TRANSLATING DIGONG: Translating Digong: Take Two

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[The UP Mindanao College of Humanities and Social Sciences (in Davao City) organized an event last September 19 themed “Translating Digong: A Forum on the Public Persona of President Rodrigo R. Duterte”. The members of the panel were respected members of the academe—Professors Karl Gaspar, Vicente Rafael, Nelfa Glova and Aya Ragragio on behalf of Myfel Paluga—and non-academic me. The format moderated by Professor John Bengan had us responding to questions instead of delivering prepared material. I mentally kicked myself afterwards for what I thought was poor delivery of the points I wanted to make. And because I believe in second chances, this is the version I would have wanted to deliver at that very engaging and enlightening discussion].  

I thought the phrase “What’s not to like?” would be a good handle to share my notes with respect to my assessment of Pres. Duterte’s manner of engaging the public and his effectiveness in getting messages across.

I mean, on the one hand, really what’s not to like about President Digong’s manner of engagement if by that we mean how he has a) addressed the concerns that have long been sources of people’s frustration and despair over the poor responses of the previous administrations; b) avoided elitism by continuing to be unorthodox and accessible in his ways.

So from the five-year impasse during the time of President Noynoy Aquino (actually 11 if we go all the way back to the time of Pres. Gloria Arroyo), pwede naman pala to seriously pursue the peace talks with the NDFP.

From being a compliant and polite neocolony, pwede naman pala to skip ineffectual talk, and explore new parameters such as historical injustice in charting a more independent foreign policy.

From having little progress on the release of four hostages kidnapped from Samal in September 2015, of which two had been beheaded, pwede naman pala that more effective measures could be taken to facilitate the release of the other two.

The President has gone around military camps and assured those recently mobilized to fight the Abu Sayyaf that improved medical equipment would be procured, and also ordered that the presidential plane be used as an air ambulance for the troops. Pwede naman pala, a marked difference from the previous leader who had been perceived to be slow to show empathy to the Special Action Force personnel who died in Mamasapano.

Imagine six more years of pwede naman pala. What’s not to like?

But I also mean what’s not to like in the ironic use of the phrase. Within the first 81 days of his watch 3,000 illegal drug users, pushers and other criminals have reportedly been killed. That’s nearly 91% of the 3,257 that were said to have been summarily executed during the time of Marcos, and Marcos was in power for 21 years.

His use of curse words such as putang ina and bayot in contexts that denigrate women and gays, and the sexually themed banter he uses when addressing members of the security sector reinforce the very sexism which advocates of women’s rights and gender equality had been battling. Filipinas may have access to services, and there may be laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, among others. But knowing that the words which the President uses to cut down others are the same words that could be used against your kind is damaging to one’s sense of wellbeing.

He has not taken steps to rein in people around him who have caused more confusion with their liberal interpretations of his pronouncements about Martial Law.   Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo claimed that the President had been planning to declare a state of emergency even before the September 2 Roxas bomb blast, which Spokesperson Ernesto Abella hurriedly denied.  Recently Panelo declared that he wanted to explore changing the Philippine Constitution to enable a constitutional dictatorship arguing that the President would not abuse it.

I have come to refer to them as haay issues, those concerns that have such deep implications on us, and which handling and messaging today make us angry, sad and anxious.

Imagine six more years of haay. What’s not to like?

Need to translate Digong  

I highlight EJKs, the sexist language, and the flirtation with Martial Law because they are also the subject matters that Filipinos and international observers struggle with for translation.  The situation has reached a point where many of us have had to translate President Digong for ourselves and others. This is a point to which I will later return.

I am not just referring to the efforts of media to translate putang ina in their reportage, causing the quip that maybe the Presidential Communications Office should issue a stylebook on the nuances between putang ina and putang ina mo.

That aside, the communications efforts have not shifted messaging from campaigning for support to Digong the candidate (and therefore making him more attractive than the others) to one of calling for unity with Digong the President for the governance of our country.

The President received 16 million votes, but it is still a plurality mandate equivalent to 39% of the 42 million who voted for the chief executive position.

President Digong would have been served better had his communications support attended to the messaging necessary to secure not just grudging acceptance but active support of the 61% of voters (or 26 million), and the rest that make up our 101 million total population.

Instead, on his first international trip they peddled the image of President Digong as a rock star. This may have resonated well for his supporters but did not necessarily convince those who continue to look for more substantive grounds on which to base their support.

The Internet, meaning-seeking and meaning-making

But how President Digong translates is not just because of his performance, or how his immediate circles interact with and project him. It is also because of how we receive and amplify him. In this undertaking social media sites have become fields of meaning-seeking and meaning-making, and many of us have become de facto engaged in translating President Digong.

Filipinos with access to the Internet now number at 44.5 million (, up from the 2014 estimate of 37 M (State of Broadband Report), and the 2010 figure of 23 M. The Internet has become an arena for election campaigns.

Despite the I am running-I am not running dance that Digong kept up until the last possible minute, it is said that as early as 2014 his camp had been setting up its social media campaign machinery. This was not a leader who was only responding to the desperate pleas of fellow Filipinos to run, he had been preparing and was by all indications ready.  A leader who had wielded power in his locality for nearly a quarter of a century, he knew the kinds of horizontal and vertical alliances, and the connections to the electorate that needed to be made.

There are many on social media who have made it their task to translate President Digong. A President who switches code in his speeches, liberally incorporating Cebuano and Filipino phrases in his delivery, does need translation.

But in many cases the translation has gone beyond providing counterpart phrases and meanings. A number of controversial statements such as the one involving Jacqueline Hamill, the Australian missionary who had been hostaged, raped and killed in 1989 had people scrambling for, and offering context and other references to figure out what he meant.


On social media the dominant mood of those who self-identify as Duterte supporters still seem to be campaigning. The continued adulation and the tendency to score points for the President could very well just be an indication of his high popularity. But the kneejerk reaction that takes every question about the administration as not only an attack against President Digong, but also an insidious attempt to bring back the yellows is bothersome. This behavior is also manifested by counterparts in the opposing bloc who seem bent on maliciously interpreting everything Duterte.

Those who provide troll-like products and services by spreading what have been referred to as DRUMS—disinformation, rumors, untruths, myths and smears—are the backbone of much of the distortion and hate-speech that occur on social media.

Products and services are what they are, referring to the production and dissemination of memes, the fabrication of stories, the creation and maintenance of websites, and the flaming of targets online. Unscrupulous parties have taken advantage through sites that are obviously clickbaits, offering titillating headlines to lure viewers to pages set up for ads. A few are suspected of exposing the gullible to malware.

What makes the situation truly deplorable is that it is no longer possible to distinguish whether troll products and services are provided professionally, meaning paid for, or voluntarily out of sheer inclination. Of the latter, it has been said that the internet and social media have not necessarily infected users with negative behaviors such as intolerance, bullying, and misogyny; but have only allowed the manifestation and amplification of tendencies that were already there in the first place.

Engaging the administration

There are Filipinos who earnestly want to engage this administration on specific points, beyond the question of how they voted last May 2016. Rather than the professional or volunteer trolls, it is this segment that could be more helpful in translating President Digong directly to the 26 M electorate, and the rest of Philippine society. They strive to remain open, critical, levelheaded and dialog-oriented. More than providing linguistic references that would make sense to a broader audience, this for-critical-engagement segment encourages dialog that is vital for the strengthening of citizenship skills among Filipinos. Unfortunately, the polarizing effects of online discourse make them the minority. And they too suffer from the effects of trying to understand, let alone translate, a leader who prevaricates.

Going back to the phrase “what’s not to like?”, its approving and sarcastic elements apply to the difficult situation in which we find ourselves: the haays could make the pwede naman palas peripheral; worse, the former could nullify or even reverse the latter.

Because President Duterte is a self-described socialist, and today is the 29th death anniversary of one of my personal heroes, Lean Alejandro, I will end with a line on what a socialist man is from a love letter he wrote to his wife Liddy Nacpil.  The letter begins with “the socialist man must know how to compute the distance of the stars… and goes on to say “he must know how to analyze difficult political situations, how to get out of one and how to convince others that they must do the same.”

We do not have to be socialists to recognize the wisdom of those words today.  We who have become willing or unwilling translators of President Rody Duterte must also know how to analyze difficult situations, get out of one, and convince others that they must do the same.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please e-mail feedback to

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