Notes on Irreverent Translation

Christine Imperial

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 165.

In February 1899, Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden” was published in The Times, a British newspaper. Appearing at the beginning of the Philippine–American war, which would last more than three years, the now infamous lyric encourages the United States and its white citizens to take up the “burden” of empire, to civilize the “half devil[s]” and “half child[ren]” of the Philippines. In my book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues (Mad Creek Books, 2023), I embarked on a translation of Kipling’s poem into Tagalog, one of the most widely spoken languages in the Philippines. My intention, however, was not to offer a straightforward Tagalog version of Kipling’s lines but what I call an irreverent translation.

Instead of a translation that attempts to “lovingly...incorporate the original’s mode of signification,” as Walter Benjamin writes in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” an irreverent translation does not operate with love for the original, but vengeance, a desire to usurp the authority of the text and indict its language. Akin to erasure poetry, the irreverent translation seizes upon the language of the original to critique it and bring out what Travis MacDonald, in his essay “A Brief History of Erasure Poetics,” calls the “hidden poems of [the] host text.” If the original poem is host, then the irreverent translation of it is a parasite interfering in the host’s textual operations by “break[ing] the semantic field,” as French philosopher Michel Serres writes in The Parasite (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

I began by thinking about how the act of translating Kipling’s poem into Tagalog, the language of its Other, resists the original’s telos of fully assimilating non-Western natives into Western civilization. The English language was a tool of colonization, according to history professor Vincente L. Rafael. When the U.S. colonial government made English the primary language of Filipino school instruction during its rule from 1899 to 1946, it “meant to speed up the pacification process, drawing Filipinos closer to American interests and thereby putting an end to their resistance,” Rafael writes in his scholarly article “Wars of Translation: American English, Colonial Schooling, and Tagalog Slang.” What frustrated American officials was the persistence of vernacular languages, such as Tagalog, in the school setting and how it inflected the ways in which English was deployed by the colonial subject. What was seen as a “foreign language handicap,” an inability to suppress the mother tongue and fully adopt English, Rafael claims, was actually a subversion of linguistic colonization and evidence of the resilience of the vernacular: Filipinos selectively integrated English into their vocabulary rather than allow their language to be totally subsumed by it.

I wanted to gesture to this history of disobedience as a form of subversive resilience by transforming a poem apotheotic of imperial ideology into one that becomes foreign to its intended white audience. Translating “The White Man’s Burden” into Tagalog allows for a Filipino persona to emerge: This is how I found myself in the poem and what expanded the translation into a personal exploration of my relationship to language and identity. Simultaneously inhabiting and interrogating this persona, I asked, “Who am I to take translation on?”

While a conventional literary translation attempts to faithfully transmit the host text’s form and content, the irreverent translation forwards the subjectivity of the translator. It translates its process as much as it translates its host text. In my irreverent translation of “The White Man’s Burden,” for example, I offer metacommentary about my struggle to accurately translate the line “‘Why brought ye us from bondage?’” Here, Kipling offers an imagined question from a colonized subject, disparaging them as an ignorant savage who prefers the “bondage” of their native culture to the so-called freedom of Western rule:

“Bakit dinukot niyo kami sa kadena?”

The syntax isn’t right. I’m repeating myself again. What is the value of tautology?

“Bakit niyo dinukot kami sa kadena”
“Wag niyong dukutin kami sa kadena”
“Sa kadenang niyong dinukot”

I would rather go to tested systems.

“Bakit niyo kami dinukot sa kadena”

Return to the original: “Why brought ye us from bondage?”

Why did you snatch us from our chains?”

Not only do I reveal my process in these lines, but I grapple with the brokenness of my Tagalog and my desire to trouble my relationship with English. In DMZ Colony (Wave Books, 2020), poet Don Mee Choi writes, “I returned to South Korea. I returned in the guise of a translator, which is to say, I returned as a foreigner.” Translating Kipling into Tagalog meant confronting both English and Tagalog as a foreigner. English is my primary language, the language I think in, speak in, and write in—not only because I lived in California until the age of five, but because English was the language mainly spoken in the social and familial contexts I belonged to. Even when I lived in the Philippines, Tagalog was a peripheral language to me. To estrange myself from English meant retroactively remembering moments in which its naturalization was consolidated into me and by me. This estrangement was most palpable in the moments I would translate Tagalog into English, as I did in the section on Kipling’s phrase “Cold-edged with dear bought wisdom:”

Matalim pero matamis na karangunan
Literally translates
to “Penetrating yet sweet that is call,” in other words
“Penetrating yet sweet call,” in other words
“Matulis ngunit tamis na tawag,” in other words
“Sharp but sweet calls” from

After offering a Tagalog version of Kipling’s phrase, I gave a literal but crude translation of it back into English: The result is the syntactically awkward and grammatically incorrect “Penetrating yet sweet that is call.” Penetrating wasn’t right. I found myself looking for a better word in English, moving through a chain of signifiers until I arrived at one. A sense of pleasure accompanied the discomfort of searching for a word in English to translate the Tagalog, only to come up with the same word Kipling had used in the first place. It felt like I was learning English rather writing in my primary language. I settled on words I wouldn’t have employed otherwise and allowed myself to play with syntax.

I also experienced discomfort when writing in Tagalog or translating English into Tagalog, a feeling that was more familiar to me. Throughout my childhood, I was criticized and ridiculed by family, teachers, and peers for not being able to master the language. Whenever I spoke Tagalog, I felt shame for not being able to speak the language I was expected to call my own. Because of my lack of fluency in Tagalog, along with my fear of misrepresenting it, I tried to follow the syntactical and grammatical rules I had learned during Tagalog classes in my primary education in the Philippines. Part of my process of irreverent translation was translating my discomfort and making it central to the formation of Mistaken for an Empire.

This is how my translation of “The White Man’s Burden” goes beyond an uncritical transmission of vocabulary and grammar: by allowing moments of linguistic uncertainty to appear on the page, exploring the English and Tagalog words within the context of my own Filipino-American subjectivity, and bringing personal and public history, memory, and cultural symbols into conversation with Kipling’s lines. This rhizomatic process of allowing the translation to branch out beyond the confines of making one language correspond with another was an act of irreverence, allowing the parasite to overcome the host.


Christine Imperial is a PhD student in cultural studies at the University of California in Davis, where she was awarded the Dean’s Distinguished Graduate Fellowship. Her first book, Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues, won the 2021 Gournay Prize from Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press, where it was published in April. Her work has appeared in American Book Review, Inverted Syntax, Poetry, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts.

Art: Jovis Aloor