September 6, 2012

Translation and plagiarism

Vicente Sotto III, a former comedian and now senator from the Philippines, once again denied accusations of plagiarism when he delivered a speech--a speech countering the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill--whose passages were clearly lifted, albeit translated in Tagalog language, from the speech of US Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He made no attribution from where these passages came from. Mr. Sotto was previously criticized for an earlier speech which plagiarized passages from several blogs. (The novelist Miguel Syjuco had a summary of this fiasco in the New York Times and Rappler.) He brushed off this earlier accusation of plagiarism, citing that these passages were just taken from a mere blogger. He did not issue an apology to the bloggers.

Here are his recent statements from The Manila Bulletin Newspaper Online (my translation in brackets).

"Marunong pala managalog si Kennedy ah, [So Kennedy knew how to speak in Tagalog]" said Sotto with a chortle as seen in a report aired on "Unang Hirit" [a television program] Thursday.

"Nakakatawa na sila, [They make themselves laughable]" he added, referring to his critics. "Sila ang komiko, hindi ako. [They are the comedians, not me]"

"Madaming nagbibigay sa akin ng materials gaya ng sinasabi ko, marami ang nag-bibigay ng text, hindi mo lang alam kung kanino galing ang text o kanino galing 'yung ideas, [A lot of people gave me the materials like what I said, a lot were giving me the text (or giving them to me through texting), you just don't know where the texts or ideas came from]" he said.

After the recent brouhaha involving the blogger, Sotto thought it "safe" to tinker with materials, thus: "Tinagalog ko." [I translated them into Tagalog.]

"Sino ngayon ang kinopya ko? May Tagalog? May alam ba sila pinangalingan nito na Tagalog?" [Now whom did I plagiarize? In Tagalog? Did they know a source of this in Tagalog?] he asked.

(See also the report from ABS-CBN News.)

Was Sotto right in claiming that his translation of a speech, without attribution as to the original source, did not constitute plagiarism?

Hell no!

We know that a translation, a "faithful" or a competent one, has essentially the same substance and spirit as the original. Here's a relevant idea from Jorge Luis Borges in one of his lectures in This Craft of Verse:

The difference between a translation and the original is not a difference in the texts themselves. I suppose if we did not know whether one was original and the other translation, we could judge them fairly. But, unhappily, we cannot do this. And so the translator's work is always supposed to be inferior - or, what is worse, is felt to be inferior - even though, verbally, the rendering may be as good as the text.

Borges's argument was about the supposed inferiority--clearly not the case for him--of translations. The relevant point is about his belief that the translation and the original (and their merits) are comparable.

Mr. Sotto's justification for translation without attribution is unacceptable. As with his earlier plagiarism, he did not, will not admit to his latest fault. He even berated as "laughable" his critics who were right to condemn his kind.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself", reads one of the passages from Senator Kennedy's speech, which Mr. Sotto translated into Tagalog. I hope that the likes of Mr. Sotto--in this case those who have the arrogance to bend things in a perverted sense--are few. Unethical and inept, his kind is a travesty to Philippine legislation.


  1. I laughed nonetheless at Mr. Sotto's cleverness - and stupidity. That's a great Borges point about the "supposed" inferiority of translations. I've probably employed this perhaps apocryphal anecdote elsewhere, but I often think of classical guitarist Andres Segovia, who was approached after a concert and questioned about his having made, in his performance, a few changes to the composer's original. He allegedly shrugged it off, saying something along the lines of, "Composers never know how to play their own music."

  2. Yeah, he's a good entertainer, I totally give him that. The anecdote made a good case for non-literal translation. :p

  3. The main issue is about the rh bill not plagiarism of sotto,let him defend his self regarding that he is a plagiarist and we should more focus on Rh bill,that is a better time consuming.

  4. Of course the RH bill is an important issue and we should be concerned about it. I myself have strong opinions on the subject but there are other venues for discussing it. This is a book blog that focuses on reviews and translation, not reproductive health. This post wants to raise the issue of plagiarism which is also important.

  5. This issue is hiding the real one. let`s say no to RH bill.

  6. Yung blogger na amerikana na inaakusahan si Sotto na nangopya sa kanya ay mukang binayaran lang para lalong madiin si Senator Sotto.

  7. No, it's not hiding the issue. The plagiarism rather put it in the limelight. But anyway, The debates are over, as this post said.

  8. @ Mona: How do you know? Anyway, that's immaterial to the issue. Sotto plagiarized, period.