On (Not) Losing Kapwa in Translation

Part of 5 of in
By BJ Gonzalvo
Apr 19, 2022 | 6 min read
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My Lola (grandmother) was the guardian of the faith. 

As the oldest male among her grandchildren, I was often designated to be her “guardian” or “bodyguard” who walked with her to the market, to see her friends, and to church for her daily prayers. It was a call of duty that I accepted begrudgingly, but it’s a childhood memory that I relish. I got to spend many days of my summer vacations with her in a small chapel as she prayed for hours. She didn’t teach me about church history, doctrine, or theology, at least not verbally, but what I know about the depths and the beauty of the faith, I learned from simply being around her. By quietly watching her pray the rosary for hours at a time, I learned how to pray genuinely, intently, and tirelessly. Her prayer-filled faith, along with the orderliness, the simplicity, the joy, and the tranquility that came with it, led me to finding my inner sanctuary. The richness of the faith was to become my inheritance. 

• • •

As a bi/multilingual person, I’ve learned firsthand that there are many words that just don’t translate perfectly into English. I find myself struggling to translate the word for what is considered to be my Filipino culture’s foundational core value: “kapwa”. It can be loosely translated and casually explained, but doing so too often misses its true meaning and inherent value. Kapwa is a word that begs for something more than just a literal Tagalog-to-English translation. Just how does one unravel a word that deeply undergirds the Filipino cultural psyche, a core value that is inextricably woven into the fabric of our Filipino identity? How does one express a word that is so central to a relationship-oriented culture, a culture that has long valued interdependence and shared identity, to a Western culture that has long embraced individualistic core values? One of the first things I observed as an immigrant and as a student of psychology in the West is the heightened emphasis on the self. I have spent years trying to reconcile that with my Christian and cultural foundation of viewing the self in the other. 

A black and white image of a woman praying while holding a rosary.

According to Virgilio Enriquez, founder of Filipino psychology, kapwa is the core concept in Filipino psychology, integrative of the self and the other. Filipino scholars have translated or described it as shared inner self, shared identity, or the self in the other. 

Let’s break down further the word “kapwa” and its root words to help us better understand the complexities of its original meaning and usage. It contains two root words: “ka” and “puang”.

Ka is one of the most commonly used prefixes in the Tagalog language. When used as a prefix with a noun, ka denotes a relationship or interconnectedness such as kaibigan (friend), kapatid (brother or sister), and even kalaban (enemy). It is also used as a colloquial term often added to the beginning of someone’s name, particularly an elder, to denote companionship or alliance (“Ka-Berto”, “Ka-Isko”). Interestingly, it is also used in combination with the word loob which means interior. The resulting combination, kaloob-looban, is a word most commonly used to describe the very depths of the inner self.

The second half of the word kapwa is “pwa” or “puang” which means space. In essence, kapwa describes our relationship with others who share the same space with us. The space we share is a small world after all, one that extends way beyond the four walls of our home, or our village, or even our nation. Astronauts who have had the opportunity to view the earth from space often report of the cognitive shift in awareness called the “overview effect.” To be able to zoom out, pan out, and see the earth, so tiny, so fragile, so blue, and so beautiful offers new clarity to the notion of “common ground.” The planet earth is our puang, the sanctuary we share.

Many indigenous Tagalog words, especially those that have lasted through colonial and post-colonial times, are simply untranslatable. “Kapwa” is one of those important indigenous words. It may have evolved in meaning over time, but it is a word that calls for a closer look and a deeper understanding because not only is it core to the Filipino identity, to my Filipino-ness, but it is what I think one of the Filipino culture’s profound offerings to humanity. Kapwa, our core value of shared humanity, is a treasure deeply entrenched in our culture, history, and psyche, commendable of sharing with the rest of the world. To see a shared self and shared space in the other is a vision that had been clouded by divisions and the divisiveness. Revisiting our indigenous values gives us the opportunity to clear our lens, reframe, and restore that vision.

• • •

Our challenges today bring with them the opportunity for us to reflect, revisit, recover, and rediscover our time-tested indigenous values that have sustained us and enriched our lives with meaning and purpose for generations. Our obsessions with living future-focused, fast-paced lives can render us forgetful and oblivious to ancient culture’s potential and capacity for keeping our relationships sacred — relationships with one another, the natural world, and our Creator. From my perspective as a Filipino in the diaspora, Kapwa is our inheritance, a gift to the Filipino people, and in turn, a gift that the Filipinos share with the world and with all of humanity, our kapwa tao. It is a gift that keeps on giving for kapwa is our lens through which we are able to glimpse the infinite beauty of the Divine image, the image of Christ in the other.

The faith that came to the Philippine Islands 500 years ago and the core value of kapwa are two forms of inheritance that we’ve long held deeply and dearly in our hearts as a people. They are two complementary gifts that intertwined and were cultivated by our ancestors hand in hand over time. Now, in this age of globalization, we get a chance to offer it as a gift to the world. It is through our encounter with kapwa in both the homeland and abroad that we are presented the opportunity to demonstrate our faith and our shared humanity. As our faith guides us through life to find our own inner sanctuaries, kapwa is our guide in discovering inner sanctuaries in others. 

The core value of kapwa, our shared humanity, is a cultural treasure that Filipinos willingly share, and must share, with all of humanity. No matter how loud and more pronounced the messages of individualism and self-ism get today, our need to recognize our interconnectedness, interdependence, and belonging runs deep in our human DNA. At its very core, kapwa is not just a cultural value nor just a Christian value, but a universal and natural human value. We don’t all have to be astronauts to have the privilege of viewing the peacefulness of our shared common ground. 

In many different cultures around the world, there are indigenous words and deeply ingrained practices that place a strong emphasis on the importance of togetherness and relationships. In Africa, there is the word ubuntu, which in essence means “a person is a person through other persons”. In India, there is the greeting of namaste which means “the god in me greets the god in you”. In Japan, there is the cultural concept of wa, which translated means “harmony”. as in harmony in our relationships and in our communities. In aboriginal societies of Australia, in which there is a strong emphasis on kinship and relationships, a person is often referred to as an extended member of the family. Similar to Filipino culture, they use terms such as father, mother, uncle, auntie, brother, or sister to refer to others in their kinship, biological or not. In other old and indigenous cultures, words for the concept of shared togetherness don’t necessarily exist, for they are simply part of everyday nonverbal communication, embedded in traditions and practices.

Upon his conversion and rediscovery of the faith, Saint Augustine exclaimed “Oh beauty, so ancient, and yet so new.” Rediscovering our old indigenous values especially in this day and age brings me to a comparable level of delight. Many of our forgotten indigenous values hold the potential for giving us “an ancient and yet so new” framework for how we ought to view our relationships today. As we fast forward into modernity and into the future, let us not lose kapwa, our shared humanity, in translation. Religion, these days, has often been reduced to mere sets of disingenuous doctrines and mundane traditions. Revisiting and recovering humanity’s indigenous values can help remind us of our spiritual rootedness to the land, to one another, and to the Sacred. 

My Lola has been gone for many years now, but perhaps just like the seeds of faith, it takes time for the wisdom that she imparted on us to grow, unfold, and mature. I might not have realized this at the time, but in those summer vacation days that I got to spend with her, I was witnessing her live out the message of the Gospel and the richness of the Filipino tradition. The tradition of meditating on the mysteries of the rosary is a cherished family treasure inherited from my Lola, passed down to my mother and her siblings, and down to my generation and hopefully beyond. 

Lola’s daily life was a silent and simple reflection of the mysteries of the rosary that she, herself, prayed daily. Lola’s witness to the Christian life reminds me of two things: the cross and the first two mysteries of the rosary, the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) and the Visitation (Luke 1:39-56). Like the shape of the cross, her life story illustrated to me God’s vertical entry into her life through, first, her one-on-one conversations with God and second, the horizontal manifestation of the joy through her visits with her friends and her kapwa. Today, as I meditate on the mysteries of the rosary and on the culture and the faith I inherited from my Lola, I am reminded of the true essence of kapwa — the self in relationship to God and to others. 

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BJ Gonzalvo

BJ Gonzalvo is a psychologist, a military veteran, and an immigrant from the Philippines. His writing, where he often integrates culture, psychology, and spirituality, has appeared in Northwest Catholic, Busted Halo, FilCatholic, and Mind & Spirit. He is the author of "Lead Like the Saints" and "Gift of Kapwa". He lives in the Pacific Northwest where he gets to write with the soothing sound of rain and the smell of hot coffee in the background.

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