- Rebel Language
BY VICENTE RAFAEL
Most of us, given a choice between chaos and naming, between catastrophe and cliché, would choose naming. Most of us see this as a zero sum game—as if there were no third place to be: something without a name is commonly thought not to exist. And here is where we can discern the benevolence of translation. Translation is a practice, a strategy, or what Hölderlin calls "a salutary gymnastics of the mind," that does seem to give us a third place to be. In the presence of a word that stops itself, in that silence, one has the feeling that something has passed us and kept going, that some possibility has got free.—Anne Carson, "Variations on the Right to Remain Silent," 2008
Historian Vicente Rafael's Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation illuminates not only words that stop themselves but also words that amble on. A variety of political possibilities are freed in this rich account of translation events across the United States and the Philippines. On the stage of history, language appears active and translation proves agential. In this sense, Motherless Tongues continues Rafael's attention to the excesses of language in The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines (2005) and Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (1988). Quite like Rafael's earlier works, Motherless Tongues is also about translation and, like them, it is not only about translation. It seeks, first and foremost, unexpected operations of language as it is unmoored from determinations of empires and nations.
To articulate such a decolonial vision of language, Rafael adopts an orientation that is multiply "trans"—at once translingual, transmedia, [End Page 229] and transpacific. Motherless Tongues joins a rich body of work on postcolonial translation by scholars such as Tejaswini Niranjana, Lydia Liu, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Ngūgī wa Thiong'o, Rey Chow, and Naoki Sakai. However, unlike the bulk of this scholarship, which has converged on the axiomatic "impasse, imposture, and impossibility" (Tageldin 1) of translation, Motherless Tongues maintains a steady optimism about what it calls translation's "insurgency." Language is "an ocean alive with aporia" (12), Rafael concurs with Sarah Kofman, so translation is always generative. It produces, Rafael argues, contradictory and disruptive results in ways that militate against the monolingual logic of source and/or target languages. This is translation's insurgency.
The title, as the book, celebrates such insurgencies and interrupted linguistic lineages. Both dispense with a vision of language as natural or national to take seriously its limits—in hybridity, multilingualism, untranslatability, and mistranslation. The notion of reified and singular mother tongues is the heart of the monolingual logic of modern nation-states. In declaring tongues "motherless," Rafael denaturalizes associated ideas of origin, ethnicity, and identity but retains the embodied and visceral experiences of language. In the face of deepening ethnonationalist sentiments across the world, Rafael reminds us emphatically that "inter-and intralingual translation defines the condition of speaking any language. … My language is thus one that is already of and from the other" (5). Appropriately, Rafael begins Motherless Tongues a little like a critical memoir with a discussion of his own immediate and mediated experience with languages such as Kapampangan, Ilonggo, Tagalog, English, and Spanish. Rafael's personal account of a Filipino postcolonial subject's many mothered experience of speaking any language makes Motherless Tongues akin to Jacques Derrida's autobiographical Monolingualism of the Other: or, the Prosthesis of Origin (1998). However, it is richer for the level of cultural detail Rafael accords the linguistic landscape of his youth as he describes the Spanish of Philippine legal structures, American English of Hollywood, Hokkien cuss words of Chinese neighbors, Latin of the Catholic church, French and German of the gay argot, and so forth. So, when Rafael speaks or writes "what seems to be coherent English, it is only because [he has] managed to momentarily repress this history of linguistic pluralism" (5). This repression is itself a translation, in which the "I" of the book...