as early as in primary school; after all, next to Filipino, English is the second official language and a major language of instruction in the Philippines. However, not all Filipinos use English in their everyday interactions; in fact, the majority of adult Filipinos don’t get fluent or conversant in English at all. What’s more, their brains and tongues remain mainly wired to Tagalog syntax. On the fly, therefore, particularly in unexpected communication encounters with English-speaking foreigners, their gender blindness to the “him/her,” “his/her” distinctions sometimes shows.

I think this is why Dustin got the impression that most Filipinos don’t know that “him” in English refers to males, and “her” to females. On not a few occasions, Dustin—I presume he’s a middle-aged UK subject who has been in the Philippines for some time now—might have approached some non-English-savvy Filipinos and, flashing a mugshot of a Filipina with perhaps a pageboy hairdo, asked them: “Hey, guys, do you know this friend of mine? I was told she lives in this neighborhood.” One of the Pinoys took a close look at the photo, searched his Tagalog-wired brain, hazily remembered from a long-ago grammar lesson that masculine is the default gender in English when the sex of the object is indeterminate, and then unwittingly told Dustin in halting Taglish, “Sorry, sir, talaga pong I don’t know him.”

There’s really no reason to doubt that Dustin had encountered such “his/her,” “him/her” glitches in English-Tagalog cross-translation quite a few times, but I don’t think the problem is as serious or as widespread as he pictured it. Its incidence would really depend on how inadequate the English is of the Filipino crowd he moves in and of the friends he keeps. Nevertheless, his observation should alert educators and teachers in the Philippines to the need to strengthen the teaching of English pronoun usage. That should go a long way in minimizing the embarrassing incidence of “him/her,” “his/her” misuse in the Filipino’s spoken and written English.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

j8carillo@yahoo.com

Share.
loading...
Loading...

Please follow our commenting guidelines.

15 Comments

  1. ” This does not explain it in my opinion and experience. When “him” or “her” is used in the Philippines, it is done in a gender specific way: “her” almost always refers to a male and “him” almost always refers to a female. I am saying this occurs when the speaker is speaking English not Tagalog or Filipino.

  2. I realize the grammatical rules, I am just pointing out the usage here as heard and experienced by non Filipino English speakers.

  3. When “him” or “her” is used in the Philippines, it is done in a gender specific way: “her” almost always refers to a male and “him” almost always refers to a female. This is also true for “he” and She”

    • DG, I think you got it the other way around. In the Filipino language, the third-person objective pronoun ‘siya” is not gender-specific; in contrast, in English, the third-person objective pronoun “her” always refers to a female, and the third-person objective pronoun “him” always refers to a male. You may have to reconsider your conclusion in your two postings.

  4. Very erudite and pedantic, however, I disagree with your conclusion. “In Tagalog, the base language of Filipino, there’s a common singular pronoun, nonsensitive to gender, for the third-person in the objective case. That Tagalog pronoun is “siya,” into which both the English objective masculine pronoun “him” and the objective feminine pronoun “her” gets translated. Thus, the Tagalog sentence “Mahal ko siya” is gender-blind; unless the antecedent noun is known or given, we won’t know whether “siya” refers to a male or female object. The English translation therefore can either be “I love him” if the object of affection is male, or “I love her” if that object is female.” This does not explain it in my opinion and experience. When “him” or “her” is used in the Philippines, it is done in a gender specific way: “her” almost always refers to a male and “him” almost always refers to a female.

  5. A friendly hawk-eyed reader who asked not to be identified called my attention to two inadvertent and admittedly tricky instances of subject-verb disagreement in my column above. In the 3rd paragraph, 4th line, and in the 4th paragraph, 3rd line, the singular-form verb phrase “gets translated” should be rendered in the plural-form “get translated” instead since the referent is a compound noun in both instances. My apologies for the twin proofreading errors.

  6. Thank you for this article & i will tell you your english is better than mine. Just a quick one though my wife was an english teacher in university & is a professor of english & even she always makes that mistake & it just confuses me as one minute i think she is talking about a man & then she says her so now i think its a woman & im now lost to who she is talking about. Obviously i dont expect the average filipino to speak english as i do as its my natural language & so its much easier for me, also you have the american influence on your english which is very different to uk english. But you are right & i appolagise for any slurs i may have made as i really didnt intend for that.
    But it was a good article & it shows i read most articles here on the manila times.
    Another thing we english tend to do is speak or write a lot of slang which confuses others & when my wife joined me in the uk she found speaking to a lot of english people very difficult & she struggled to understand them. If you lied in newcastle in england with their local slang you would really struggle even we english struggle with it.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you for the compliment about my column, Dustin!

      I greatly appreciate your observations about common mistakes of Filipinos when speaking in English, and I do recognize that you are pointing them out not to denigrate Filipinos but to encourage them to achieve greater mastery of the language. There is therefore no need for you to apologize for calling attention to their mistakes in English grammar and usage.

      As to your remarks about English slang, they reminded me of an essay that I wrote about the subject in 2011, “Today, there’s no reason anymore for us to aspire for English slang” (tinyurl.com/mdkx3am). In that essay, I argued that nonnative English speakers no longer need to speak English slang because of the globalization of English; instead, native English speakers need to overcome and transcend their English slang so they will be understood when they travel to or do business in foreign countries.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. common mistake also on the use of her & his goes like this: “the boy loves her mother” or, “the girl likes his father” instead of “the boy loves his mother” and “the girl likes her father”

    • I agree with you, Carlos, I would say that those instances of pronoun misuse are much more common than the “his/her,” “him/her” usage glitches pointed out by Dustin. I have previously written two essays to minimize such pronoun misuses, namely “In grammar, what exactly are antecedents?” (tinyurl.com/lrtjhfq) and “To do perfect sentences, we need to identify antecedents properly” (tinyurl.com/l8p9ac5). Those needing a refresher on antecedents just need to click on the indicated links.

    • To Carlos Flores and Mr. Carillo,

      Carlos wrote a very good example of common mistakes like in “The boy likes HER mother” in as much as the rule dictates that the possessive determiner is based on the subject “boy” hence it is right to be HIS, and as Mr. Carillo mentioned, if I am not mistaken, is due to the absence of gender in the equivalent phrase in our Tagalog.

      As I mentioned to my remarks to Mr. Carillo, native English speakers too, commit mistakes in Latin languages like French, Spanish and Italian, because the equivalent of possessive determiner in these languages is based on the gender of the object and not of the subject. Using the same phrase as an example, “The boy likes her mother”, will be translated in French as “Le garçon aime sa maman”, and it will be absolutely correct. The article SA is feminine because it describes the word MAMAN (mother) which is a noun of feminine gender.

      We’ll just have to get used to a learned language, its syntax and rules that apply to a particular language.

  8. Hello Mr. Carillo,

    Your article reminded me of the difficulties of English speakers who start learning a Latin language – French, Spanish, Portuguese and a few others. The nouns in those languages have gender and the article as well as adjectives that go will them should follow the gender. It appears easier in most Spanish words for example, by considering the ending letter of a noun – if A, the noun is feminine, if O, then it is masculine, like in “la casa (F)” and “el perro (M)” but there are so many exceptions, like the words “dia, hombre, etc”. French is even more complicated in as much as nouns end in any letter of the alphabet. So, the only solution is to get used to the language, which I guess is what you were referring to in your article.

    Have a nice day.