Translations of Rizal’s novels

By Ambeth Ocampo
MANILA, Philippines—There was a time that the big bookstore chain National Bookstore was so busy with other merchandise that books were actually neglected in their presentation and shelving. There was a small “Filipiniana” shelf for books on the Philippines and by Filipino authors, and everything else was arranged by subject, hence books of fiction were placed in odd places: “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was placed under “health” while “Praying Man” by Bienvenido Santos and “Sins” by F. Sionil Jose, despite the sex, sat side by side with bibles under “religion.”

These days, depending on the franchise holder of National Bookstore, Filipiniana is still separate but not given pride of place. The books are arranged either alphabetically by author (which is why my books are always on lowers shelves), or first arranged by publisher then alphabetically by author so you see University of the Philippines Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, New Day and Anvil Publishing competing for dominance on the shelves. To make things more complicated, some branches do not have a Filipiniana section and mix all books, foreign and local, and arrange them by subject, or by subject first, and then alphabetically.

All these observations would be useless if not for a new branch of academic inquiry known as the history of the book. We have come a long way since those days of casual shelving in bookstores, but I know that there are still sales personnel in bookstores who don’t know their merchandise and so we have exchanges like this:

Customer: “Miss, meron po ba kayong ‘Noli me tangere’?”

Saleslady: “‘Noli me tangere.’ Hmmm, sino’ng author noon?”

I’m sure any Filipino bookstore sales person knows that Jose Rizal is the author of “Noli me tangere.” I’d like to think that the sales person who answered the question with yet another question did not mean “author,” rather she was referring to the “translator” or “editor” of the “Noli” being sought. There are so many editions and translations of Rizal’s novels in the market today: full translations, partial translations, chapter summaries with guide questions, high school versions, college versions, komiks adaptations, an audio version, even an 18-hour video version in Filipino.

That the novels are available only in English or Filipino is a reflection of market demand based on reader preference and the medium of instruction in Philippine schools. Rizal’s novels are often read in Filipino because in high school it is required reading in Filipino class. Rizal is not used in English classes in the same way as Chaucer or Shakespeare. Nowhere are the novels available in the original Spanish except in the National Historical Institute, which has been reprinting facsimiles of the manuscript and the first editions since 1961.

What about translations into other languages? To my knowledge both “Noli” and “Fili” are available in Chinese, French, Japanese and Russian. “Noli” is also available in German, and just a few years ago, it was also translated into Thai. “Noli” was also translated into all the major Philippine languages to commemorate the centenary of Rizal’s birth in 1961; hence there are extant copies of now out-of-print editions of both novels in Cebuano, Visayan, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Kapampangan (only the “Noli”), Pangasinan, Leyte-Samar, etc.

The earliest English translation was entitled “Eagle Flight’ (in 1900). The most recent is the 2006 Penguin edition by Harold Augenbaum. The earliest Tagalog translation of the “Noli” was made by Pascual H. Poblete in 1906 and the best contemporary Filipino translation is by National Artist Virgilio S. Almario (1998).

The most popular English versions of both novels are by Charles Derbyshire. These were printed first in 1912, the “Noli” as “Social Cancer” and the “Fili” as “Reign of Greed.” These translations were steadily in use until replaced by the more contemporary ones by Leon Ma. Guerrero “Noli’/Lost Eden” in 1961 and “Fili/The Subversive” in 1962. Derbyshire can still be found in some bookstores and is available online from project Gutenberg.

Then there are the translations of the late Soledad Lacson Locsin (1996).

A full bibliographic search for the various translations will take some time. Locating a copy of each and checking its faithfulness are another story. Yet in the data in the above paragraph alone one can already ask many questions, like: Who made these translations? When? Why? The answers will surely be far from bibliographic, but they will open our eyes to the production of books, the business of books, and most importantly the transmission and reception of ideas in the Philippines.

All Filipinos who endure secondary education are presumed to have read an abridged version and, if they continue to college, should, by law, have read both novels. Despite being required texts in Philippine schools, the basic tools and references for Rizal are unavailable. There are no detailed annotated texts, like the Folger editions of Shakespeare that we used in high school, no definitive editions, not even a concordance. We did not have, until recently, fresh research into the structure and purpose of these novels. Fortunately, Benedict Anderson and Virgilio Almario have recently provided fresh insight into the study and appreciation of the novels and we hope these improve existing scholarship and filter down to the readings used by students today.

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