Translating Ilocano

February 13, 2011 | | 4 Comments

Philippine languages, which belong to the family of Austronesian languages, are as diverse as the islands that make up this archipelago. Among the major languages is Ilocano, sometimes spelled Ilokano and also referred to as Iloko/Iluko. It is the third most spoken language in the country, claimed by close to 8 million Filipinos as their primary language and by over 2 million as their secondary language.

Ilocano lexicographer Carl Galvez Rubino (1998) recognizes the provinces of Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur as the “original Ilocano speaking areas” where Ilocano is spoken in its purest form. The province of La Union, formed by the merger of southern towns of Ilocos Sur and northern towns of Pangasinan, is also considered primarily an Ilocano-speaking province. The Ilocos provinces, also called the Ilocandias or Kailokuan, are not endowed with abundant natural resources pushing many frugal and hard-working Ilocanos to migrate to other areas in Luzon and even as far as the island of Mindanao in search of better opportunities. They brought with them their language so that a significant proportion of the population in these areas, particularly nearby provinces of Abra, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Pangasinan, and Tarlac, and even cities like Baguio City and Metro Manila, now consider Ilocano as either their primary or secondary language.

The distribution of Ilocano speakers in various provinces has led to phonological differences, especially the letter ‘e’ (Rubino, 1998). Furthermore, the native language in the destination province, like Pangalatoc in Pangasinan for instance, inevitably influences the Ilocano spoken there, giving rise to differences in vocabulary and intonation. Consequently, there may be several variants of Ilocano depending on the province where it is spoken; simply listening to an Ilocano can reveal which province the speaker is from. When Ilocano translation is not expertly done, regional nuances, especially in lexicology, phonology and orthography, may be evident in the translation.

The global spread of the Ilocano language is attributed to the Ilocano Diaspora, which traces its beginnings to the early 20th century, with the departure of Ilocano farmers for the plantations in Hawaii. The succeeding waves of migrations of Ilocanos in search of greener pastures in other parts of the globe brought the language to more foreign lands. In their new home, these Ilocano migrants encounter concepts that do not have exact equivalents in their nativeland, and likely in their native tongue, too. For instance, the Philippines has only two seasons, dry and rainy. While we do have summer, we do not have winter, spring or fall. Neither do we have snow.

Ilocano may be the dominant native tongue of a sizeable fraction of the Philippine population but unlike Filipino, Ilocano grammar is not taught in schools. Native speakers learn the language at home as a spoken language without the pedagogical benefits of formal language learning. Perhaps because of regional variations, spoken Ilocano remains unrestricted by grammatical rules. Non-native speakers, and of late even the younger set of native speakers, also tend to use Ilocano in combination with English or Tagalog in a manner that diverges from Ilocano grammar conventions. On the other hand, the formality of written Ilocano and the adherence to correct grammar and syntax are preserved by news reporters who write for provincial newspapers in the native language, and writers of Ilocano prose, which is not widely read especially by younger generations. Thus, there may be noticeable differences between spoken and written Ilocano. For instance, the connective particle nga appears before vowels while a appears before consonants, thus adu nga ubbing (many children) and nadawwel a baybay (rough sea). In spoken Ilocano, however, “the ligature nga is preferred regardless of phonetic environment” (Rubino, 1998). Many Ilocano speakers, even native ones, often commit mistakes with Ilocano enclitics. The word makaturogak (I am sleepy) is almost always erroneously verbally expressed as makaturognak. Ditto with Ilocanoak (I am an Ilocano) and Ilocanonak. Therefore, when an Ilocano translation is patterned after the spoken language, conventions are often ignored and the translation comes out grammatically wrong or fails to capture the contextual meaning of the source text. A translation done by someone more familiar with spoken, rather than written, Ilocano, may appear too casual or informal, if not un-academic.

An even bigger challenge in Ilocano translation is its limited vocabulary. The high level of English literacy among Filipinos has made Ilocano resistant to linguistic innovation, i.e., it has not evolved with new vocabulary corresponding to the expanding English vocabulary brought on by information technology. Instead, Ilocano speakers readily borrow English words, like credit card, computer, software, save, delete, or download, and intersperse them in their Ilocano conversations because they know what these words mean and thus find no need to translate them in Ilocano. To attempt to literally translate words such as these would only negate the purpose of translation; for instance, calculator is very specific and its meaning easier to grasp than pagkontar, which maybe considered a generic term for any device used in calculating numbers. Ilocano translators often find the need to explain this dilemma to outsourcers.

The Ilocano language’s lexical inadequacy is also observed in the professions. This could be the reason why legal and business documents, academic texts, and official written communications use English more often than Filipino, and very rarely, Ilocano. Except for some diseases like fever (gurigor), chicken pox (tuko), colds (panateng), cough (uyek), tuberculosis (sarut), or asthma (angkit), diagnoses are given in their English names. There is no Ilocano translation for angina, gastritis, ulcer or diabetes (except the transliteration ulser and diyabetis, and even those are borrowed from Filipino). Highly technical terms, like echocardiogram, configuration, settings, software, computer program, aneurysm, heart by-pass surgery, affidavit, air conditioner, subpoena, advance directive, or living will, would be better left in English. If need be, the most that a translator can do with words such as these is to define/describe them in Ilocano terms in the least verbose manner possible. Sometimes, even that could even render the translation ambiguous, especially to Ilocano expatriates in English-speaking countries who have become accustomed to hearing, and perhaps, reading about these English concepts in their adopted homeland.

Another major challenge in Ilocano translation stems from the fact that Ilocano is a predicate initial language (Rubino, 1998). When a translator attempts to follow the syntax of the source language in order to maintain accuracy or fidelity, the resulting translation often lacks natural flow and cohesiveness, undermining transparency. When back-translation is done literally on an Ilocano translation that follows the correct Ilocano syntax, the resulting English may appear completely different from the original English text, even though the Ilocano translation on which the back-translation was based is correct.

The Ilocano language also has a complex morphology that a non-native speaker/translator may not be familiar with. Since “morphology in Ilocano is used not only to specify grammatical information, but also to create new lexical items” (Rubino, 1998), even native speakers/translators who fail to pay close attention to grammatical rules may commit mistakes related to morphology. A non-fluent or non-native speaker may not recognize the difference between suraten (to write something) and suratan (to write someone).

When formatting requires strict adherence to that of the original document, text expansion from English to Ilocano may also pose a problem, which can only be remedied with adjustments in font sizes and margins. Text expansion may also be an issue in software localization, particularly when character fields are limited in size and may not be sufficient for the expanded Ilocano translation.

Translators and outsourcers need to work around these challenges to achieve a balance in accuracy, fidelity, transparency, equivalency, and cultural appropriateness of the translation. This is the only way that the translation process can achieve its purpose of clearly conveying to the reader the meaning of the original text.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Alpha Omega Translations says:

    Question from reader:
    I am a graduate student currently studying Ilocano and I came across your article/post on Ilocano. I was hoping that you could direct me to the source from which the conclusion that because of regional variation Ilocano is unrestricted by grammatical rules? I didn’t see any sources associated with this point and am hoping you can direct me to where this idea came from. Here’s the quote:

    “Ilocano may be the dominant native tongue of a sizeable fraction of the Philippine population but unlike Filipino, Ilocano grammar is not taught in schools. Native speakers learn the language at home as a spoken language without the pedagogical benefits of formal language learning. Perhaps because of regional variations, spoken Ilocano remains unrestricted by grammatical rules.”

    • Alpha Omega Translations says:

      The idea that spoken Ilocano remains unrestricted by grammatical rules is based purely on my long-observation as a native speaker living in Ilocandia where the dialect originates and based on my interaction with Ilocano speakers from different areas in Ilocandia. Unlike in the US, particularly Hawaii (I think) where Ilocano is formally taught, here in the Philippines Ilocano is not taught in schools as a language, although it is sometimes used in instruction to complement English or Filipino. While there are Ilocano grammar books, like those by Rubino, these are not widely used here in the Philippines as references for grammatically correct SPOKEN Ilocano. Of course Ilocano writers, of which we do not have much, still adhere to the basic rules but generally Ilocano speakers (who are not writers, or translators for that matter) do not seem to find the need to adhere to such rules. I cited several examples in the essay of this divergence of spoken Ilocano from grammar rules.

      • Alpha Omega Translations says:

        When referring to grammar, he or she is referring to formal grammar rules, as they are strictly defined in the academic sense? If so, do they think that this divergence is the result of dialectal differences (regionally defined or otherwise)? Surely, speakers of Ilocano, even if they do not adhere to the formal grammar rules, must have some language variety that is subject to linguistic/grammatical analysis, like different dialects of American English (African American English, Chicano English, etc)?

        • Alpha Omega Translations says:

          Yes, I am referring to grammar rules, as defined in the academic sense. There are very few published Ilocano grammar books that I have come across here in the Philippines, and even these are written by Ilocano linguists no longer based in the country, e.g., Carl Galvez Rubino. I also have not found any book or published material that analyzes in depth regional Ilocano variations, although this would be a very interesting subject to pursue. When I talk of the divergence of spoken Ilocano from grammar rules, I do not mean that we speak wrong Ilocano grammar. Personally, the Ilocano grammar that I use I learned from my elders and comparing it with written Ilocano (as written by Ilocano prose writers) I can say my grammar is generally correct. The divergence I am referring to ranges from many contractions of verbs that one would not find in written Ilocano. In this case it is not really wrong grammar. I actually do not find gross divergence when it comes to verb tenses and subject-verb agreement, and contractions like “intyon” (pronounced “inchon” instead of the correct “intayon” for “let’s go”) is acceptable, but when a letter or a syllable is omitted from a word (e.g., “daytoy” ["this"] becomes “atoy”), I would classify this is erroneous and I am certain an Ilocano language purist would frown upon this, too. This kind of divergence is more common among younger generation and I’ve observed this in Ilocano postings on Facebook, on chatrooms. If the student is Ilocano or understands the language, I would direct him/her to Ilocano forums/chatrooms on the Internet to find such divergence, because Ilocanos who are not writers in the language, write in Ilocano the way they speak Ilocano. There you will find such nuances. Based on my observation, I think the divergence from grammar rules in regional Ilocano variations is mainly due to influences of the primary dialect in that region. For example, the Ilocano variant in Pangasinan is influenced by Pangalatoc (the native dialect) while the Ilocano variant in the Cordilleras is influenced by the native dialects such as Kankana-ey and Ibaloi. The purest form would be that spoken in Ilocos Sur (where I live) and in Ilocos Norte. I would like to suggest this URL: for more readings on the Ilocano language (in case the scholar has not found it yet).

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