Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule|eBook (2023)

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Contracting Colonialism

Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule

By Vicente L. Rafael

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9643-7


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The Politics of Translation

Language and Empire

When we try to understand the relationship between language and colonial politics, it helps to recall that the beginnings of the Spanish empire in the last decade of the fifteenth century coincided with the first attempt to install Castilian as the dominant language of the emergent Spanish state. In 1492, the Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija published his Gramática de la lengua castellana in Salamanca. Dedicating his work to Queen Isabella, Nebrija claimed that "language is the perfect instrument of empire." Surveying the record of antiquity, Nebrija writes in his Prólogo that "one thing I discovered and concluded with certainty is that language was always the companion of empire; therefore it follows that together they begin, grow, and flourish, and together they fall" (p. 3).

The history of classical antiquity, particularly that of the Roman Empire, provides Nebrija with the basis for asserting the crucial role of the Castilian vernacular in the establishment of Castilian hegemony over the Iberian Peninsula. In the tradition of Spanish Renaissance humanism, he assumes a natural connection between language and politics: the assertion of one is accompanied by the spread of the other. The ability of Castilian to play such a role was due to its genealogy. Nebrija and the Spanish philologists who followed in his wake held to the belief that the vernacular was derived from Latin—but Latin of a corrupted sort rather than that of classical authors. In order to legitimize the Castilian vernacular and make it into a suitable language of the state, it was necessary to order it, to harmonize its parts, to standardize its orthography: in short, to endow it with a grammar. It would thus come to possess a value analogous to its "proper" precursor, classical Latin, whose immutability rested on the fact that its form had been fixed by grammatical laws. Castilian, therefore, had not only to represent the power of those who spoke it but also to reflect its structural origin. The spread of the vernacular, aided significantly by the rise of print capitalism in Spain, made it imperative to reformulate the status of Castilian in relation to the language it was usurping. By establishing the vernacular on the foundations—grammatical as well as mythological— of classical Latin, such Spanish philologists as Nebrija could put forth this linguistic transgression as a natural succession of languages and empires. The reconstruction of Castilian on the basis of Latin grammatical theory and the use of the rules of classical rhetoric in its literary productions made it possible to negate the past while simultaneously preserving its authority. Indeed, Nebrija asserts that the proper learning of Castilian led not to a forgetting of Latin but to its more efficient appropriation, "because after one has learned Castilian grammar well—which is not very difficult because it is the language that one already knows—when one goes on to Latin, it will no longer be obscure, so that one can learn it more rapidly" (pp. 7–8).

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This view of a dialectical relationship between Latin and Castilian was by no means limited to Spanish intellectuals in the employ of the crown. Sixteenth-century theologians would echo similar notions when they defended their use of the vernacular in writing devotional literature and in translating sections of the sacred text. The Augustinian priest Luis de León, for instance, defended his use of the vernacular against charges of heresy leveled against him by the Inquisition by referring to classical models. He points to the works of Plato and Cicero as well as to those of the Church Fathers, claiming the legitimacy of his task as a translator on the basis of those models of antiquity who wrote in their own language. He argues that the suitability of the vernacular for expressing the Divine Will has to do with the way its prosody can be made to coincide with the rhetorical norms of classical texts. Furthermore, "words are weighty not because they are in Latin but because they are said with the gravity that is appropriate to them, whether they be in Castilian or French." And what gives language its gravity is ultimately the message it conveys, the very same message that can be deciphered from classical texts. Father de León's comparison of the vernacular languages with the "milk that children drink from their mother's breast" can thus be read as a strategic way of establishing the continuity not only of Castilian with the sacred languages but of the translator with his precursors. Language as nourishing milk enables the faithful son to express the truth of the Father.

It is not difficult to see how the political frame that Nebrija constructs around Castilian joins up with the theological context that Luis de León applies to the translation of doctrinal texts into the vernacular. Both presuppose the nonarbitrariness of classical languages, particularly Latin, by virtue of the authority of their original speakers and writers. It followed that the assumed universality and stability of Latin's grammatical and rhetorical structure would provide the ground from which the vernacular could be deployed for politico-theological ends. From this perspective, the task of translation can be viewed less as a decanonization of Latin than as an act of homage to a language that, like its original speakers, is dead. The turn to the vernacular is thus mythologized as a return—one might even say conversion—to Latin insofar as the language of antiquity continued to exemplify the means to convey the gravity of the same truth. Latin was invested with the sense of providing the structural model for the reordering and translation of all other vernaculars in the world. In this sense, the humanist appropriation of Latin paved the way for the reinvention of the vernacular. One's own native tongue—in this case Castilian—was to be spoken and written in terms of another language. To speak Castilian now was to acknowledge and thus to defer to the grammatical and rhetorical context of Latin. That Castilian could and did become the "language of empire" was due to its translatability into other languages; and this notion of translatability in turn hinged on the possibility of subordinating the speaker's first language to the structural norms of a second.

Dominating the Vernacular

The Spanish missionaries who ventured out to claim native souls in the Philippines were very much the recipients of the ideas about language outlined above. Confronted by the task of "dominating" the languages of the natives, they wrote and read grammar books and dictionaries that would provide them with the means of communicating the authority of God and king. These works dealt with most of the major language groups in the archipelago. But the most widely studied was Tagalog, the language spoken in the most thickly populated and fertile regions of southwestern Luzon, including the areas adjacent to the colonial capital of Manila.

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Where Tagalog artes are concerned, the most highly esteemed name was that of the Dominican priest Francisco Blancas de San José. With the aid of the Tagalog printer Tomas Pinpin, Blancas published his massive Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala in 1610. It went through two more editions, in 1752 and 1832, and was consistently held up by the missionary writers as well as by Filipino intellectuals of the succeeding centuries as the most comprehensive codification of the Tagalog language. As an exemplary arte, Blancas's work reveals some of the more dominant tendencies that were to be reflected and refracted in the books of other missionary writers on language.

One is immediately struck by the book's use of Latin and Castilian as the principal points of reference in the reconstruction of Tagalog grammar. The linguistic machinery of Tagalog is divided and classified into nombres, verbos, adjetivos, voces (pasiva/activa), and so on. And its grammatical permutations and transformations were labeled as acusativos, ablativos, imperativos, pretéritos, presentes, futuros, and so on. Thus the Spanish missionary names and constitutes Tagalog as a linguistic system whose coherence comes through the grammatical grid of Latin. Perhaps this was inevitable, inasmuch as Blancas's arte, like the others that followed it, was written specifically for the benefit of Spanish missionaries.

Curiously, Blancas uses no Tagalog terms to designate Tagalog grammar. The impression one gets from this and other artes is that grammar did not exist for the Tagalogs before the missionaries began to write about their language. In order to transform Tagalog into an effective instrument for the translation of Christian doctrine and the conversion of the Tagalog natives, the missionary writer, it seems, had first to determine its parts. To do so he turned to external apparatuses: Latin grammar and Castilian discourse. Latin and Castilian act on Tagalog, transforming it into a useful tool for translation and conversion. Just as one learned Castilian by referring to Latin, one learned Tagalog only if it had been codified in terms other than its own. What might seem like a paradoxical procedure derives from what we have seen with regard to sixteenth-century Spanish notions of translation, whereby vernaculars were decoded in terms of a master language and placed in a hierarchical relationship to one another.

For the Spanish missionaries, translation thus presupposed the existence of a hierarchy of languages. This supposition, in turn, hinged on construing the fact of linguistic diversity as a sign to be read in terms of a source and a receiver. The identity of both was believed ultimately to be God the Father. All languages in the world were seen to exist in a relationship of dependency on God's Word, Christ. It wasChrist who, in instituting the church in the world, established for it a set of signs that have for their ultimate referent the Divine Sign. And it is the privileged Sign-Son who in turn brings with it the intention of the Father. The circulation of signs in the world was therefore believed to be derived from and destined toward this divine commerce between Father and Son. The translation of languages was carried out not to erase linguistic difference but to acknowledge its existence within the framework of divine commerce. The translatability of a language was precisely an indication of its participation in the transfer and spread of God's Word. Hence we read in the opening pages of Blancas's arte a "prayer with which to ask our Lord God for help in order to obtain the language necessary for the dignified preaching of his doctrine."

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Until the first half of the twentieth century, Latin continued to be the privileged and universal language of the Catholic church. Reacting against the vernacularizing tendencies of the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent explicitly authorized Latin as the only legitimate medium for the Bible. In Spain, while devotional literature and biblical studies were carried out in the vernacular, the Bible remained in Latin until the end of the eighteenth century. Despite the spread of Castilian in Spain, Latin was thought to stand in such close relation to God's own language that it still functioned as the special medium for framing God's laws and for conducting the liturgy of the church. The special status accorded to Latin was inextricably bound to the nature of the message it bore within itself. That Tagalog should be organized around the matrix of Latin is a function of the Spanish belief in the proximity of Latin to the spirit of God's Word, a proximity that lent Latin its authority to preside over the vernacular languages.

But as I pointed out earlier, the reconstruction of Tagalog in terms of Latin was done in the Castilian language. Here Castilian stands as the mediating term—one that is genetically and historically related to Latin—in the linguistic transaction between Latin and Tagalog. In linking the two, Castilian served as the narrative screen in the labor of translation. Within the context of colonization, whereby Latin guaranteed the transfer of God's Word, Castilian played the key role of a privileged passage from Latin to Tagalog. Thus Castilian tied translation to a double movement: on the one hand, that of articulating the linguistic machinery of Tagalog with reference to Latin grammar; on the other hand, that of converting (for this is the other meaning of traducir in Spanish: convertir) Tagalog signifiers, tying them to Castilian signifieds. The writers of artes and vocabularios were then charged with the task of simultaneously retaining the syntax and sound of Tagalog while creating a space behind the words within which to lodge referents and meanings other than those that had previously existed.

But as I noted in the Introduction, certain key terms retained their Latin or Castilian forms—Dios, Virgen, Espíritu Santo, Cruz, Doctrina Cristiana, and the like. In order to maintain the "purity" of the concepts that these words conveyed, the missionaries left them untranslated, convinced that they had no exact equivalents in Tagalog. That this notion of untranslatability should stand guard over the movement of translation is once again indicative of the belief in the intrinsic supriority of some languages—in this case Latin and Castilian—over others in the communication of God's Word. The untranslatability of a word meant that it was adequate to the expression of a certain concept. To use the signifier Dios rather than the Tagalog bathala presupposed the perfect fit between the Spanish word and its Christian referent in a way that would be unlikely to occur were the Tagalog word used instead. The coupling of translation with the notion of untranslatability was intended to position Tagalog as a derivative of Latin and Castilian and therefore an instance in the divine production of signs. Just as conversion and colonization were meant to reclaim the "fallen souls" of the natives and subject them to the authority of God and the administration of the king, translation was believed to be instrumental in construing the local language as yet another sign to be brought back—"reduced," as Spaniards were wont to say—to its proper Source and Destination: God the Father.

The investment in the figure of the Father as the authorizer of translation and conversion and in that of the Spanish father as the administrator of these tasks as God's chosen representative on earth can be gleaned from the prólogos and dedications of missionary works on language. In the prayer that begins Father Blancas's arte we read a remarkable condensation of these ideas:

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All-knowing God whose wisdom shines forth in all your works and in the multitude of languages that are all so harmonious in their variety and in their marvelous difference of pronunciation proper to each one; Lord God, jealous lover of souls, to rid them of the errors of idolatry and bring them to the knowledge of their true creator and father, fill the hearts of your ignorant and repentant men with your celestial wisdom and give them the gift of tongues with which they may speak about everything they do not know; because with such a gift, they may communicate your celestial doctrine to all and with it your love and grace as well as your glory; I implore you, my Lord, with all the humility of which I am capable, to help this poor, ignorant minister of yours and give him what is needed to help these other poor souls so that they may know and love you. You have so resolved that through the ear may enter the good doctrine that will save us all. And how will it enter their ears if there is no master who tells and teaches it to them? And how will it be said and taught by him who does not know the language to declare it in? I do not ask you, my God, for the gift of tongues that you have given to the Apostles and other saints, as I do not deserve so great a gift. It is true that if you were to look at my merits, you would give me none of the things I ask for. For I merit nothing. But Lord, look at the chosen and predestined that you have in this land, and for the love you bear them, I ask you this: since it is the means by which you wish to communicate with them, and for the honor and the reverence that is owed you, give me the means by which I can carry it out competently and honorably. Look at the poverty of your listeners' abilities and weakness of their hearts; and enrich him who speaks to them with the spirit and efficacy that is granted to those who are alive and awake with the clear and harmonious and well-ordered words that they declare to those who are ignorant of them. Give me, Lord, energy and enthusiasm so that without impatience I may learn the language of which the souls of those around me are in need ... that with your favor, I may be able to work in this language with much care ... without acquiring distaste for its tedium ... for it has been so ordained that the most important thing is the salvation of our souls for the sake of your honor. What does it cost you, Lord, wealthy in all things, to give me this? What difficulty would it be to you, Omnipotent God? ... I ask of you a fiery language to embrace my breast, that your listeners may be inflamed by your love: and so that they and I may love you: and in loving, deserve you in this life and in the other where we will reach and see you. Amen. [Arte, 1610, pp. 5–6]


Excerpted from Contracting Colonialism by Vicente L. Rafael. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


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