Duterte’s Incendiary Speech: Lost In Translation?

Last month, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte allegedly referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as putang ina mo, an expression in Tagalog that loosely translates into either “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore.” Various news media outlets jumped on the chance to cover the diplomatic faux-pas, and in response, Obama cancelled his official meeting with Duterte, referring to him as a “colorful character.”

This situation forced the rest of the world—those unfamiliar with the crude president—to wonder and ask: Who is Duterte? Who in their right mind would say such a thing to a world leader?

To understand and answer these questions, one must understand the context behind the words, the speaker, and the culture.


Use of profanity in political exchanges is not new. In 1965, former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson told Greek Ambassador Alexandros Matsas, “Fuck your parliament and your constitution” during a discussion concerning Cyprus. In 2004, then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to “go fuck” himself in response to the senator’s criticisms of Halliburton, a multibillion dollar oil corporation, and its dubious business contracts involving Iraq. Instances of political profanity by U.S. government officials go on for pages. To be sure, U.S. politicians are no strangers to cursing.

Profanity is also common in the international arena, but translation between languages—or rather, mistranslation—can make these exchanges sound more severe than they were intended. During the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was mistakenly interpreted as saying, “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors visiting Moscow. This didn’t help warm already tense relations between the West and the Soviets, as the mistranslation was published widely in Western newspapers. Khrushchev was actually referring to a passage in the Communist Manifesto, which reads, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in.” Context is key.

More recently, and attracting less attention, the former Norwegian Minister of Environmental Affairs Thorbjørn Berntsen referred to John Gummer, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, as a drittsekk, which loosely translates into “shitbag,” after a debacle over whaling laws. English readers were appalled at the language, but drittsekk, though vulgar in translation, is actually considered more of a mild insult by the general Norwegian population.

Now, returning to Duterte’s colorful statements toward Obama: the situation comprises elements from the examples above. Like other loose-lipped politicians such as Johnson and Cheney, Duterte is known for his public use of lively language. Like other non-English speaking politicians, his statements have been mistranslated and taken out of the context, resulting in an outcry by English speakers. What differentiates Duterte from the other examples is whether or not the ensuing judgments are warranted or accurate.


Putang ina mo directly translates into “whore mother.” Though the phrase can be used as a direct insult, it is more generally used as a common expressive interjection or emotive curse. LanguageLog, a blog run by the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that because the phrase did not follow a pronoun, there is no way it could have been misconstrued by native speakers as a direct insult. In other words, Duterte was not targeting Obama.

Like the Norwegian phrase drittsekk, Putang ina mo isn’t as bad as its English translation. In the Philippines, it is used commonly and considered rather mild. In 1969, the Filipino Supreme Court even ruled the phrase was not slanderous due to its general use as an expression rather than a targeted slight.

Former Filipino Chief Justice Querube Makalintal wrote in the ruling: “This is a common enough expression in the dialect that is often employed, not really to slander but rather to express anger or displeasure. It is seldom, if ever, taken in its literal sense by the hearer—that is, as a reflection on the virtues of a mother.” In the same vein, filmmaker Jason Paul Laxamana states that when he writes Tagalog to English subtitles for Filipino movies, he will generally translate the phrase into expressions such as “shit” or “damn it,” rather than the more targeted “son of a bitch.”

With all this in mind, was Duterte’s address as aggressive as many Westerners perceived? Technically, yes. Headlines just focused on the wrong part of the statement.

The bit that followed the frustrated expression was murahin kita diyan sa forum na ‘yan, which translates into, “I’m going to curse you in that forum,” referencing the scheduled meeting between Duterte and Obama. This, unlike putang ina mo, is a clear and direct hit—almost like a warning for the direction of the leaders’ discussion.

Ever since Duterte’s inauguration in June, international human rights groups and world leaders alike have criticized the president’s war on drugs and clear endorsement of extrajudicial killings. Recent counts place the resulting death toll at over 3,600 already, and Duterte’s publicy-stated goal is 10,000 alleged drug users and dealers dead by December. The president celebrates these deaths, viewing himself as a hero cleaning up the streets. Notably, Duterte and his policies have garnered high trust ratings among the Filipino population, evidenced by a survey conducted by Pulse Asia, which placed his record-breaking trust rating at 91 percent. Outside of the Philippines, Duterte is on the defensive and wary of direct confrontation with world leaders such as Obama.

Further analyzing the context of Duterte’s provocative phrases, it is possible that neither of them were directed at Obama. According to witnesses and transcripts, Duterte’s comment was pointed at a journalist who questioned the president’s use of extrajudicial killings. Duterte himself, however, claims to have targeted the statement at the U.S. State Department for raising concerns over his drug war.

“I got really angry about these threats over this human rights issue. This is the fault of the crazy people in the State Department,” Duterte stated.


Despite the cancelled meeting, frenzied attention, and headlines declaring “Son of a Bitch,” Obama and Western interpretations of the situation got one thing right: Duterte is a colorful character. He is unapologetic and aggressive in his language, and makes enemies easily with his unhinged comments. Back in May, a CNN op-ed referred to Duterte as the Philippines’ own version of Donald Trump.

Prior to the putang ina mo debacle, Duterte has already publicly and directly cursed out UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for bringing up his human rights violations as well as Pope Francis for causing an inconvenient traffic jam while visiting the country. If Duterte did directly curse at the U.S. president, Obama would be in good company.

Beyond cursing at world leaders, Duterte is also known in his own country for a rape joke about a female minister murdered during a prison riot, lewd quips about Viagra, and the statement “forget the laws on human rights” in reference to his war on drugs. Unsurprisingly, putang ina mo is a regular phrase in his public addresses—it was used in two out of three of the examples above.

Even more recently, Duterte came under fire again for likening himself to Hitler while discussing his goal of killing millions of drug users.

“Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, there’s a three million drug addict. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have…,” Duterte said, pointing to himself as he left his statement hanging.

Duterte’s incendiary language, especially when directed at foreign leaders, has made headlines around the world. But his presidency is not “all bark and no bite”: between the violent war on drugs and taking steps to completely overhaul the Philippines’ relationship with China and the United States, Duterte’s volatile personality clearly influences more than just his words. It is crucial that the rest of the world—and particularly the media—pays attention to the colorful Filipino president’s policy as well.

Images: Left – U.S. President Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, 2009 (The White House/Chuck Kennedy); Right – Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte delivers a speech at Camp Aguinaldo (Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office)

Casey Mendoza is a multimedia journalist with a specialization in video production and editing. She is a recent graduate of Knox College, where she majored in political science with a double minor in journalism and Chinese language. Mendoza has worked in various newsrooms and production companies as a photographer, videographer, writer, graphic designer, and production assistant.

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