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Saturday, March 08, 2008

the inscrutable: a reading of vicente rafael's contracting colonialism

The conversion of the natives and the translation of language and the entire Tagalog cultural systems around the initial Hispanic conquista years of 1565 to 1760’s are the subjects in focus in Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2000). While the Spanish colonial masters originally intended only to convert the natives, the objective extended into a full colonial system. Spanish encountered difficulty in assimilating itself into the lot of Philippine languages, which is why it became necessary for the colonizers to devise a Spanish-Tagalog basis of translation in order to communicate to the colonized. The book displayed the indispensable connections among conversion, translation and colonialism in the archipelago as well as the significance of these concepts during the early Spanish era. Rafael asserts that outlines the limit of conversion to a certain degree, yet as the meaning got across, the natives were free to interpret it.
Using Hispanic missionary texts, the author points out that for a successful conversation in Tagalog, it was required to organize the language by developing a grammar and setting it in God’s system of languages using Spanish instead of the vague native writing system baybayin. In the process of translation, the arrangement between Castillan and Tagalog was evident but fell short of the total empowerment of the missionary, with the natives responding to “fished” Spanish words even as they missed the words’ point.
Colonial system and conversion, Rafael argues, were the products of the misinterpretation of the translation by both the colonizers and the colonized. The untranslatable Espiritu Santo, for example, was interpreted by the natives according to their own meaning, which defeated the colonizing purpose of the missionaries. Rafael went on with the subsequent chapters to explain the various odd features of the Tagalog-Spanish relationship using mutually misinterpreted facts through an overview of the translation of Spanish and Tagalog texts. As a result, the colonial system got arranged whenever it became necessary to do Tagalog translation.
Contracting Colonialism describes a linguistic order coming out of a colonial governance in relation to other colonial institutions like politics and culture. Language plays an important role in a colonial mission because the colonizers should articulate their objectives and the colonized, their response, giving indispensability to translation. Communication is inextricably linked to language, such that linguistic translation is necessary and even emphasized, though translation runs in congruence to all cultural systems. The Spanish molded Tagalog in many ways through the codification of grammar and the promotion of its use so as to centralize and control communication, only to fail.
The linguistic order gains strength with translation and customization coming out of the necessary communication between the colonizer and the colonized. Colonial authority may be seen from this order and its formation results in the natives’ capacity to upset this authority using their original, non-hierarchical native language as well as its semantics. This linguistic hierarchy is a result of and is employed to disseminate the colonial order. A number of colonial social institutions, from political to cultural to religious, realized the translation and linguistic appropriation generating the hierarchy. The recurrent translation was necessary so as to achieve the colonial mission of converting the natives.
To interrelate conversion, translation and conversion during the early Spanish regime, the author cites Tagalog- and Spanish-language Christian text, linguistic manuals and secular letters. Rafael’s basis for analysis is widely encompassing, using rather scarce sources. While this is so, it must be pointed out that there were not many texts printed in the islands during the early colonial period. The examiner might have left this gap unfilled, yet the weighty interpretation suggests that he decided more than he needed to perform heavy reading.
Rafael stresses how texts work: a Tagalog grammar of Spanish is interpreted primarily to view the native Tagalog concepts about languages to prove that the Tagalogs rather succeeded in failing the motives of colonial signifiers. Furthermore, an analysis of the subjects written in the language manual are used to reason out why the Tagalogs meant the grammar as a tool to struggle.
The author uses his analyses to serve his conclusion on the perception of Tagalogs and Spanish Christians regarding various cultural objects and their relationship through an erratic translation. Other than that, he uses them to explain a few riddles in early colonial religious history and subsequently moves to discuss a part of how the entire Spanish colonial instrument in the Philippines achieved notoriety. This type of device needs to win the belief of the audience, and tends to be beneficial, all the same. The author’s analyses are engaging; for instance, he depicts that the limitless grievances of the Spanish over the incomplete conversions by Tagalogs could be explained by the native’s idea of utang na loob, interpreted by the colonizers as the translation of debt of gratitude to God, which in reality encouraged sporadic and unconsummated repayment of debt. Meanwhile, these analyses are beyond belief to some proportion, because Rafael’s interpretations appear to have been imagined, lacking the convincing power that works within the territory of truth. Whereas Contracting Colonialism is brilliant and highly sophisticated and riveting, the book looks self-contained. The author seems to give the impression that the reason for the thick analysis of the textual sources was to appropriate this into a predetermined hypothesis which carries a strange distance or proximity to truth. Nevertheless, the book is clever in subverting a narrative of homogenization by means of depicting how the natives disabled colonial tools from containing them within the foreign tradition and putting them on an unjust lower level than the colonizers. Whereas there are existing binaries that effect religious and linguistic distortions done by colonial encounters, colonialism did not completely marginalized the natives and could not claim to having triumphed in contaminating the native consciousness as to deform the identity of the natives. The mission to civilize the “savages” fell short from succeeding, yet the colonized remained human anyway. The colonial violence they had to bear did not completely penetrate to found norms within the colonial system, as was manifest in the text. Contracting Colonialism is a glowing picture of the socio-history of language in a circumstance wherein the bounds of language are truly important and attractive and an insight into the workings of colonialism in general is established. Moreover, it shows how language origins, often an inherent feature of existing languages, can be developed effectively for historical reading. This paper hopes to assert the old-age wisdom that language is an important matter of argument as well as the more controversial ones like gender, race, religion and culture. The qualification of language as a historical relic paves the way to a productive and revolutionary undertaking. At certain points, the native might have contracted colonialism, but this colonization did not come unchallenged when the natives showed linguistically our resistant brand of impenetrability.


  1. thanks for this article . It helped me a lot for my finals tom.

    1. Anonymous5:23 AM

      Yea right! Thank you for this article :)