Lost in Translation

Many religious scholars believe that divine messages should be transmitted only in the language that the original, inspired message was delivered. The reason for this is that many of the ideas and underlying wisdom that is contained within the choice of words–even the written message itself–may not be translated properly when put in another language. A good example is my use of the term “old man” when referring to my seniors in the martial arts. For years, I had referred to senior masters as “old man”; many of them were friends and family members. As a young adult, I frequently referred to my grandfather as “old man”… much to the horror of my American-born counterparts. At the ripe old age of 31, I called the late Grandmaster Vincente Tinga “old man” at a birthday party for late Grandmaster Leo Giron. Another guro, whose name I have forgotten, admonished me for using this term. After all, he said, Uncle Vince (which I often called him; he introduced me to the local FMA community as his nephew) is a GRANDMASTER. (By the way, I don’t recall Uncle Vince ever calling himself a Grandmaster, but he was one of those very humble warriors. I’ll have to do an article in his memory one day soon). We both laughed and informed the gentleman that my term is simply my way of Americanizing the word “Manong”, which doesn’t really have an English equivalent. Yet in meaning, manong means “old man”, but a respectful term of endearment. For a Filipino, it makes sense. I call my father “old man” in English. He called his father “old man”. When speaking English–for me at least–saying “Manong” doesn’t seem natural.
So the meaning is often lost on a change of cultures as well as in using the correct choice of words.
Experiences from one’s upbringing may be different as well. I grew up half my childhood in the Philippines and Taiwan, and spent part of my teenaged years in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Washington, DC. Those who are from the DC area may recall places like River Terrace, Langston Terrace, and Mayfair. These are places one cannot get a taxi cab, and sometimes even the ambulance would get a police escort before entering a building. Well, it was a very hostile environment–if you didn’t live there. But remember, I was a late comer, and had to earn my stripes. My kung fu brothers joke that I was the “blackest Asian” they knew, and because of it I address the cultural dynamic of teaching martial arts students–which is a taboo for Americans in general. My upbringing around confrontational Filipinos who vied for top dog went hand-in-hand with my rearing in northeast DC, and this shaped my martial arts philosophy as well as my teaching philosophy. I understand that you cannot teach a White guy from uptown the same way you would teach an African American from the hood. At the same time, you cannot teach a White guy from the trailer park the same way you teach a White guy from Suburbia. Your cultural upbringing and environment, coupled with your life experiences, affect how you view and teach the martial arts. Add to that one’s own personal treatment of life and its situations, and we have a very complicated art: the art of transmitting the martial arts.
People tend to treat the martial arts (especially Filipino martial arts) as little more than a technical skill. Instead of treating the FMA as a woman you want to marry and give the world to, they treat her like a whore who is just here for the night and give you want you want from her. No need to know everything about it; just give me what I like.  Show me how to swing a stick, how to counter the counter to your swing, how to disarm him, lock him, and take him out, and you’ve got the Filipino Fighting Arts. So if I can do this just as well as the Filipino, why do I need to go to the Philippines to master the arts?
You want me to be honest?
Because, you haven’t mastered the art. You may have mastered the SKILL of the FMAs, but the art goes a lot deeper, and it involves the culture and the pieces of the social strata of the people who developed the arts. When you learn the art, I don’t even have to speak your language when I am showing you the mechanics of the movements. But to pass on the traditions as well as the philosophy and finer points of the style, we will need plenty of sit-down time not allotted in seminars and video tapes. Some things will be lost through translation of my language to yours. Some things will be lost because you won’t see the world through my eyes as a result of our differences in culture. Many things will have to be learned through osmosis, simply by sitting at my feet and learning my way the same way your children learn yours. This is why I require full-time study in my school. It is why out of over a thousand students, I have only 6 instructors under me. It is why the closest masters to the source are usually Filipino, and why they seem to have more profound knowledge about this art than you do–even when they are younger. When you love a woman deeply, do you not spend your life learning her parents, her culture and her background? Or do you simply deal with the woman before you and downplay the need to find out where she is from? When my sister was married a few months ago, her Indonesian husband spent days with me, learning everything from my martial arts, to my favorite recipes, to anecdotes about his new wife. He learned that she did not speak English when she arrived here (my sister is the “whitest” member of the Gatdula family), but by age 8, was the most fluent member of the family. At age 4, she had a Vietnamese baby sitter, and because we had no TV, she spoke only Tagalog and Vietnamese until she went to school. In Kindergarten we had to put her in front of Sesame Street so she could differentiate at least ONE language. This woman will make a bowl of Pho just as fast as she’ll reach for the Sinigang. She translated parent-teacher meetings for my mother while I was in the Philippines, and translated KFC orders. We lived in the basement of a private school for a year when I was in high school. Instead of studying and joining athletics, I worked at a carryout and taught part time for Raymond Wong (Wong’s Chinese Boxing Association, one of the best Kung Fu schools in Washington, DC). No one in the house could help her with homework. On weekends, I competed, practiced martial arts, or boxed; it was MY vocational education. At 7, she stayed home alone the night my mother stabbed a would-be rapist. My sister worked in See’s Candy while in high school, Kay Jeweller’s during college, and her life consisted of school, work, martial arts, and, for two years–field hockey. In graduate school, she trained in Muay Thai and MMA, while working full time at a hospital. She has never enjoyed an entire paycheck to herself–EVER in her life–because my mother depends on her to keep the family farm running in the Philippines (we raise goats and chickens), and she’s always helping family. Opportunity and hope, we were taught, are the only reasons why we are here in this country. When she’s in the Bay, it’s Skates on the Bay or Cheesecake Factory, but when she comes to my house, she enjoys chicken gizzards, tripe, and balut (duck embryo)… even squid and shrimp paste. She has a Master’s degree, no accent, and a well-paid career, but if you only knew where she came from to get it. If Kishore had never endeavored to learn her history, he would only know the Hospice nurse with the BMW from Washington, DC., who speaks perfect English and knows uphill struggle like the back of her soul.
If you want to learn the Filipino Martial Arts, like you get to know a woman you really love:  make sure your understanding is not lost in its translation.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation”

  1. Pingback: MMA fight videos

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