False Cognates

An original work by Pauline Lacanilao

A friend wrote a poem about living in a Hispanic neighborhood with his ciocia, which means aunt in Polish, but cunt in Spanish. There is comedy in understanding a misunderstanding. On a romantic getaway, a man laughs at the Coca-Cola ad that says break muna. Muna in Filipino means before anything else, but in Finnish means dick. It can also mean egg. Egg in Filipino is itlog, which is another way of saying testicles. A friend who likes to make love to strangers tells me everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power. Comedy is a kind of power. My brother’s Singaporean wife likes to joke: in Malay, sayang is what you call your beloved, but in Filipino it means what a waste. The Finnish man slides his hands around my naked torso and says what a waist. There’s power in understanding things two ways. When power and understanding make love, some holy translation happens. In Jeddah, I prayed to the wrong god and was told I’d go to hell. Rouhi is the Arabic way of referring to the soul. The internet tells me that when transliterated into Finnish, it means to roughly chop. Is translation about sex? Is the need for god? The Finnish man shakes his head and says it should be rouhia, and it’s more of a brutal grinding. I picture the strangers I found on his computer. I picture my soul. His translation makes sense. I transpose my body onto those scenes. I pinch the skin on my belly. His power makes sense. Maybe this is hell. I ask him if he wants pancakes or french toast. Tanan in Filipino means living together before marriage. In Finnish, it means today. He tells me to be quiet so I chew my tongue. Some understanding has no comedy. Some comedy has no understanding. Today in Filipino is ngayon, the same word for right this very second. In Finnish, that word is nyt. Which kind of sounds like not, if spoken dripping with contempt. There are some things so foreign they fit right into the prosaic discomfort of routine: me catatonic at the cold stove, thinking about a room the Finnish call aamupalaverihuone. It can be read as aamu-palaveri, which means morning meeting. Or aamupala-veri, which means breakfast blood.

Pauline Lacanilao is a Filipino writer who speaks Tagalog, English, Spanish, and is learning French. She is an Assistant Professor of writing and literature at the University of the Philippines.

Translator’s Note:
Does this work ‘count’ as a translation? As a lifelong member of the Philippine diaspora, I find everything I write is in translation, even when I’m at home and using my mother tongue.