Emerald O. Flaviano
For the first few minutes into Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation (2017), a young girl moves through a still house, alone. A string of actions, each strange in itself, constitutes a ritual: at the door, the girl wipes the bottoms of her shoes with a box of tissues; the girl does a Mad Minute of rapid-fire multiplication problems; the girl catches the crackle of static left over the screen of a switched off CRT TV. The climax of this after-school ritual however, centers on the innocuous radio cassette recorder (“component”) stationed at the living room. This device concretizes Yael’s—the young girl—attempts to understand the world around her.
Nervous Translation positions itself in Yael’s perspective, in an original attempt to account for the quiet destruction the unwilling but necessary absence of a family member leaves behind. Yael lives with her mother Val, while her father Dodong works in Riyadh to support the family. She spends her afternoons alone, watching cartoons on TV, doing homework, cooking tiny meals with her toy kitchen. But Yael, a smart and peculiarly perceptive child, is drawn to the component and the tapes her father sends her mother. She’s not supposed to listen to them, but the tapes provide access to a father she has no memory of and to an emotionally distant mother. One day, Tito Ton, Yael’s father’s identical twin, comes to visit and disturbs the relative calm of the household. Troubled but unable to understand why, Yael pins her hopes on the magical Ningen Pen, but a flood brought on by Typhoon Unsang postpones her plan to obtain the costly Pen.
Nervous Translation is not quite a children’s film—shot from the perspective of a child, its preoccupation with revealing a difficult home situation is transparent enough. Yael navigates a world that is mostly populated by adults—Wappy, a classmate, is only as material as a voice heard over the phone, while her unfamiliar cousins hardly talk to her. She picks up things not necessarily because she understands the significance of each word, each act, each look exchanged. Instead, Yael seems to do it on instinct, attuned as she is to subtle shifts of feeling, as one who has had to deal with a mother such as she has.
Yael listens to her father addressing her mother. (Screengrab from Nervous Translation’s screener)
The unhappy Val is a looming figure in Yael’s life, the adult Yael has always immediately looked to. Yael’s impulsive dependence on writing (to fill the still and empty house, to try to give form to as yet inchoate emotions), for instance, is later revealed to be Val’s as well. It’s unclear whether any other family member has helped her, but we are made to understand that Val has been raising her daughter alone. This has been very difficult, not only because Val works while taking care of Yael on her own, but also because she struggles with the physical separation from Dodong. She has a curious relationship with Yael, one that is conspicuously mediated. The tapes provide a map of Val—the 30-minute no-contact rule between Yael and her was suggested by Dodong via one of his tapes. Yael also knows that the tape that has always been in the component—“Val Kong Mahal”—is key to understanding the shape of her mother’s unspoken longing, itself a presence in the house. Yael and Val religiously watch together a soap opera, a family drama that resembles their own. Yael’s attempt to make sense of—to translate—Val takes on new urgency when Yael catches her mother recording her own alien response to her father’s strange reference to Val’s “luto ng Diyos” and when Tito Ton and his family visit.
A soap opera Yael and Val watches together every night. (Screengrab from Nervous Translation’s screener)
Measured and unhurried, shots of mundane background details of a typical—albeit worn—middle-class home lulls us into the still, dozy afternoons only a child’s activity can animate, highlighting Yael’s atypical solitude. A waterlogged ceiling and an ancient air conditioning unit belie the financial challenges the family is facing, supported later by Val’s quiet retort to her rather overbearing sister-in-law Bette: “Marami kasing nahihirapang maghanap ng trabaho dito.” From references on TV news, yellowing newspapers, and peeling campaign posters, Nervous Translation temporalizes the narrative in the immediate post-Marcos transition, implicating the dictatorship in the process. An indictment is clearly there. We see in micro a country reeling from the long-term economic impacts of the large-scale and systematic misuse and thievery of public funds of the Marcos government—what had originally been a stopgap measure (labor exportation) eventually became, by necessity, institutionalized as the inevitable crutch to hold up an economy that has been in perpetual failure.
In the face of this bleak reality, Nervous Translation circles back, dreamlike. A bizarre advertisement for the Ningen Pen (literally “human pen”) triggers a sequence of surreal scenes that reference earlier “real” ones: a man in Ningen Pen costume apologizes repeatedly to his employers, in a performance of Val’s pen scratching sorry’s on a blue notebook over and over again; Val is thrown into the Marikina River by Yael to emerge by the riverbank as the soap opera heroine. A jaunty tune that brings to mind sci-fi kids’ shows increasingly asserts itself, interrupting radio and TV sounds—a weird mix of news of celebrating people in the streets and in Malacañang Palace, heavy rain in Batanes, and White Lady sightings—and the soft aural rhythms of the house.
An autobiographical motive can easily be read behind Nervous Translation—how else can one know with such intimacy the workings of a lonely child’s mind? Who else can insist on the urgency of these attempts at comprehension other than one who understands how moments, barely grasped, endure as jagged memories, to gather significance in the end? Yael and Val and Dodong’s story could have been written otherwise, as countless other OFW families’ are, on TV dramas that promise fidelity to “the true story”. It is all the better that Seno does not, and instead offers a fresh eye—a child’s—to look at a family made dysfunctional by the absent OFW father, skillfully rendering this perspective with earnest originality.
 In a rare instance of engagement (but not quite), one cousin, with the brutal frankness characteristic of a child, points out “She looks like a mummy!” The cousin is, of course, referring to the inexplicable bandages Yael sports on both arms.