By Patricia B. Mirasol  

Pandemic-related words kept in their original English form are now a part of the Filipino language, according to the Commission on the Filipino Language (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino or KWF). The commission also acknowledged that mobilizing people necessitated getting messages across in a language they understand.  

“We, the KWF, and other government agencies, initially struggled with words such as ‘PUI’ [person under investigation], ‘frontliner,’ and ‘physical distancing,’” said John Enrico C. Torralba, chief language researcher of KWF’s translation division. “There are no indigenous equivalents for them,” he told BusinessWorld in the vernacular, “so they were retained in their original form.”  

Citing Bicol poet and cultural advocate Victor Dennis T. Nierva, Mr. Torralba said many individuals who have translated materials from the Department of Health into their local languages practiced keeping these technical terms as well.  

Institutions like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have similarly retained medical concepts like “spike protein” (which protrude from the outside of coronaviruses and allow them to infect cells) in its Filipino-translated resources.  

“Medical practitioners, language scholars, and translators need to work together to translate ideas into their respective languages,” said Mr. Torralba, adding that the KWF is developing a registry of technical word translations and building a network of translators. “They also need to be open to modifying translations that aren’t understood by the target audience.”   

Public understanding of a concept is an important factor for mobilizing individuals to follow official policy, such as evacuating during a storm. 

This need was highlighted during 2013’s super Typhoon Haiyan, Mr. Torralba told BusinessWorld: “A local citizen said he didn’t understand what a ‘storm surge’ meant. Had the authorities used the word daluyong, he would’ve immediately understood what to do.”  

Communicating in international lingua francas or national languages makes marginalized people more vulnerable, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 

“People need to be more careful [about translations] because people’s lives are at stake,” Mr. Torralba said.   


SIDEBAR | Living languages 
KWF’s Buwan ng Wika (or Language Month) theme for 2021 is “Filipino and native tongues in Filipino decolonization.” The theme promotes the use of native languages to better reflect Filipino perspectives. It is in line with the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines (2021 QCP), which commemorates significant events over the nation’s past 500 years.   

According to language resource Ethnologue, there are 183 living languages spoken in the Philippines, the majority of which are indigenous tongues. The most utilized languages — according to their order of use — are Tagalog, Cebuano, Pangasinan, Bicol, Hiligaynon, Waray, Kapampangan, Maranao, and Maguindanao, said Patrocinio V. Villafuerte, a poet, author, and retired professor, in an Aug. 12 webinar 

Republic Act No. 7104, which created the KWF, refers to Philippine languages as “the indigenous languages of the Philippines, including the national language and the regional and local languages.”