Even established historians make mistakes

That Batangueño historian I alluded to in a previous blogpost used to be my FB friend. We parted ways when I criticized his favorite historian, a fellow Batangueño of his, for failing to define what a Filipino is, something that really gets into my nerves. For if one can chronicle the history of his people, how is it that he could not even define their national identiy?

I was expecting a scholarly response to elicit debate not so much as to show him that I know more than him but to obtain his perspective. Because that is how knowledge is developed: a synthesis of logical elements from both sides of the fence will emerge to form a new thesis (logicians call this the dialectical method). For all we know, his favorite historian’s difficulty in defining what a Filipino is could be the answer to our country’s problems. But to my surprise and disappointment, he went on a diatribe, prompting me to unfriend him. When he found out that I removed him from my friends’ list, he sent me an enraged private message filled with personal attacks. My golly, I thought. And to think that this guy prides himself as a scholar.

There is nothing wrong with idolizing one’s favorite person, especially if that person has a profound influence on his career. We all have our own idols. But I have observed that many historians today treat their mentors as if they’re demigods who are free from fault. However, once their demigods have been proven to be false idols, they still cling to them steadfastly. That should not be the case. The people we idolize, no matter how accomplished they are, are humans too. We praise their achievements and calumny their follies.

Not too long ago, as I was rereading Gregorio F. Zaide’s José Rizal: Life, Works, and Writings of a Genius, Writer, Scientist, and National Hero (Centennial Edition), I spotted a glaring error. In citing an entry from Rizal’s journal during the national hero’s trip to the United States in 1888, Zaide concluded that the waterfall the hero was referring to was Pagsanján Falls when it was clear on the entry that the waterfall in question was located in Los Baños. Below is Rizal’s journal entry, translated by Encarnación Alzona from the original Spanish, which was cited —and “corrected”— by Zaide (emphasis mine):

Saturday, May 12. A good Wagner Car — we were proceeding in a fine day… and we shall soon see Niagara Falls… It is not so beautiful nor so fine as the falls at Los Baños (sic Pagsanján — Z.); but much bigger, more imposing…

As we can see here, Zaide corrected what seemed to be an error from Rizal’s part when in fact Rizal was being precise. What made Zaide conclude that the unnamed waterfall in Los Baños was Pagsanján is beyond me. Rizal clearly indicated in his diary that it was in Los Baños. He did not even mention Pagsanján at all. Being a Pagsanjeño, Zaide was probably unfamiliar that Los Baños has a waterfall that was popular during Rizal’s time. Me and my family have even visited it twice.

I am referring to the slender cascades of Dampalít.

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While Rizal may have not named Dampalít in that journal entry of his, one should take into account that it was the nearest waterfall to his hometown of Calambâ. For sure, he must have had visited it a lot of times. And while he did not mention it by name during his US trip, he did mention it in his second novel, El Filibusterismo:

Así es como S.E…. ordenó la inmediata vuelta a Los Baños… Los baños en el Dampalít (Daán pa liít)… ofrecían más atractivos…

In Soledad Lacson-Locsín‘s English translation of the said novel, she offers an explanatory note:

Dampalít: A spring, which with the water coming from seven falls or talón in the locality, formed a river bed with crystal-clear water, to which many went to bathe.

Rizal had a penchant of inserting places that he had visited in his novels. In addition, it should be noted that during Rizal’s time, Pagsanján Falls was almost unknown. The most famous waterfall back then was Botocan Falls in Majayjay, and it was even cited by no less than Juan Álvarez Guerra and John Foreman, personages that Filipino historians should know very well. If Rizal had indeed been to Pagsanján Falls, there is no doubt that he would have written about the experience considering that the arduous trip towards the falls and shooting the rapids afterwards were an exhilarating experience.

This Zaide error may be a minor one, but the message I’m trying to convey is this: even established historians make mistakes.

When I discovered the long-lost foundation date of La Laguna Province in 2012, I was met with both praise and criticism. The criticism was due largely in part to my credentials: I have no formal training in historical research. Humorously, a group of local historians from Batangas —obviously the type of people who have nothing to do with La Laguna’s history— were the most vocal online. I told them that I am open to peer review. If established historians can make mistakes, so can ordinary people like me. Finally, I challenged my detractors that if they really think that the foundation date of my adoptive home province was erroneous, all they had to do was to write a formal antithesis to refute it. All in the spirit of scholarly debate. Should they succeed, then so be it. Congratulations. But so far —and it has been almost five years— none has dared to do so.

Even if a historian has all the primary sources at his disposal, or no matter how many TV appearances he has done, his findings or declarations are all deemed useless if he lacks the necessary reasoning or even field experience to justify them. And then of course there is also the issue of carelessness, as already demonstrated by this blogpost. In the end, it appears that the final arbiter of historical conclusions is logic, not primary sources alone.

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English translations of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo

I always tell friends that reading translated Filipino history could be dangerous at times because it robs the essence of what the texts truly mean. Take for example the founding of the city of Manila on 24 June 1571. Old documents and books (in Spanish and even in French) will tell us that Manila was founded not just as a city but as a capital city (that of the Capitanía General de Filipinas), effectively making our country a state despite its status as an overseas province (provincia ultramarina), but such fact is always ignored. Old texts will tell us that the real name of that intrepid chief of Mactán who defeated Fernando Magallanes (more popularly known as Ferdinand Magellan) and his crew was Pulaco, not Lapu-Lapu. A mastery of Spanish will tell us that La Loba Negra, a novel that has been attributed to Fr. José Burgos, is filled with errors and deficiencies in style, thus its impossibility to be the work of a highly educated priest with Spanish parentage (and I should add that Fr. Burgos was fair-skinned, not moreno as he is always pictured in our minds).

Even Filipino literature (most especially), a body of written works that was originally in Spanish, is not spared from translational errors. One best (or worst) example is the fictional character of Fr. Dámaso Verdolangas, one of the antagonists in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Poor Fr. Dámaso is always portrayed in media as a balding, aging, unappealing, and pot-bellied friar. But is this how he was described by Rizal in the original Spanish?

“A pesar de que sus cabellos empezaban a encanecer conservábase todavía joven y robusto. Sus duras facciones, su mirada poco tranquilizadora y hercúleas formas le daban el aspecto de un patricio romano disfrazado…”

Rizal clearly described Fr. Dámaso as young and robust, with a slight reassuring gaze, and even had herculean features. Rizal’s Fr. Dámaso was ‘macho’. Surprised?

That is why the need for Filipinos to learn Spanish because much of our country’s history and the bulk of past literature was written in it. And since they are not supposed to be considered as trifle subjects, all the more that Spanish should be brought back to our educational system. But for the meantime, while this problem that we have regarding the use of Spanish has not yet been sorted out, then the only recourse is to rely on the most faithful translations available. While there are already many translations of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo (Charles Derbyshire, Virgilio Almario, Harold Augenbraum, etc.), I really recommend only two: those of León Mª Guerrero III and Soledad Lacson viuda de Locsín.

León María Guerrero III. Image: Poklat.

Both Guerrero and Locsín’s cradle language was Spanish. And both of them, most especially Locsín, lived at a time that hewed closer to Rizal’s era. That is why they knew exactly what Rizal was talking about, more than any other translator of Rizal’s novels. And since they were born at a time closer to the Spanish era, they had had the privilege of having lived in Rizal’s tradition, a tradition that was Hispanic, that was still authentically Filipino.

But between the two translators, Locsín’s translations are more helpful because they have explanatory notes at the end of each book that define the semantics of Rizal’s time. For example, in describing Teniente Guevara in the first chapter of Noli Me Tangere, Rizal compared his appearance to the Duke of Alba. The ordinary reader will surely scratch his head as to who this duke was. In Locsin’s note, it is revealed that this duke was in fact Fernando Álvarez de Toledo (1507—1582), a celebrated Spanish noble and general during the reigns of Charles V and Philip II. He was said to be bloodthirsty and cruel that his name was used to frighten children.

Soledad Lacson-Locsín. Image: PinoyLit.

Locsin’s translations also help us see and recognize places that are no longer around, or have drastically changed. In chapter three of El Filibusterismo, when the steamship Tabo was entering Laguna de Bay from the Pásig River, readers are treated to a breathtaking view of the surroundings:

“Before them lay the beautiful lake circled by green shores and blue mountains… to the right extended its lower shore, forming small bays with graceful curves, and there, far away, almost hazy, the hook of Sugay…”

Yes, during Rizal’s time, Laguna de Bay was still beautiful and circled by green shores that are no longer around (at least, in areas that have been urbanized). And those blue mountains? They are now dotted with houses and other unsightly structures.

But what is this “hook of Sugay” that he was talking about? Locsin’s explanatory note at the final pages of the book helps solve the mystery:

Sugay, Suñgay: Mountains seen in the background as one enters the Laguna de Bay, leaving the Pásig River.

To the uninformed, Sungay (actually, it should have a tilde above the letter n for a more precise pronunciation: Suñgay) is none other than the site of People’s Park in the Sky, one of my family’s favorite places in Tagaytay, Cavite.

Situated at the peak of Mount Suñgay, People’s Park in the Sky is located at 2,351 feet above sea level (FASL). According to early accounts (including that of Rizal’s), its peak was shaped like a carabao’s horn, hence its name. In the book Philippine Islands Sailing Directions (Bureau of Printing, 1906), Mount Suñgay was one of the visible landmarks used by early navigators when sailing to and around Manila Bay (if the mountain was visible from that distance, what more from Laguna de Bay). It was, therefore, previously much higher (recorded at 2,467 FASL). Unfortunately, former President Ferdinand Marcos had it leveled down during the late 1970s to construct a guest house that was meant for his friend Ronald Reagan (who was to become the 40th President of the United States of América) who didn’t even arrive. Perhaps the only compensation is that tourists now have a 360° view of Tagaytay’s environs and beyond. And yes, Bahía de Manila (Manila Bay) and Laguna de Bay (Lake of Bay) are in full view on a clear day.

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Mount Suñgay as seen from the east near Calambâ, La Laguna. Its peak no longer displays its horn-like features due to a Marcos environmental blunder.

The study of the past is truly an engaging activity as it gives us many reasons as to why the present is like what it is today. Readers of Rizal who do not yet know Spanish should be thankful that Guerrero and Locsín sacrificed a lot of their time so that today’s readers would no longer be alienated with the many nuances of Rizal’s novels.