UW News

May 9, 2016

Vicente Rafael explores link between translation, historical imagination in book ‘Motherless Tongues’

UW News

Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation, by UW history professor Vicente Rafael, was published by Duke University Press.

“Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation,” by UW history professor Vicente Rafael, was published by Duke University Press.

University of Washington history professor Vicente Rafael says his new book, “Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation,” seeks to ask some longstanding questions in novel ways.

What is the relationship is between history and language, for example. Is language simply a means for understanding history? Or, is it also a historical agent in its own right, capable of making history, not simply expressing it? And, what is the role of translation in the historical agency of language?

To get at what Rafael calls “the historical agency of language,” he examines the workings of translations in a variety of contexts, mostly in the Philippines and the United States from the late 19th century through the early 21st century.

He studies such topics as the shifting notions of sovereignty in the Philippine revolution against Spain, the role of English in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in the early 20th century, and the weaponization of translation in its more recent “war of terror” and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rafael also examines the use of cell phones and texting in the civilian-backed coup in the Philippines in 2001, and the function of autobiography in the writings of area studies specialists during the Cold War. Starting with a critical description of the complexity of translation, the book’s chapters are linked by a recurring concern with, as he put it, “how language both invites and eludes translation, and how translation in turn supports even as it upends relations of power and structures of authority in colonial and post-colonial settings.”

Exploring empire: The subject of empire, discussed here, is also at the heart of another recent book by a UW historian. Read about history professor Jordanna Bailkin’s 2013 book on Great Britain, “The Afterlife of Empire.”

He said the book came about somewhat accidentally. Most of the chapters began as separate essays meant for different occasions and audiences. But taken together, Rafael said, they began to coalesce around a set of obsessions related to “decolonizing, as it were, the common sense understanding of language and translation as mere instruments of empires and nations.”

The last chapter of the book includes the transcripts of a video interview with the editor of Translation: A Transdisciplinary Journal where Rafael relates the beginnings of his longstanding interest in translation and history.

He became interested the Spanish colonization of the Philippines in graduate school at Cornell, he said, but noticed there were few sources written by colonized natives, among a general absence of pre-colonial written documents.

One place to look for native agency, he realized, was in the native languages themselves. These he found in the writings of the Spanish missionaries who, rather than teach natives Spanish, decided to learn the different vernaculars themselves. They used the native languages to translate the Gospel and write sermons to communicate with native peoples and transmit directives coming from the colonial state down to the local level.

Rafael then asked how missionary translations of the Christian Word ended up being displaced and re-inflected — even resisted — by entirely different meanings and references encoded in native languages. It is that difference between what the missionaries meant to say and what the native converts actually heard that made all the difference, Rafael argues, in revising our understanding of the history of Spanish colonialism and native conversion in the Philippines.

“So I got very interested in this topic and asked myself what would happen if one were to take a look at languages as historical agents, because we often think of historical agents as human beings,” he said. “But there is a certain way in which you can also think of language as a historical agent that is somehow free of human control, or better yet, how it exceeds human control, and that’s exactly the path I tried to pursue.”

“Motherless Tongues” is Rafael’s fourth book. His earlier books are “The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines” (2005), “White Love and Other Events in Filipino History” (2000) and “Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule” (1993), all published by Duke University Press.


For more information, contact Rafael at 206-543-5699 or vrafael@uw.edu.