A diplomatic rift between the United States and the Philippines was precipitated by comments that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made about President Obama at a Sept. 5 news conference.
Duterte's offensive comment was made in Tagalog (though most of his news conference was in English). In English-language press accounts, the Tagalog phrase putang ina has been translated as "son of a whore" or "son of a bitch." (NPR was less forthcoming today, variously referring to it as "an obscenity about Obama's mother" or "son of a fill-in-the-blank.") So what did Duterte really mean by putang ina? Chris Sundita, who has helped us with Tagalog translational issues in the past, comes to the rescue.
The Filipino site Rappler transcribed and translated the relevant part as:
Putang-ina, mumurahin kita diyan sa forum na iyan. Huwag mo akong ganunin.
Translation: Son of a whore, I'll curse you at that forum. Don't do anything like that to me.
The translation centers around the expletive putang ina. It's a contraction of the phrase puta ang ina mo, which translates to "your mother is a whore." Puta (whore, prostitute), as you may guess, is from Spanish. The phrase is frequently written putanginamo but there are other variants such as: putangina ka, tangina ka, putangina, tangina, and tangna.
So, "son of a whore" is not actually a correct translation of this phrase. "Son (or daughter) of a whore" is anak ng puta.
Depending on the the context, a freer translation of putanginamo may be: "fuck you" (especially if the 2nd person pronoun is present), "fuck," "fucking," "shit," "damn," etc.
Since there is no pronoun present in what Duterte said, it appears he is using it as an interjection or an intensifier rather than insulting Obama directly.
I would translate what Duterte said as:
"Fuck, I will cuss you out at that forum. Don’t do this to me!"
"I will fucking cuss you out at that forum. Don’t do this to me!"
I pointed out to Chris that "son of a bitch" has also been used as a translation, and that while this is even further away from the literal meaning, it at least captures some of the vulgar force of the original. Chris replied:
Now that I think of it, "son of a bitch" is a good example. It might be a good equivalent since people do not usually mean it literally. But it's not as strong as putangina.
So, for journalistic purposes, the milder interjection "Son of a bitch!" might be a decent translation, but that's not the same as Duterte actually calling Obama a "son of a bitch" (or a "son of a whore" for that matter).
Update: Some further thoughts via Facebook from JP Villanueva:
To me, that "putang ina" in particular is just a thinking filler. "Fuckin',… I would cuss you out!" That's his filler, it would need a pronoun if it were directed at someone. So in my mind it's vulgar but not directed at Obama. For the record I think Duterte is a murderous despot and I'm glad Obama "mutually rescheduled" on him, but the actual translation was a stretch for me.
And from Heather Michelle Villanueva:
The "na iyan" feels like it adds a tone of conditionality to me. If I were to translate it to Filipino English, I'd say the phrase "Mumurahin kita diyan sa forum na iyan" = "I would already be cursing you in that kind of forum!" In American English, it might feel like, "I would curse at you, even in that setting!"
As far as putang ina being a "thinking filler" for Duterte, rather than an epithet directed at someone, that helps explain why he's used the same phrase in many contexts, including when talking about the U.S. ambassador and Pope Francis, as noted by Stephen Colbert in this clip from "The Late Show" (starting at 2:57).
Update #2: It appears that Obama's people reached the same conclusion, perhaps with the aid of a native Tagalog speaker or two. From ABS-CBN:
Obama added, Duterte's cursing is not really directed at the person. He noted how Duterte once uttered expletives against the Pope.
"As I said, when I was asked about this in China, I don't take these comments personally because it seems as if a phrase he's used repeatedly, including directed to the Pope and others. And so I think it seems to be just a habit, a way of speaking for him," he said.