Where are the Bats? …Blanket!

Language Learning…

It never stops. Even after 25 years of working with Palawanos and being deeply involved in their language doing translation and all that, we keep learning new things. Here are a few interesting examples I thought you might enjoy.

Many people think language is “words.” You learn the “new words,” plug ’em in where the old (English, etc.) words would have gone, and wala! You are speaking Palawano. Trouble is, that’s not how it works. For one thing, because of culture and many other reasons, a Palawano would not even try to “say the same thing” as what would have been appropriate to say in English in a similar situation. And secondly, even when communicating the same basic concept, that concept is expressed in a different way… in a very different way. (This, of course, is one reason why Bible Translation is so difficult and takes so long! If it were simply a matter of plugging in new words, it would go much faster.)

And of course jokes and teasing are especially tricky… deep forms of language with subtle patterns and timing required to be funny, and to not be offensive.
Okay, some fun example from recent conversations…

Where are the Bats?
Or, “which are the bats,” to be more exact. When might you say that in English? (probably never, you say… bats! ewww!” But I’ll set the scene for you: you are in place where there are some bats, and also some other critters mingled in that look like bats. If you were “zoologically challenged,” and could not tell them apart, you might ask, “Which are the bats?” There, see? You could say it… given the right circumstance, albeit one in which you are unlikely to find yourself.

But when would a Palawano say it? The other day, Abil, our neighbor and one of the main teachers in the church here was sitting on my porch visiting. He is in the process of building a new house. He described how, the day before, he had removed some of the roofing from his old house, in order to put it on his new home. And then it started POURING rain (great timing… kind of the Palawano version of “wash your car, it will rain,” I think.) So he said, “Kuan ko, ‘Embey kabeg?!’ haha” (lit. “I said, “Which/where are the fruit bats?!’ haha”)
He then started to calmly continue the conversation.
But I, in my subtle say, said, “WHOA!!! Hold on… what was that thing about the ‘fruit bats’?!!!”
He laughed and explained. When the rain started pouring in all the leaky spots, everyone in his household was running around trying to find a spot to stand under… some place sheltered by a good part of the roof… just like fruit bats hang under a leaf, or the eave of a house, etc., at night, to be sheltered from the weather.

So the whole thing was what you might consider an implied analogy. There were no bats present, but only people acting like bats.

So what he meant was something like, “We were all just like bats seeking a sheltered place to hang.” But where he said was, “Which are the fruit bats?”

You could translate the words of the English and say, “Ginsan kay, sian lak menge kabeg na epemegtulos et pesirungan in pekiit.” (lit. “We were all just like bats seeking a sheltered place to hang”), but in Palawano that would be overstating the obvious and would have little impact. Say instead, “Embey kabeg?” and you have people rolling in the aisles (well… if they had aisles, of course.)

I wondered if this was pattern… if you would use the “Which is/are the _____ ?” as a formula in other situations. So I tried it out. A few days later I saw someone picking little burrs out of the legs of a pair of pants (kind of like a monkey picks lice, or will try to pick on anything you give it). So I said, “Embey amo?” (“Which is the monkey?”) and guess what? It worked, and got quite a laugh. So yes, languages do follow patterns… but they don’t march to the beat of another language’s drummer.

Another thing we’ve noticed a lot is how a joke may be subtly stated, or responded to in a snappy come-back, with one word. We have our “one-liners.” Palawano have their “one-worders”!

If a group of people is served a bunch of bananas to share and each one is twisting one off the stalk, someone might say, “Amo!!” (“Monkey!”) This means, “You/we are all just like monkeys!” and is funny. If you actually say the whole thing it would be much less funny, and perhaps even insulting. But in English we would never just say one word… not even a complete sentence, in such a context.

Recently one of my translation helpers was telling a story of his first trip to Manila. We had served him coffee in a plastic mug. We had no idea, but he had never known of a hot drink to be served in a plastic cup, so he assumed it was a cold drink and slugged a big gulp into his mouth… and yikes! It was hot! So he panicked. Unable to spit it out, being in a house in the city (Palawano houses with slat floors are much more conducive to spitting!) he quickly covered his cup with his other hand so no one would see, and he spit the coffee back into his cup. Poor guy. He was laughing about it now, though. As soon as he said that, someone who was listening to the story laughed and said, “Memulek!” (“Toddler!”) Again, haiku has nothing on Palawano for minimalism! Just the word “toddler” communicated something like, “Spitting back into your cup is just like a toddler learning to drink from a cup, haha.”

The one that really got me happened a few days ago. Some guys were working on the back part of our house. When the pulled the white “metalplas” roofing sheets from under the house, some of them were muddy. So I asked them to please wash them off before installing them on the roof. Then I jokingly added, “And when you’ve washed them, please wring them out really good.” (of course, you can’t wring a stiff 3’x’8′ sheet of roofing.) They laughed, knowing I was kidding. But then Arlyn, one of Donna’s language helpers who was standing by, chuckled and said, “Blanket!”

“Blanket!” get it? Funniest joke you’ve heard in a while, huh? What might you have said if I jokingly asked you to “wring out” large rigid sheets of roofing? Maybe… “You can’t wring these, you ditz!” Or, dripping with irony… “Yeah right. Just like laundering blankets,” or some such.
But imagine someone simply saying, “Blanket!” Simply translating that into English would not fly (for us) any more than trying to translate one of the appropriate English comebacks literally into word-for-word Palawano.
Well, that’s all for today.
Pray for us as we continue to learn… not just how to kid around with our friends here, but how to communicate the deep truths of God’s Word in the most natural ways and with the the greatest impact in this fascinating language.

About billdavisthoughts

From San Diego, CA. I've been a missionary and Bible translator in the Philippines for over 30 years and have travelled as a language learning consultant to 15 countries. I play piano and guitar. I write, read voraciously and love to work on word puzzles. Married for 35 years, we have two daughters and two grandchildren.
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