A week after the release of the Netflix animated series Trese, its Filipino fan base has been constantly debating about two main aspects of the production: the writing and the comparisons between the English and Filipino language versions. In the case of the former, it was how the Filipino language version was approached differently from its English counterpart. In the latter, the differences between the performances of Shay Mitchell and local star Liza Soberano as the titular character were a point of contention, from Soberano’s performance to Mitchell’s English twang during the times the Alexandra Trese character had to utter Tagalog incantations.
It turns out a lot of it was more deliberate than the fans initially thought.
“Putting it in the English language you want that that balance for an international audience who had never heard a Manila accent,” says writer-producer Tanya Yuson. “You still need a point of clarity for them, and maybe the familiarity. So for the first time you’re presenting to the world an accent that is different, but we’re calling it ‘neutral’ for this world because it’s a representation of Manila. And part of that choice was also retaining the spells in Filipino. So if they’re all speaking English in this world for the English language version, then the spells are sort of supposed to be like a deeper, an older language. And so we kept them in Filipino.”
Casting and voice director Wes Gleason (Batman: Hush, Superman: Red Son, Justice League Action) explains that the accents vary not just because of the nature of Manila as a melting pot of different people and backgrounds, but also because of the voice actors’ experiences. “Some of their relatives or references might have been a little stronger with an accent, or a little more in one region than the other. And so I think our show kind of shows that diversity and, hopefully in a good way, to where people hear that and they go, ‘oh, I know that person like that. I just saw that jeepney driver the other day and he totally sounded like that guy (in the show).’”
Yuson adds that part of what she worked on with Gleason was finding that so-called “Manila accent” which would mostly depend on the varying socio-economic groups portrayed in the series. The lead character Alexandra Trese had a “neutral” accent, while older or lower middle class characters would have stronger accents. Mitchell’s “ilabas ang nakatago” (“show what is hidden”), however, bothered local viewers.
“In terms of the twang, I think it’s about the ear also of who is listening–whether it’s Filipinos in the US or abroad–where maybe they’re not used to hearing that. But that’s also a point for representation for them. I think once people think about ‘what’s my own bias on hearing this accent?’ I think you forget that pretty quickly and kind of move on to the delivery of of the character.”
According to Gleason, Mitchell was very passionate about wanting to get the performance right. “I think all the actors were they all had pressure to perform for their families. Pinoy pride is what I would say they all they all chimed in with. And, you know, they all did their homework to kind of make that feel authentic and true to the area.”
Liza Soberano’s performance
Filipino Language Voice Artist Director Rudolf Baldonado Jr. (a veteran of localization efforts, having worked with Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney) points out that even popular actress Liza Soberano, who voices the Filipino language version of the heroine, had misgivings about her own sound and performance. “Liza was very wonderful to work with because she was very honest from the very start,” he says. “The first time I met her she already told me she was scared because it was her first anime. She knew that she has this twang with Tagalog words. She knows what her voice quality is. And I appreciate that in any artist because she knows where she’s coming from, and she knows what she needs to work on.”
So what followed was a comprehensive one-on-one coaching session with the actress. Baldonado focused on three things Soberano herself pointed out: her voice, her her language skills in Tagalog, and the acting. The voice director also gave her exercises in improving her voice to reach a much lower register. “She has this naturally sweet tone, a head tone, actually.”
And then there is the nature of the language itself. Baldonado knew that Soberano needed to have that stiff, tough, Filipino way of pronouncing things. “So that she won’t say Filipino words without twang, like ‘lalakbayin,’ and so on.”
The time factor was crucial, as the local language cast could only work on the show when the original version had finished production. That meant that the translation was practically a buzzer-beater; something that the rest of the more experienced local voice actors were used to, but a challenge for Soberano. “[She had to fashion it to be] at par with the original English. So imagine she’s trying to focus on three things.”
“I guess one thing I would want to say is I really wish we both had time, because Liza and I just really wanted to record on and on, to just go back and improve what we just did, or do another take or everything. But time was of the essence, and she was so cooperative all throughout. And I really firmly believe and I saw how she really poured herself in, gave her best and whatever you see on Netflix is just a labor of love for both of us and the whole cast.”
Yuzon believes that both Mitchell and Soberano brought out different facets of the Alexandra Trese character. “With Liza you get that ‘oh the aswang are gonna underestimate her’ until she cuts their eyes out. So that’s the surprise. With Shay she can be commanding but she also drops that strong exterior and you see the more vulnerable side of Alexandra. The actors really wanted to flesh out their characters so it wasn’t one-dimensional.”
The writing and its subsequent translation
Despite the show having an all-Filipino writing team (Yuson, Zig Marasigan, and Mihk Vergara), it was written in English (mainly because it was meant for an English-speaking market); Baldonado did the Filipino translation. Why not just retranslate the script?
“We could not do it,” admits Yuson. “It had to be Rudolf, [who is] someone of a certain level who can do it with deep pulls, like ‘karit-an’ which is one of my favorite words…and now everyone is like “where is karit-an from?” and I love that that’s the conversation.”
“‘Karit-an’ is from the south. It [literally means] “otherworldly,” says Baldonado. “It comes from a story about a place where a ship got stranded. And then suddenly, all these spirits and all these beings start coming out of it. So it’s like a portal. It’s the closest that we have to the concept of underworld.”
The problem with translations is that not everything has an equivalent term or idea in every language. Such as the concept of the underworld, which in ancient Western mythologies is where souls go after they die; it can also refer to creatures of lower mythology. The Tagalog language has no such equivalent term. The closest term would be ‘impiyerno,’ which is literally “hell” and is therefore more associated with the concept of divine punishment as introduced by Catholicism to the country. And the creatures in the show do not necessarily come from ‘impiyerno.’ ‘Karit-an’ was the closest.
Ultimately the translation boiled down to an issue of synchronization, as the words have to sync with an already-finished product, which can result in a linguistic Cirque du Soleil. “People can easily forget about that,” defends Baldonado. “I think in [critics’] heads, they want to have that romantic idea that the Filipino version was made the same as the English one, that the voice actors just went into the studio, recorded their lines, and that’s it. They didn’t know that we had to model everything to the final product. Ours is not the final product, it’s theirs (pertaining to the English version).”
Another issue pointed out by fans (and even this writer) was how the show crammed way too many cases from the comics into the limited six-episode season. Ultimately it was a production call. “Six episodes is pretty challenging,” admits Yuson. “But we have to remember that it was Netflix taking a gamble on this title. So we wanted to make sure that in the six, it’s a setup of the world. But if we only got one season, we wanted to make sure everyone got something satisfying from beginning to end.”
“If we had an ideal first season setup, it could go anywhere from like, 8…10…12…22… Sky’s the limit for how many episodes. We can tell the richness of the story of Trese, and her world.”
At the end of the day, the creators involved with Trese are aware of of the criticism as much as the praise the show is getting. “I totally understand what [the fans] saying, I totally get with the nitpicking, and I totally understand,” says Yuson. “We’re all fans. We get where people have an idea in their head, ‘this is how the character should sound like.’ You think about Harry Potter and all like the other books that were translated, everyone had their own idea of who it should be. And I think that’s totally cool. This is the choice we had thought about, in terms of translating this world to the screen. And so we’re pretty happy about how it all came out.”