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Reviewed by:
  • Motherless Tongues: The insurgency of language amid wars of translation by Vicente L. Rafael
  • Marlon James Sales
Motherless Tongues: The insurgency of language amid wars of translation By Vicente L. Rafael. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016

Those of us who have been reading Vicente L. Rafael may be tempted to consider his latest book as a sequel to his existing body of work in Philippine translation history. While two of his previous books have focussed on clearly defined periods in the evolution of Filipino literature in Spanish, his latest work delves into multilingualism in the Philippines and beyond, and the many political, social and cultural exigencies that have helped shape it over time. What comes out is an interesting reflection on the role of language in interrogating colonialism and its many refractions in our collective historical imagination, which even those who are unfamiliar with the linguistic situation in the Philippines will appreciate.

One such refraction is the concept of the mother tongue, which Rafael subverts as a way of framing this collection of essays. Linguistic maternity has received much attention in postcolonial translation studies because of its association with the constructs of race and identity, and its significance to bigger social issues such as migration, human rights and citizenship. Postcolonial spaces are multilingual spaces where many mother tongues are spoken, often in conditions of uneven privilege. "There is no mother tongue," Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari claim, "only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity."1 The issue that postcolonial translation studies ultimately seeks to address therefore is not the mother tongue per se, but rather those conditions that have enabled it to promote inequality. That a particular mother tongue is conflated in some societies with universalising descriptors such as "national language," "official language" and "lingua franca" highlights the entitlement attached to speaking specific languages. It also suggests, as Liesbeth Minnard and Till Dembeck point out, that referring to a language as a mother tongue is at times a convenient way of talking obliquely about racial politics.2

In the postwar Philippines, the ability to speak English—and sound American—is a status symbol, an enduring legacy of the US occupation of the islands following three centuries of Spanish rule. This is a common theme threading through many of Rafael's chapters, which he introduces in the opening pages of his book. Reminiscing about his experiences with multilingualism in the country, he writes that he grew up speaking American English together with other local and foreign languages. Thus does Rafael undermine the image of the monadic mother tongue. He contends that, as with many other Filipinos, "I have no mother tongue, or rather that I have many mother tongues" (5). Readers will realise at this point that the title Motherless Tongues is a provocation underscoring the paradox of one's orphanhood for having too many linguistic mothers. Rafael then links multilingualism to translation by portraying the latter as an aporia: Translation occurs every time multilingual speakers attempt to repress the pluralism of their linguistic heritage in order to express themselves in one hegemonic language. However, such attempts fail once these speakers are confronted with the ideological reductions posed by untranstability, which in Rafael's usage alludes largely to the absence of a direct equivalent of a source-language unit in a particular target language. This intricate (or aporetic, in Rafael's parlance) portrayal of translation calls to mind many previous works in translation studies such as Barbara Cassin's dictionary of untranslatables, Emily Apter's thesis against World Literature, and Ronit Ricci's untranslatability of translation.

Another major theme covered in the book is the relationship between war and translation, which Rafael develops in three parts. Part I traces the different uses of translation in the Philippines from the Filipino revolution against Spain in the late nineteenth century to the so-called EDSA II revolution in 2001 that ousted the then president of the Philippines, Joseph Ejercito Estrada. From the ecclesiastical documents in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries to the 1898 proclamation of Philippine independence from Spain, from the American public school system in the first half of twentieth century to the use of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2018-08-03
Open Access
No
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