Transplanting the Báyot, Translating the Dagli
Translator’s Note by Alton Melvar M Dapanas,
translator of Stefani J Alvarez's dagli
In some regions in contemporary southern Philippines, the báyot refers fluidly, across the spectrum, from the effeminate gay (cisgender) man to the nonbinary femme to the transgender woman. In certain contexts, it may even extend to cisgender women who “act” camp or lean towards drag.
Historically “male cross-dressers”, according to the 2008 Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, they performed important ethnopolitical and socioreligious functions in precolonial times in some parts of a land mass which, based on ethnohistorian Oona Paredes’ archival research in Spain, was called “las dychas islas” (literally, “those said or aforementioned islands”) along with the Marianas, and much later on, the “Philippines” after Spaniard monarch King Felipe II. The Cebu-based newspapers of the first decades of the 1900s which published articles in Spanish and/or Cebuano also equate the báyot to “babayen-on” or “babayin on,” woman-like or effeminate. As a gender referent, it has long been documented, as early as 1680 CE in the 55-volume The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 edited by Emma H Blair and James A Robertson. The báyot were demonized by Spanish friars in the latter’s colonial quest of reducción, to further spread Christianity as mandated by Pope Alexander XVI’s Inter Caetera or Papal Bull of 1493. Since then, báyot has become a derogatory term, a curse word, for cowardice, frailty, and weakness. (See, for example, the tirades of current Philippine president Rodrigo R. Duterte—known for his sexual assaults, doublespeak, misogyny, incompetence, and extrajudicial killings—against his political rivals.)
In other ethnolinguistic groups in the southern Philippines, gendered identities which defy Western subjectivities may include the Tausug bantut, the Teduray mentefuwaley, and the Sinama dnda-dnda. Among the counterparts across the globe are the Albanian burrnesha, the Brazilian travesti, the Chinese yinyang ren, the Cook Islander ‘akavaine and raerae, the Ethiopian ashtime, the Fijian/iTaukei wadna, the Hawai’ian aikāne, the Indian hijra, the Indonesian waria, the Malagasy sekrata, the Malaysian mak nyah, the Maori whakawahine and takatāpui, the Mexican muxhe, the native North American/First Nations two spirit, the Omani xanith, the Samoan fa’afafine, the Siberian ergi, the Tahitian māhu, the Taiwanese tongzhi, the Thai kathoey, the Tongan fakaleiti, and the Vietnamese lai cai.
Within the tradition of Philippine literature written in Filipino, an ouevre independent from Philippine literature in English and literatures of other local languages, the dagli (see Ang Dagling Tagalog: 1903-1936, Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2007) is a short prose piece which may either be flash fiction or flash nonfiction, or both, or neither. It is a genre which proliferated in vernacular magazines, newspapers, and periodicals at the dawn of the 20th century after the Treaty of Paris when the Americans took full control of the Philippines, and the English language was imposed by the state. The 1994 Encyclopedia of Philippine Art defines it loosely as “vignettes or sketches” which could be traced back to the Tagalog pasingaw, the Cebuano pinadalagan/binirisbiris (or pinadagan and dinalídalí), and the Spanish instantanea/rafaga, as “short account[s] that assumed a number of function[s] … [characterized by] spontaneous and hurried quality … [either as] an explicit expression of a man’s love for a particular woman, but at other times, it became highly polemical, expressing anti-American, anti-clerical themes.”
Growing up in the northernmost region of the southern Philippines, Stefani J Alvarez’s native tongue is Cebuano Binisaya, not the Tagalog-based Filipino she writes in. Subsequently, her writing is entangled with other motifs and topicalities outside sociolinguistic concerns, such as her dagli’s I-persona as a báyot, a migrant Filipino worker, a son and sibling, a transgender woman in a patriarchal and conservative country, a sex worker, etc. This linguistic and thematic multiplicity raised many aesthetic and textual challenges when translating her dagli, especially in terms of rendering her voice. The language, on the surface, is Tagalog, but the nuances, the embodied experiences, the structure, and as Alvarez has said in an interview, “my soul,” are all in our shared native tongue, the Binisaya.
As an emerging translator, I also considered my presence/absence in the source text, bearing in mind the unique role of translation in giving wider platforms and postulating identities from the post/neo-colonies thus contributing to and disseminating, in this context, Anglophone-generative literatures. One advantage here, however, is that Alvarez and I were born and raised in the same city and have the same native tongue, or at least the dialectical of the Binisaya language spoken in Northern Mindanao, more than a hundred nautical miles from the language’s literary center, Cebu. Reflecting on geolinguistic hierarchies, Paul F. Bandia writes in The Palgrave Handbook of Literary Translation (2018):
“All dominated writers, regardless of their linguistic and literary distance from the center, face the question of linguistic difference, and generally seek to distance themselves from the dominant language by devising a distinctive use of the language or by inventing a national literary language. For these writers, the strategies of distancing from the dominant language may not always be conscious or calculated, and may depend on the degree of literariness of their indigenous language and its position in the global literary space.”
I write in English (and in Binisaya, a language which has at least six dialects), while Alvarez writes in Filipino, “a legislated and developing language, which is Tagalog-based and is taught in all the schools of the country, and of course reinforced by Manila-based mass media,” according to the Boholano poet Marjorie Evasco in a Cha Literary Journal interview. Our approach to and cognition in the language may be the same. But the 1987 Constitution mandates that “as it evolves, [Filipino, the national language] shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages” such as English, which is an official language of communication and instruction, and the regional languages. It is in this sense that I would still like to be up front about my possible mistranslations as, borrowing the words of Filipino cultural studies scholar Vicente L. Rafael in Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation (Duke University Press, 2016), it “is predicated on the inevitability of mistranslation … spawns undecidability, ambivalence, and, at times, violent misinterpretations.” This was admittedly, as an emerging translator, an aspect I kept coming back to and still constantly worry about.
These concerns, along with other acts of translation, required careful attention and a hint of experimentation, as I grappled between translating “word-for-word” and “sense-for-sense.” Stylistic questions emerged like: How to translate the confessional style rhetorically enmeshed with Filipino gayspeak—locally, “Swardspeak”—and working-class sensibilities which, in the original text, is already linguistically layered (as Filipino is Alvarez’s second language)? In what ways might word order, brevity, and thematic progression shape the target text? What shifts in translation am I willing to alter from the source language to the target language? What boundaries will I have to redraw and revisit from time to time?
From here I began to see larger questions: How to translate a minority culture—which Alvarez and I both belong to as queer Filipino southerners navigating the literary spaces of Manila, the country’s cultural center, and the West—into a dominant world language without treating the work as some sort of postcolonial exotic which may however serve as its currency for publication? Given the subversive historical tradition of the dagli—a genre which defied the Euro-American short story form and the English language during the American Occupation in the Philippines and long after it—can the same genre and the act of translating it be exemplified as a contact zone between the colonizing genre and language to the colonized? Similarly, Indian novelist Arundhati Roy wrote that for multilingual communities, “Translation is daily life, it is street activity, and it’s increasingly a necessary part of ordinary folk’s survival kit.” In the same vein, Bikolano fictionist Merlinda C. Bobis, who comes from a northeast Philippine region with four languages (each with sublanguages and at least, 12 dialects), has asked “But what if the different languages co-habit in one text? How can translation begin as a decolonial urge that facilitates an empathetic collaboration among differences, so they can resolve each other into meaning?” Or in Roy’s words, “to persuade languages to shift around, to make room for each other.”
Alvarez has produced a body of work that portrays longing, torment, defiance, and trauma in pieces which convey, in the words of Ina R Silverio “unflinching honesty and such poetic grace,” and which are “to the point, poignant, and painful.” Alvarez’s dagli is heavily informed not only by her material reality but also by the language and genre she is writing in. Her work, a periphery within a periphery within a periphery, can be understood (and best appreciated) in the larger geopolitical landscapes of diasporic/migrant writing, working-class literature, and postcolonial/transnational queer theory.
David Lazar has written that “Genre and gender are indissolubly linked, etymologically intertwined.” Such a notion also brings to mind the similarities between transgender and “transgenre”, in the words of Kazim Ali, in Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. Similar resonances can again be seen in Barrie Jean Borich’s essay “The Craft of Writing Queer,” where she draws out the parallels between the “fluidity of gender” and the “shifting genre parameters,” which questions heteronormative storytelling and cisnormative stories, not only in terms of the subject but also in style and structure.
Gender and genre, or “gendered bodies” and “genred writing,” to borrow from Ali, are both social constructs.
Alton Melvar M Dapanas (they/them), a native of southern Philippines, is the author of Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems (UK: Newcomer Press, 2021) and In the Name of the Body: Lyric Essays (Canada: forthcoming). Their latest poetry, essays, and translation have appeared in World Literature Today, BBC Radio 4, Oxford Anthology of Translation, Sant Jordi Festival of Books, and the University of Alabama Press anthology Infinite Constellations. Their lyric essay has been nominated to the Pushcart Prize and their prose poem was selected for The Best Asian Poetry. Formerly with Creative Nonfiction magazine, they’re editor-at-large at Asymptote, and assistant nonfiction editor at Panorama: The Journal of Travel, Place, and Nature and Atlas & Alice Literary Magazine. Find more at https://linktr.ee/samdapanas.