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My Soul Speaks in Three Languages

January 12, 2011

tanka from English, to Spanish and Iluko

by Alegria Imperial

…tri-lingual in English, Spanish and Iluko, the language (dialect) I was born with but hardly spoke and never wrote with from my early teens, when I moved to the city for university, until two years ago when it reawoke, first in a Yahoo group and later in a website I stumbled upon. Iluko, a dialect of the northern-most edge of the Philippine archipelago, traces its roots to Austronesian languages. Like most of the major Philippine dialects (87 of them not counting sub-tongues), Iluko tends to be metaphorical and thus poetic. Melded in its spirit is Spanish, introduced by the colonizers 400 years ago — not only as a language but a culture and a soul, both of which we, Filipinos but specifically Ilokanos, can hardly discern on the conscious level. English sort of flowed in only in the past century, easily so because the Spaniards had by then changed our alphabet from what was believed to be Sanskrit to Roman. I believe that when I write I do so from three cultures uniquely one, uniquely mine. But I began explaining all three when one day, I took a break from the haiku that I usually post in my personal blog and in reply to someone who got to my blog, searching for the word willow in Pilipino, I wrote as follows.

Citing the absence of a Pilipino (or Iluko) word for willow tree demonstrates how language is deeply entrenched in culture: the totality of one’s being layered over by influences of earth, air, water, living things, language whispered, sung, murmured, chanted, stated, shouted, screamed, written for one to read under fluorescent light, Coleman light-flood, moonlight, candle light — how we whine and laugh and cuddle up wordless or word-full, with what flowers we offer our sighs, what trees we carve arrow-pierced hearts into, from what looming shadows we scamper away, what wings we shoot down, from what edges of cliffs we plunge off to get to our dreams.

In languages like mine born of life, a borrowed word — just one, say cry or sob — fails to bring out how anug-og in Iluko pictures a bent figure broken in grief, shaking with spasms of pain, sobbing an animal cry that escapes from the depth of caves. Or saning-i, one of my favorite words, portrays someone — usually a woman in a dark corner, splayed on the floor, propped on the wall, the neckline of her dress dropped, the hem of her dress carelessly gathered — deeply hurt, flayed in spirit, melting in helplessness, too enfeebled to even scream or sob, simply shaking with sorrow in what sounds like staccato coughing broken by wet sniffles. Saning-i is also the cry of a child suffering from chronic hunger pain, as in children whipped into living skeletons due to kwashiorkor, or a baby burning with fever.

Language is as mysterious as the spirit, indeed.

No, dear friend who’s asking if there is a translation of willow tree in Pilipino, there’s none I’m aware of. None of our trees have looked as sorrowful, sometimes sinister — under Philippine skies that stars perforate, crowns of mangoes and some other trees sparkle. No, nothing that does not belong can be a match, can be translated.


In these three tanka, I used all three languages my soul speaks with. The English translations are mine, as are the Spanish, but edited by Sr. Javier Galvan y Guijo, director of Instituto Cervantes in Oran, Algeria. The Spanish translations are more or less word-for-word except for particularities of Spanish in terms of number agreement.



among the willows
the wind sometimes listens
to whispers
steals from ripples of the lake
our secret sighs

entre los sauces
el viento a veces oye
los susurros
roba de las ondas del lago
nuestros suspiros secretos

kadagiti kaykayo
no dadduma agan-aningas ti angin
kadagiti ar-arasaas
mangtakaw iti apges ti luok
dagiti limed a sen-senaayta


NOTES: In Iluko, there are no definite prepositions; kadigiti in the poem indicates “among.” Also, the present tense in the word “listen(s)” serves well enough to actively refer to the action of listening, but in Iluko is not enough, hence the use of the participle, as in agan-aningas (listening), compounding the first syllable. Also, the plural form in Iluko is not a suffix, but similar to the way a participle is formed, is made by compounding the first syllable, as in sen-senaayta (sighs). Again, while in both Spanish and English, “ours” is another word, it is a suffix, -ta, as in sen-sennaayta (whispers) in Iluko.



any which way
leaves and sparrows flutter
even fall in the wind
so unlike downcast hearts
rooted among stones

de cualquier forma
las hojas y los gorriones revolotean
incluso los lleva el viento
a diferencia de los corazónes abatidos
arraigado entre las piedras

uray kasano
agampayag latta dagiti bulbulong ken bulilising
matnagda pay ketdi babaen ti angin
saan a kas dagiti nalimdo a puspuso
a nagramut kadigiti batbato


NOTE: The adverbial clause in the first line, “any which way,” translates in Iluko as uray kasano. The word uray has no equivalent in English and Spanish, though in this line, it is used to mean “whichever.” Also, the simple present tense in the verb agampayagda (they flutter) works here because it has a pair in matnagda (they fall) in the next line. “In the wind” would be directly translated as ti angin, but in Iluko, it makes better sense with the use of babaen (because) in the third line. Notice the suffix -da in the verb matnagda, cited above to indicate “them,” referring to the bulbulong (leaves) and bulilising (sparrows). In the last line, the past tense — “rooted” — is indicated with the prefix nag-.



fallen leaf in the garden
only the wind can lift it up
or leave it to its fate
without the wind for thoughts
destiny ends each day

la hoja caida en el jardin
sólamente el viento lo puede levantar
o seguira su destino
si no viento por los pensamientos
estos destinos se fini cada dia

tinnag a bulong iti hardin
ti angin laeng ti makaipalais
wenno makaibati iti kapaayanna
no awan ti angin iti likud dagiti pampanunot
malpas ti gasgasat iti inaldaw


NOTES: The modal auxiliary verb “can” is a prefix makai-, as in makaiplais (can lift it up) and makaibati (leave it) in Iluko. Also, notice how agreement of numbers and verbs in Iluko follows the Spanish rule: los pensamientos/estos destinos translate as pampanunot (“thoughts,” with compounded first syllable) and gasgasat (destiny). To use the plural, “destinies,” in the English version to me would be awkward.

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Alegria Imperial has had forty years of writing and media work, public relations and marketing from staff to managerial positions in government, educational and cultural institutions in the Philippines before she started to write poetry and fiction. She has won a few awards, and had been published in literary journals in print and online, including The Cortland Review, poeticdiversity.org, and LYNX. She now lives in Vancouver, BC. Read her essays on Philippine topics at Filipineses and her haiku at jornales.

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  1. Alex Cigale
    January 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    What a treasure you sent our way, Alegria! So perfect for us, this window onto a language constructed according to logical grammatic structures that are yet so different from those we otherwise take for granted, qualities such as number, possession, direction, tense, intensity. And what a perfect illustration of the notion that there can be no words that do not represent real objects, so that such culturally-specific idioms are nearly ICONS, your example: “saning-i … portrays … usually a woman in a dark corner, splayed on the floor….” And the recording, the Iluko sounded last and thus echoing so musically, its music so liquid I am tempted to imagine that it was formed among the various sounds of water surrounding the islands. A big thank you!

  2. alee9
    January 13, 2011 at 1:44 am

    I’ve been staring at the cursor urging me to begin with a word because I can’t find the right word to thank you for honoring me with this page. Suddenly being one with qarrtsiluni writers and artists I’ve since admired when I signed up as a subscriber four issues back still seems to me a magical moment. Indeed, opening each new page since must have been long enough for me to be ““sitting together in the darkness, waiting for something to burst”(qarrtsiluni) and it did burst! Thank you, Alex, and Dave, too, for patiently reading through this piece.

  3. January 13, 2011 at 6:47 am

    Oh, these are exquisite and exquisitely satisfying! Listening to the podcast is essential. This is a richness of experience of poetry and language and translation that no publication with only printed words could provide. So beautiful.

    • January 13, 2011 at 12:24 pm

      Thank you, Jean. Mil gracias! Napnuan yaman!

    • Lois P. Jones
      June 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      So true! To hear language lift off the page is the difference between a still life bird and watching a falcon fly so close you can feel the flap of his wings. Lovely tankas. I was especially moved by the third piece.

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