Lost in translation | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

In the ’60s, Procter and Gamble, USA, regularly assigned young marketing managers to work as BPMs (brand promotions managers) in the Philippine offices. They became our immediate clients, and at the ad agency I worked for, we called them “hotshots.” They acted with appropriate swagger as coach, mentor and quality control bosses for lower-ranked Filipino brand men.


Brand managers are like generals in the fierce war for market shares. P&G, Unilever and Colgate waged a memorable and colorful war in advertising and promotions for market leadership. All brand men, Americans or Filipinos, presumed that they were hotshots, too, and would someday become the CEO of their company.


Presenting radio advertising scripts to Americans written in the dialect posed problems. When we read our Tagalog scripts, followed by literal English translations, it sounded like carabao English. The idioms didn’t match, to the chagrin of the Americans.


For example, we had a detergent commercial that started with, “Misis, sayang na sayang ang oras na ginugugol mo sa paglalaba!” “Whaddaya mean  ‘seyeng ne seyeng?’” the gringo asked. “None, sir,” the wag in my group said.  “There’s no literal translation. You have to speak our language for you to get the subtleties of our idioms.” Deadly silence. Embarrassed smiles.


There were zany moments, too. When we presented to another BPM, I think his name was Spence, photographs of female models for a beauty soap, the blue-eyed heartthrob-type, with curly hair to boot, scrutinized all the photographs, then he gave instructions. “Weeell, okay, fellas! Just double-check these ladies. Make sure they’re not the puto from Culi-Culi.”


One wag corrected him sheepishly, “Spence, it’s spelled with an ‘a.’ Puto is rice cake. ”


“Oh, well then, make sure they’re not pato from Culi-Culi. ”


“That’s a duck, Spence.”


Blue-eyed, auburn-haired


At Ace Compton ad agency (now Saatchi) where I worked, my encounter with an American happened in 1963, when a tall, gorgeous, blue-eyed, auburn-haired gal, a Meryl Streep type, arrived from New York to work in our creative department. She was Denise McNamara, and her appointment as creative director was part of the technology transfer between Compton New York and Ace Advertising in Makati, where I handled P&G brands.


Denise was a sight to behold in the eyes of a native like me. She walked the office corridors with that sure, hurried, New York gait, looking very cosmopolitan. It was her blue eyes that captivated.


My client, named Jimmy, kidded me often, “Ligawan mo siya, Minyong! Blue seal!’ Denise lived in a classy flat on Roxas Boulevard, together with a lady American consul named Anne. Denise was provided with a new car.


I was secretly smitten, but I was not confident about the “Ligawan mo siya! Blue seal!’ thing. Her salary was 10 times bigger than mine and she drove a new car, while I took the jam-packed JD buses from Project 8 to Ayala Avenue everyday.


One weekend, I took Denise and her friend Anne to the Dalitiwan River gorges, hidden in the jungles of Majayjay, Laguna. They loved the cascading waters gushing and gurgling between big boulders. But a spoilsport critter, a big bayawak, jumped into the lagoon where Denise was swimming and the poor girl panicked, shrieking as she jumped out of the water. Trying to calm her down, I said, “Denise, the thing is harmless, he doesn’t bite. In fact, we trap them and cook them as pulutan. ”


“Oh, yeah?” she answered with a wry smile.


On the way back, we took a scenic barrio road in Anne’s 1961 rare Nash black convertible that raised thick dust behind us. When Anne saw a carabao being roped by a farmer, she stopped the car and finagled a ride on the animal, to the delight of the old farmer. Anne did a quick bronco mounting and nearly fell when the black beast did a sudden high kick. Anne enjoyed the whole bumpy ride. She rode the animal, her legs spread very wide like a circus aerialist (bukakang-bukaka). Denise laughed, and I was shocked at the rough side of a lady consul of the US Embassy.


‘I’ve got it, Meanyoung!’


At Ace Compton, one of Denise’s assignments was to come up with a new campaign for Dari Creme margarine. I was the account manager for the brand, and was curious whether Denise would come up with a brilliant campaign we desperately needed.


One bright morning, Denise called me on the intercom, and when I came up to her office, her mood was even brighter than the morning.


“I’ve got it, Meanyoung!” She was very excited about her new campaign. “My big idea was whipped butter! Dari Creme is creamy, smooth and fresh because it’s whipped!” I reacted with ominous silence. Denise stopped smiling. “Don’t you like it?” she asked in a challenging tone.


“I have a problem with the word ‘whipped,’” I answered coldly.


“What’s wrong?”


“Whipped does not translate well in Tagalog. And we’re using radio, right?”


“Why? What does it mean, Meanyoung? ”


“In Tagalog, it’s bati!”


“What does ‘bahtey’ mean?”


“Masturbate,” I answered sheepishly.


I looked Denise’s straight in the eyes and I felt the roof of the Rufino Building fall. Denise burst into tears, and she covered her face, sobbing. Mercifully, I pulled out wads of Kleenex on her desk and gave them to her to wipe her tears. I could not stand the sight of a girl crying. I quietly left the room without looking back. I felt rotten.


Two months later, Denise flew back to New York for good. My client, Jimmy, stopped his “Ligawan mo siya! Blue seal!” gimmick. I guess I lost that chance, too, in the translation.


E-mail the author hgordonez@gmail.com.




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