My Asian American Culture students are probably cursing my name, because I asked them this question for their finals (though a good number of them succeeded admirably):
In a few of our class’s readings/viewings — Wayne Wang’s film Chan Is Missing, Barbara Jane Reyes‘s poem “101 Words That Don’t Quite Describe Me,” R. Zamora Linmark’s novel Rolling the R’s, to name some examples — some words, if not entire blocks of dialogue, are left untranslated. What could this signify?
I had then expected answers regarding untranslatability, minority languages, language as instruments of inclusion and exclusion, the politics of translation, the interrogation of the primacy of English (one student would write in his exam that it was “a challenge to English hegemony) or, at the very least (even if I didn’t personally agree), the idea of a native tongue as being “closer” to some kind of ethnic “essence.”
To these characteristics of language I’d add another dimension, related to exclusion: language as signifying the secret. Or, in this case, representing the mysterious/exotic. I was happily reminded of this after watching Wrye Martin and Barry Polterman’s enjoyable low-budget horror film Aswang, from 1994 — a real treat for you indie-horror fans out there. The setup’s pretty simple: a young woman is paid to be a surrogate mother (and to pretend to be a wife) by a wealthy man who apparently needs an heir in order to inherit their rural Wisconsin estate. Our pregnant protagonist visits the ancestral home and is introduced in turn to the ailing matriarch, and the creepy Filipina maid named Cupid (played with relish by Mildred Nierras) — and is told about Claire, the sister who is “touched” and “gets upset easily” and lives in a cabin separated from the house.
And there is, of course, the aswang; for you non-Filipinos out there, it’s a vampire-like creature straight from Filipino mythology. (Funny how the online reviewers — one of which helpfully wrote, “It’s pronounced ass-wang” — found the premise intrinsically nasty, whereas I simply found it the stuff of childhood stories. Yes, the aswang happens to feed on fetuses sucked out of pregnant women.) We see it first in a framed drawing on a wall — we are told the family spent time in Basilan — and the nosy neighbor is horrified: “Good Lord! What is that?” “The aswang.” “Wh– what is it doing?” “Feeding.”
But one of the coolest things* about the film is that the mother, the son and the maid speak in Tagalog to each other throughout the movie, and their speech (at least the version I saw) isn’t subtitled. (The white actors playing the mother and son are pretty game, even if the pronunciation isn’t the clearest.) Most of the Tagalog words are colloquial conversation, limited to “No” and “Thanks” and “Please pass the cider,” but still. There’s even a scene when Cupid puts her ear to the pregnant woman’s stomach and pronounces “Mga dalawa, tatlong araw na lang, malapit nang mahinog” — crucial information, I thought, but here, just left to the viewer’s imagination. (Later, when the maid falls down on her knees and begins praying, one realizes that the audience is supposed to think it’s a magical incantation of some sort.)
Tagalog here, particularly when seen in the context of the genre, functions to intensify the fear of the unknown; something bad is going to happen to the protagonist — perhaps even discussed openly — but both she and the non-Tagalog-speaking audience is deliberately left in the dark. (That “something bad” becomes clear once the aswang’s phallic tongue is unfurled.) So while the Philippines is tangentially imagined here as the source for humid horror (in a fashion similar to those bad “anthropological” X-Files episodes when Scully and Mulder encounter “other cultures”), I am at least let in on the secret.
*But perhaps the coolest scene in the film — particularly for you gorehounds out there — is a battle between two women, with a hoe, a chainsaw, and a cramped living room.