What do you specifically research? And how are you affiliated with CSEAS?
My main affiliation is with the Department of Comparative Literature. I work as a post-doc fellow in critical translation studies and as a lecturer. I research Asian Hispanisms, with a particular focus on the Philippines. I always say that my main training is in translation studies and in Hispanic studies, *not* Asian studies or Southeast Asian studies. But since I’m doing the Philippines, which is classified geographically as Southeast Asia, that’s how I got into Southeast Asian studies. Broadly speaking, it is Southeast Asian/Latin American/Hispanic studies that I am working on.
What took you from the Philippines to Melbourne, Belgium, and to Ann Arbor?
My philosophy has always been that I go where the work takes me. In this case, my work has taken me from the Philippines, where I did my undergraduate degree in mass communication, then to Spain, where I did my master’s degree in Spanish, and then I returned to the Philippines after my master’s and worked as a Spanish teacher and I thought that that was the end of it. I was really happy doing what I was doing: I was translating, I was teaching Spanish, I was collaborating as a consecutive interpreter for Latin American embassies in Manila... but there came a point when I realized that I wanted to contribute more to the conversation. As a language teacher, you’re very limited to that particular niche; you’re just teaching a foreign language. If you want to be more involved, then a PhD is important. I tried going back to Spain at the time, but that was the onset of the financial crisis. I was going to wait it out, but then there was an opportunity in Melbourne at Monash University to pursue a PhD in translation studies which was the game plan all along. I spent three and a half years doing the PhD, returned to the Philippines briefly afterwards, and then got two simultaneous appointments. I applied for one appointment in Belgium at the University of Leuven and then for the position that I currently hold here at the University of Michigan (U-M). The Leuven appointment came out two months earlier. I initially thought it would only be for six months, but on the first day of the semester when I reported to my boss, the first thing he told me was that he would extend my position. Incidentally, that same day U-M emailed that I got the post-doc appointment. I had to negotiate, so instead of starting here in August of 2018, I started in January of 2019. I got a four-month extension at Leuven since we were trying to tie up some loose ends with a project.
Tell us about the project.
Our project at Leuven was about the circulation of linguistic knowledge from the 16th to 19th centuries. My research is primarily situated in the early modern period; I research the 16th through 19th centuries in the Philippines, particularly focusing on the grammars of Tagalog as written by Spanish friars who were ministering in the islands. The Leuven project sought to map out how knowledge was constructed, circulated, and received in the colonial period. The team was working in broad areas. I had one colleague, for example, working on the French-language grammars of indigenous American languages. There were colleagues working on the grammars of Amerindian languages in Spanish and Portuguese. I was on the Asian side since I was working on the Spanish-language grammars of Philippine languages.
You’re currently working on a project called “Sites of Translation in the Multilingual Midwest”; tell us more about that.
The project is U-M’s submission to the Sawyer Grant for the Comparative Study of Cultures by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Mellon Foundation offers a number of grants to universities and research institutions approaching cultural studies from a comparative perspective. The Department of Comparative Literature wanted to submit a project focusing on translation. It took about 2 or 3 months to work on this, and then our project was selected for submission to the Mellon Foundation. Then a few months later, Mellon selected our project. We were supposed to start next month, but because of the pandemic, we have had to postpone to Winter 2021 and re-adjust the entire timeline.
The project looks at translation as a practice, a process, a way of community building, knowledge sharing, and history-making in a site like the Midwest which is normally imagined as monolingual, white, and homogenous. Whenever we talk about diversity in terms of languages and cultures, we tend to think, “Oh, the East Coast is diverse” or “The West Coast is diverse,” but the Midwest is often thought of as the “American Heartland.” In Comparative Literature we would like to challenge that. We want to foreground that translingualism and multilingualism in the Midwest are important for our construction and idea of community. This becomes even more important in light of what has been happening with regard to the Black Lives Matter movement. We know that language is always a convenient way to talk about race. There’s also a tacit form of racism when we talk about “competence” of people who are speaking in other languages that we don’t readily recognize as English or of people who speak in accented Englishes. So with this project, we want to focus on those groups and say that the idea of the “monolingual Midwest” is really just a myth. Many people in the Midwest speak other languages besides English.
There are implications of racism when some people are asked to speak “proper English,” yes? For example, the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) may be considered by some as “unprofessional” due to racist notions of “professional English.”
Definitely. There are studies about how people perceive competence in a particular domain of knowledge vis-à-vis the speaker’s perceived knowledge of English. One example that I normally cite in my class is a research article about how monolingual, English-speaking patients feel that they are receiving better care from medical professionals who speak what they recognize normatively as English. So, if a medical professional happens to speak in a peripheral form of English, and even if that medical professional has all the degrees in the world and is the best in their profession, there are still patients who think that they are not getting the best care. You can also see these implications when you consider countries’ requirements for immigrants to have a certain level of English to be considered citizens. You hear so many stories of people being told to “speak American” or “to go back to their country.” ”American” isn’t even a language! There are so many intersections between language, race, diversity, and inclusion. As I said in the beginning, when you tell someone that they don’t speak “proper English,” it might also be a veiled comment about race.
Tell us about your work translating soap operas.
While growing up there wasn’t really a robust translation culture in the Philippines. Even though it was a country with more than a hundred different languages, there wasn’t really any talk about needing to translate. There was an expectation that Filipinos *should* know English and that all Filipinos speak Filipino, the national language, which is actually just one of about 170 languages in the entire country. In the mid 1990s, during the wave of Latin American soap operas that reached the Philippines, an opportunity arose for translators and language scholars to show that they could do their own translations from non-U.S. sources. This really interested me and was honestly what got me into Spanish in the first place. Seeing something so different and removed from my Asian experience was the best motivation to study a foreign language. In college I wanted to write my thesis on mass communication and languages, and I thought to myself, “What better way to do that than to talk about translating soap operas?” By that time, Chinese and Korean TV series were beginning to make a splash in the Philippines, and so I studied how translation facilitated the entry of these series into Philippine media.
It’s very interesting how one TV show genre took off in so many Asian countries.
I think it really changed the way mass media is consumed internationally because, in the context of the Philippines, there was a time when we were just the consumers or receivers of foreign media; we would just watch whatever was on television. The boom of Asian popular media opened the doors to Filipino media as well to penetrate non-traditional destinations. For example, there are popular Filipino soap operas in parts of Africa. We are also exporting some Filipino soap operas to Latin American countries. It’s interesting to see how translation facilitated all of these movements.
What are some of the most surprising or enlightening discoveries that you’ve made in your research?
The nerdiest part of my research is that I’m really concerned about how history is constructed through translation. This speaks to our experience in the Philippines in which, on the one hand, we have a national language called Filipino, but, on the other other hand, most of our archival sources are written in a foreign language. During the 300-year Spanish colonial period, texts were written in Spanish. Then they were written in English in the American period, which lasted almost half a century. Any historian who wishes to study the Philippines potentially consults the histories written by Spaniards and Americans in other languages. By the same token, any move to historicize the Philippines as a space will have to go through the process of translation. Unavoidably, you will have to translate from Spanish or from English to the language that you’re most familiar with. In other words, the work of a historian is also the work of a translator.
In the course of my research I discovered that, according to the accepted historiography, the term “Filipino” was used for most of the colonial period to refer to Spaniards born in the Philippines. However, another source from the late 1800s by a Filipino author argued that the term didn’t even refer to Spaniards exclusively: anyone in the Philippines was considered “Filipino.” I wonder if, because [this source] was written in a language that many didn’t understand, we failed to take notice in our own project of writing histories. I’m really obsessed with the topic of censorship, translation, book publishing, and I have an article coming out in Spain later this year about a Catholic sermon written originally in Tagalog that was forwarded to the inquisition in New Spain (modern-day Mexico) because of its alleged heretical content. I’m really interested in hearing these voices that are not normally included in the historiography of the Spanish Philippines.
Explain what you mean by the term “untranslatability.”
As a translation scholar, I am suspicious whenever I read or hear someone talk about “untranslatability.” I don’t deny that there are problems in translating words from one language to another, but everything can be potentially translated ([though] probably not into one word or a single sentence). In translation studies, we have already established that translation isn’t about establishing word-for-word equivalence. In the traditional model of translation, such as the one that you would use for the Bible or some other religious text, you operate on the level of linguistic equivalents. Translation, in that case, happens if I can find an equivalent unit between the source and target languages. But, as anyone who has translated would tell you, translation doesn’t always happen that way. You sometimes have to go beyond word equivalents between languages and begin to think of culture as a unit of translation, of meaning or sense as units of translation.
My academic career began outside American academia. One of my biggest realizations I had when I got to the U.S. was how differently translation studies is taught here. I think in many American universities there's an emphasis on translation in its conventional form. That’s probably the reason why I’m in the Department of Comparative Literature instead of, say, a dedicated Department of Translation Studies, which was how it was in my previous universities. I hope that having a translation studies scholar at U-M calls attention to the need to study translation in its various forms. Within literary translation itself, there are so many things occurring in and around a translation before it even gets published. If we begin thinking about that as a worthy scholarly pursuit, then we can start more meaningful conversations that emphasize the many intersections between multilingualism and translation as an essential facet of American society.