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Updated: Sep 18, 2020

On the Vernacular and the Virus

I am an English teacher in a public school in Northern Samar, one of the poorest provinces in the country. When I went to college, teaching English was not really what I envision myself to be doing for the rest of my life. Perhaps, it’s because I am an introvert. I fondly dreamt to be an engineer or a nerdy Math teacher instead. But as luck would have it, since I was a late enrollee in the university, I almost ran out of courses to choose from and so, I decided to just pick any college degree available. I chose AB Literature and Language Teaching, and I thought I would just shift to another course in the succeeding semester. But one semester went on after another and that thought of shifting to another program was unwittingly brushed off. I found myself in love with words, with Chomsky and Chaucer, and I graduated with flying colors.

‘NEW NORMAL’ SCHOOL TEACHERS. After the tiring yet fulfilling weeklong parents’ orientation on the distance learning modality in preparation for the opening of classes, we still managed to have our group photo taken in the new normal fashion – with physical distancing, and facemasks on. Photo Courtesy: BIRI NHS—SHS Department FB Page

After college, I went on straight to teaching English in a private school in the province, always carrying that pride that I am an English major. I would attempt to speak straight English in class and my students would just gape in awe. I don’t know but the high regard my students and my colleagues lavished upon me for being an English major made me subconsciously look at English as a superior and privilege language, and Ninorte Samarnon, my vernacular as inferior as its etymology, “home-born slave” suggests. So, when I was invited as a graduation rites guest speaker in my hometown, I delivered a speech in English, and not just simple English, but I have inserted hifalutin words here and there with the primary purpose of impressing the audience, with the selfish desire of earning again that validation that I am an English major. Perhaps the graduates and my former teachers were impressed but I just don’t know with the parents, with the ordinary folk. And suddenly, I felt guilty for being vain, self-absorbed Anglophile, the epitome of ‘colonnial’ (colonial + millennial) mentality.

That twinge of guilt had stayed deep within me until I discovered the beauty of my mother tongue. I don’t know when it exactly started. What I could only remember is that I started posting snippets of poetry in Waray on Facebook, and my virtual friends would generously hit the ‘like’ button (since there were still no ‘love’ or ‘wow’ buttons then). Perhaps, that feeling of validation worked in there, again. But at that time what I wanted to be validated is my onset to becoming a good writer, and what was more thrilling and challenging about it was that I am an English major but I write siday, the poetry in the mother tongue.

My journey to becoming a siday writer took off from there. When I learned that there are writing fellowships sponsored by the NCCA every year, I immediately applied and got in. First was the Lamiraw, a creative writing workshop whose most fellows hail from Eastern Visayas. It was my baptism of fire, the coming-of-age of a writer. In the following year, I was admitted to the Iligan National Writers Workshop. The workshops enabled me to rub elbows with literary luminaries, helped me improve my craft in creative writing, and made me realize the importance of the mother tongue in enriching both the national language and literature. Since then, I have become an advocate of mother tongues, of my own mother tongue—the Waray language, which is also called Binisaya.

25th ILIGAN NATIONAL WRITERS WORKSHOP. This annual writerly event happened on May 28-June 2, 2018 at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology, Iligan City. I am sitting Indian style (fifth from the left) with my co-fellows. Behind us are the workshop panelists and organizers. Photo Courtesy: Mubarak Maliga Tahir’s Facebook
KALIDING HAN SIDAY. Could be literally translated as “poem’s wheel,” this National Arts Month event sponsored by the NCCA happened on February 24, 2018 at the University of Eastern Philippines, Catarman, Northern Samar. I stand at the center, and with me are my fellow cultural workers, Mark Anthony Simbajon and Professsor Emeritus Lydia P. E. de la Rosa. Photo Courtesy: Reynel M. Ignacio’s Facebook

I never relegated my being an English major, though. I continue to write in English but I make sure that I do not neglect reading and writing in Filipino and my mother tongue. That multilingual leaning gradually ushered me to translation. It all began on my way home from Iligan after attending the workshop. A writer-friend persuaded me to translate Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Then and there while aboard the ship bound for Cebu, I started translating the first chapter of the prose poetry classic. That was also timely because I was thinking of a good thesis for my master’s. It dawned on me that I could venture into translation. It’s like shooting two birds with one stone. Juggling between teaching and translating, I finished the first draft on a staggered basis after more than a year, and until now, the final revisions are still underway.

I’ve been enjoying translation even now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic scare. I realized that translation could play a pivotal role in educating the anxious people. “Whenever we’re afraid, it’s because we don’t know enough,” says the American writer Earl Nightingale. The ordinary folk should not be comforted with relief goods, but with relieving words immediately digestible to them, information written in their mother tongue. After reading an FB post from a writer-friend encouraging writers to translate COVID-19 materials in the mother tongues, I immediately acted. I downloaded the attached brochure, went on with the Ninorte Samarnon translation and posted it on my Facebook wall. Expectedly, it earned many shares. Also, I learned that Bikol writers are in a frenzy translating the same materials and these are already disseminated over the cyberspace. Hence, when I learned that our barangay youth council were visiting households to give away sanitizers and soaps, I made up my mind to print hardcopies of the brochure to reach out to those who have no social media accounts or even televisions. I messaged these volunteers, persuading them to help me distribute copies of the brochure, and they gladly acquiesced. Coincidentally, the Katig Writers Network, an NGO of Eastern Visayan writers created a group chat enjoining me to translate more COVID-19 materials into the mother tongue.

MGA HINUBAD. On the left is the front cover of the pamphlet about COVID-19 which I translated into Ninorte Samarnon; while, the photo on the right is the video title cover of a children’s story on COVID-19 which I also translated into my mother tongue. These materials could be found on my Facebook account.

I know very well that the contribution of translators like me at a time like this is just a modicum compared with the prodigious efforts of the health workers and uniformed personnel who are the frontliners in this time of crisis. But that’s what we are good at, and that’s our simple way of helping this ailing world to heal. I learned that a fellow teacher together with his friends are making DIY face masks and cooking snacks to be handed out to the frontliners who are the most susceptible to being infected because of the nature of their work. Also, some beneficent, well-off natives of my town donate money for relief goods to be distributed to the households who could hardly eke out a living.

And here I am now, sitting cozily on a monobloc chair gazing blankly at my laptop screen, with a bright light bulb overhead, and a whirring fan behind me. And I think of my students who are supposed to be in school today, if it were not for the pandemic. They could have been already in the hustle-bustle of finishing their school projects and first-quarter exams, and looking forward to the beginning of another academic quarter, excited and worry-free. And I could not help but weep inside, but every time afterwards, I always manage to put on a wry smile and tell myself in the mother tongue: Padayon la. This shall come to pass. This shall come to pass.


Mark Bonabon is a senior high teacher from Biri, Northern Samar who struggles yet still perseveres to write amidst the pandemic. He believes that only by reading and writing in these trying times he could keep his sanity intact.


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Stories and images in the time of COVID-19

An anthology of the struggles and hopes of Filipinos during the global health crisis of our time.

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