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.

File:Mount Sungay 2.jpg

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.