Language as a Shield, Translation as a Bridge

A professor I had a long time ago, the great poet Benilda S. Santos, once asked me if I found using a second language – English in this case – helped me in any way in expressing certain thoughts and emotions better than my mother tongue.  Back then such a question didn’t really make sense to me.  I was writing in whatever language the poem came.  Or so I declared.

Through the years I started to write some poems in both languages at almost the same time – jumping back and forth, testing the limits of expression in each.  Sometimes I found it necessary to use one language to release ideas and images that the other could not quite capture easily.  I would then translate those parts.  But then I also found that there are some subjects that needed some kind of distancing in order for me to even attempt to tackle them.

The death of my father was one of them.  Perhaps because instinctively I knew that using the very language that I grew up with will rebound even harsher on me.  With using a second language I am somehow afforded a kind of shield, a layer of protection from that which might hit me too hard that I wouldn’t be able to finish the task.

I have to admit that I am a fairly slow reader.  I had a friend back in high school who claimed he could speed read.  He seemed to me like one of those contraptions in an office:  the grand paper shredder.  In goes the sheet, out come paper spaghetti.  Words disposed in a jiffy.  He read A Tale of Two Cities in a week.  I only managed the first half by the end of the semester.

A few weeks ago I chanced upon the slim book Shadow Child by Dutch author PF Thomese.  Written in vignettes, it tells of the loss he and his wife have had to endure when their baby died.  It is a small book but with such devastating power that leaves the reader gasping.  It made me wish I could read it in the original and then translate it into Filipino.  But that exercise (aside from the fact that I only know a few words of Dutch) might be too awesome an experience.

Perhaps it is enough that I have somehow reached the shore by another bridge, that second language of English.  Who knows, maybe one day I can learn enough Dutch and make my own bridge?  Then again, one could ask “Does grief sell?  Isn’t there enough of that in the world?”

Opposites are essential.  You know one thing because of another.  Dry cracked earth that runs in a path is the memory of a river that once rushed.  Burst of sunlight, whip of lightning and storm.


About matangmanok

Jim Pascual Agustin writes and translates poetry. Sometimes he tries his hand at essays and stories. His latest book is BLOODRED DRAGONFLIES, published by Deep South in South Africa. Check out the official blog page for Bloodred Dragonflies. In 2011 the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila released BAHA-BAHAGDANG KARUPUKAN (poems in Filipino) and ALIEN TO ANY SKIN (poems in English). The same publisher released his most recent poetry collections SOUND BEFORE WATER and KALMOT NG PUSA SA TAGILIRAN. In 2015 a new poetry collection in English, A THOUSAND EYES was released. His first collection of short stories in Filipino, SANGA SA BASANG LUPA, was released in 2016. UK publisher The Onslaught Press launches his poetry collection, WINGS OF SMOKE, worldwide in February 2017. San Anselmo Publications released HOW TO MAKE A SALAGUBANG HELICOPTER & OTHER POEMS in 2019 followed by CROCODILES IN BELFAST & OTHER POEMS in 2020 - both books can be purchased through their Facebook page. View all posts by matangmanok

3 responses to “Language as a Shield, Translation as a Bridge

  • Missy

    Jim a lot of times I find so much wisdom in your writings.

    I would think some translation would be lost in the switching of languages, but I feel a true poet sees beyond those pauses and sees what’s there through the imagery of the verses.

    I think what you said was so profound though about writing in your native tongue regarding personal matters. I am sure the impact of words would have a larger effect on the poet, it’s personal, it’s in your language so it’s like an extension of you. Whereas if it reads in a different language it has a foreign feel to it. Perhaps there you can detach from the weightiness of a piece. I don’t know I’m just supposing here.

    Besides all this I loved your pondering.


  • matangmanok


    I am glad you came to read this one. I wasn’t sure where it was going when I started it, and not quite sure if it actually reached the unknown destination I had set out for.

    Thank you for being here. You are among those who know the magical powers of language.

  • wearashirt

    Good job on the “opposites” idea. I like the last paragraph best. 🙂

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