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Negotiating Empire, Part II: Translation in the Philippines under Spanish Rule, 16th-19th centuries

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(The following is a post by Joshua Kueh, Southeast Asia Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

Part I of this two-part blog examined how the establishment of a Spanish colonial presence in the Philippines during the 16th-18th centuries was a collaborative enterprise, one which had to take on board the interests of various groups. This present post, Part II, draws on and interprets the arguments of the scholar Vicente Rafael in his book “Contracting Colonialism,” and points to examples of rare texts in collections at the Library of Congress that highlight aspects of language translation and communication that attenuated Spanish colonial aims in the Philippines. The persistence of local scripts, pronunciation, and pre-Hispanic cultural concepts destabilized the vision of empire the Spanish sought to communicate — a hierarchical image of the world with Spain on top and other civilizations subordinate to or derivative of it.

In this idealized imagining of empire, the source of Spanish authority and legitimacy came from its proximity to a divine power as expressed by the Catholic faith and its role as an interpreter and propagator of that faith. Indeed, Catholicism came to profoundly shape life in many parts of the archipelago that eventually became the Philippines as Spain spread its rule there over the course of more than 300 years from 1565 to 1898. Nonetheless, the persistence of local linguistic traditions and the world views they expressed meant Spanish domination was incomplete, as seen in early printed religious works in the Tagalog and Bikol languages or inscriptions in Mangyan on bamboo cylinders at the Library of Congress.

Translation, as conceived in various colonial Spanish grammars (“artes”) and dictionaries (“vocabularios”), was a means to make local languages and cultures comprehensible and controllable. From the start, the Spanish attempted to subject the vernacular to their priorities of conversion to Catholicism and control by rendering local languages into Latin script, and describing them according to the structure of Latin. However, domination was not complete. The Latin script had to contend with local scripts such as Baybayin, which the Spanish found hard to read. As indigenous writing systems were syllabic, i.e. each character ending in a vowel, non-native speakers found it difficult to know when to omit vowels at the end of words finishing in consonants. Furthermore, a diacritical mark above or below each character modified its ending, and gave the reader the choice of choosing from more than one option when deciphering which vowel to utter. Context was key to interpreting how to pronounce words, and also in determining their meaning.

A map of the Philippines.
This map shows the distribution of principal vernacular languages throughout the Philippines in the mid-20th century. “Philippines, principal vernacular languages.” Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The importance of subjecting oneself to understanding local languages and cultures on their own terms did not coincide with the Spanish conception of a hierarchy of languages, with Latin as the source, Castilian as its successor, and the languages of those the Spanish claimed to rule subject to this order. As such, local scripts became a stumbling block for colonial officials and missionaries when it came to communicating their vision of empire. Explaining complex theological and legal concepts in foreign scripts that agents of Spain found difficult to master meant risking mistranslation of ideas central to Spanish rule. Latin script was supposed to remove uncertainty in conveying meaning, but despite its widespread adoption for writing languages from the Philippines, the persistence of local scripts meant that some written communication escaped the grasp of the Spanish.

A page from a printed book, written in Tagalog syllabary in the Latin and Baybayin scripts.
A page from the earliest known printed book in the Philippines showing the Tagalog syllabary in the Latin and Baybayin scripts found in “Doctrina Christiana en lengua española y tagala,” Manila, 1593. Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
A page from a printed book.
The author, a priest by the name of Francisco de San José, warns readers in this 1610 grammar about the difficulties of reading Baybayin, saying that it is “half guessing (medio adivinar).” “Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala.” Printed by a Tagalog called Tomás Pinpin, one of the first known indigenous printers in the Philippines. Bataan, 1610. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Local scripts, derived from Indic writing, survived during the three and a half centuries of Spanish rule and beyond. They are evident in Spanish documents, appearing as signatures, and also occasionally as summaries of documents in Castilian. On the fringes of Spanish control, the Mangyan and Tagbanua scripts of the Philippine islands of Mindoro and Palawan respectively, continued to be in use throughout the period of Spanish and American rule and even into the present in a limited fashion. The Asian Division holds a rare collection of items from Mindoro in the Mangyan script and language. Consisting of 71 bamboo slats and 6 bamboo cylinders collected in the first half of the 20th century, the collection sheds light on various aspects of Mangyan life and customs — marriage, birth, death, taxation, and agriculture — and is written in prose and verse (“ambahan”). In some of these texts, there is more than a veiled rejection of colonial relationships — perhaps not just Spanish but also American given their likely date of production during the years of American occupation of the Philippines.

One bamboo slat plainly states: “Some of us have Christian names. If we are asked if we are Christians, the answer is ‘No.’ Why do we object to baptism? We object to baptism because always our custom from ancient times has no baptism. Sometimes there are people who tell us that Christianity is precious. We have no (Christian) priest.” Another reads: “The Christians do not marry with us in true matrimony, and also no Mangyan girl has married a Christian here in Mansalay, but the Christians beget among us as they climb through the hills.” Yet another rails against taxation: “We Mangyans do not like taxes because that has always been our custom. Anciently, we had none. We have nothing for that purpose, because we are poor. We are careless about making money. We do not know how. We have never liked taxes. The homestead owner must pay taxes.” Writing in local scripts created space for discourse that opposed colonial rule — discourse that was hidden in plain sight. Most outsiders could not decipher Mangyan writing systems, of which there are two, namely Surat Hanunuo Mangyan and Surat Buhid. In the case of the early 20th-century bamboo collection at the Library of Congress, which has accompanying translations in Tagalog and English, Mangyan authors could express their dislike of American rule by indirectly critiquing the Spanish regime.

three bamboo tubes inscribed with Mangyan and Latin scripts.
Tubes inscribed with Mangyan and Latin script from a collection of bamboo slats and cylinders at the Asian Division collected for Major Fletcher Gardner—an American doctor stationed in the Philippines—in the first half of the 20th century from Mindoro, Philippines. Transcriptions and translations of the texts in Mangyan can be found in “Indic Writings of the Mindoro-Palawan axis.”

While local writing persisted throughout colonial rule, it was marginalized. As mentioned, rendering local languages in Latin script became the norm. Even so, this tool of colonial rule came up against local pronunciation and compelled Spanish agents to familiarize themselves with how locals interpreted Castilian sounds. In his 1745 grammar, “Arte de la Lengua Tagala, y Manual Tagalog,” the Franciscan priest Sebastián Totanes (1687-1748) notes with disdain that the Tagalogs mix up the vowels E and I: “At the beginning of the sentence, there is no need to look for E, owing to the barbarity of the Tagalogs. The same occurs with O and U, which are mistaken in speaking as they almost always are in writing….I and U they call matigas, i.e., hard. Such is the explanation of the indios for violating our five vowels” (quoted in Vicente Rafael, p. 52, and available online in the original Spanish).

Despite his negative perception of Tagalog pronunciation, Totanes’ anxiety belies a larger point: translating language, like other colonial enterprises, was not a one-way street but rather a negotiated process that had to take onboard both the needs of Spanish agents and those they sought to rule. In the case of Tagalog interpretation of Castilian phonetics, what was perceived as a deficiency by a colonial authority could also be understood as native indifference to distinguishing between certain vowels: “E” could be “I” and “O” could be “U.” The imposition of a writing system could not fully fix meaning as it came up against the speech patterns and reading habits of indigenous peoples of the archipelago. The instability of “mispronunciations” meant messaging was a balancing act that had to take into consideration local sensibilities.

If pronunciation and writing had the potential to affect the transmission and interpretation of words and hence, meaning, translation of spiritual concepts proved even more problematic. One particularly fraught idea to communicate was “soul” in the Catholic sense and the role of “confession.” To convey “soul,” missionaries used the Tagalog term “loob” and strove to impress upon their flock the importance of confessing one’s sins to receive forgiveness. Colonial dictionaries such as Noceda and San Lucar’s 1745 “Vocabulario de la lengua tagala” indicate that loob denoted the “inside,” or “will and heart,” or the “inner most part” of a person. At the same time, it could also mean the “inside” of an object. As is apparent, loob meant more than soul. Further complicating the use of the word loob was the indigenous concept of “utang na loob”: a relationship of indebtedness framed by an understanding of reciprocity.

Whereas missionaries expected penitents to bear their souls, or loob, at the confessional, unburdening their conscience of wrongs committed that forgiveness might be given, utang na loob recast that orthodox conception. Missionaries found that confessions often took paths they had not prescribed. Parishioners meandered into recounting the sins of others to deflect blame, or bragged about their goodness to the priest. For these confessants, the point seems to have been to bargain in an exchange with what was required by Christian law in order to portray oneself in the best light possible rather than internalize guilt and repent. This transformation of the confession was one of the ways in which indigenous society subverted their submission to the colonial order. In the Philippines during the period of Spanish rule, translation mitigated domination, and imperial ideas were filtered through a net of selective local understandings.

Cover page on a book whose title reads "Lengua Bicol."
The Library of Congress has various grammars, vocabularies, and religious texts—original editions and reprints—such as the pictured 1879 edition of Andrés de San Agustín’s “Arte de la lengua Bicol para la enseñanza de este idioma.” Available on HathiTrust. Southeast Asian Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

The Library of Congress has various grammars, vocabularies, and religious texts—original editions and reprints—that provide scholars with possibilities for investigating the framing of languages from the Philippines during Spanish rule. To learn more about where to find these texts in the Library, please see the Southeast Asian Collection research guide or contact reference staff at the Asian Reading Room via the Ask a Librarian page.

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This blogpost draws on the arguments of Vicente Rafael with regard to translation and Christian conversion in Tagalog society during the early Spanish period, as well as that of Damon Woods when it comes to the persistence of local scripts in the Philippines. Works of both scholars that the author consulted are cited below.

Gardner, Fletcher and Ildefonso Maliwanag. “Indic Writings of the Mindoro-Palawan Axis.” San Antonio: Witte Memorial Museum, 1939-40.

Rafael, Vicente. “Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule.” Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1988.

Woods, Damon L. “Baybayin Revisited.” Philippiniana Sacra, Vol. XLVII, No. 139 (January-April, 2012) pp. 67-102.

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  1. Extremely interesting. I had no idea of these complexities, though once I read them they are completely understandable given the relationship between indigenes and occupiers, similar to those between the British and “Americans” in colonial days and similar frictions, as in the lyrics to “Yankee Doodle”.

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