December 8, 2016

A handful of books

If I would recommend my favorite reads of the year, I would go for the ones that grow in stature in my mind. Out of the forty-odd books from various genre I read this year, I choose to highlight novels that I feel I have never actually finished reading because they linger still in my memory. Some of these novels I did not instantly "like" or "love" that much during the time I read them, "like" and "love" I find to be terms that are transcended by only a handful of novels. These books challenged my perspective of the world and disrupted my thought processes. In hindsight, I look at my "favorite" reads as resisting the likeability factor. César Aira talks of "retrospective comprehension" as the advantage of literature over other artistic forms. Novels allow readers to form mental pictures from words, and these words had the potential to turn upside down our deeply held assumptions at the start of book because of a carefully withheld detail or fact, the revelation of which at the last page could bring a new level of understanding to what has previously transpired.

Here then are five novels that made my year. They are translated from four languages: Italian, Filipino, Cebuano, and Hiligaynon. The four books translated from Philippine languages are not readily available outside the country – in fact, some of them are even hard to find in my country; one needs to search them out! – so it's like I am offering a reading list of possibilities or potentialities. It's like a list of fictional books from the Invisible Library, nonexistent in many parts of the world and could only live in the imagination of some readers. So here they are: their obscurity could not dim their greatness.

Typewriter Altar
Juanita Cruz: A Novel
Ang Inahan ni Mila

1. Contempt by Alberto Moravia, translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson

My contempt for the main character and his funky first person narration could not dampen my admiration for its brilliant take on the superficiality of modern life weighed down by materialism and political correctness. The unreliable narration was perhaps rivaled only by The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. (review)

2. Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) by Austregelina Espina-Moore, translated from Cebuano by Hope Sabanpan-Yu

Of the four novels by Espina-Moore that I've read, this one stands out for the comedy and the roundness of its titular character, a domineering mother and wife and a villainous force to reckon with. Mila's mother is a quirky woman whose lot in life may be determined by her past struggles and class prejudices. As the novel progresses, one discovers much else about her character that made her an altogether sympathetic figure. (review)

3. Juanita Cruz by Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, translated from Hiligaynon by Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni

Another first person novel told in a perfectly calibrated voice of its eponymous narrator, Juanita Cruz is an immersive and transportive novel of adventure of a rich girl escaping her upper class upbringing to become a fully empowered woman.

In my review I take note that Jalandoni, along with Ramon Muzones and many other deserving novelists, was several times bypassed or not even considered for the award of National Artist of Literature. The sad thing is, from a dozen or so already included in the roster of Philippine National Artists, a couple of writers does not have an outstanding body of work to speak of. It is shocking to see how the cultural arbiters failed to honor deserving novelists from other regions and simply could not distinguish the difference between cultural workers and true artists. I wonder what future is in store for the literature of a country whose best writers were not even accorded the full respect and honor due to them. (Pardon the rant, my review post is in here.)

4. Shri-Bishaya by Ramon Muzones, translated from Hiligaynon by Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava

My review of this book does not really give full justice to its epic grandeur. I mean, in addition to the foundation myth and love story, I have not even described the superlatively dramatized fight scenes in the book. There is the competition between two warring factions on who would be the first to produce the powerful weapon of lantakas and kirabon. There are supernatural encounters with giant snakes and monsters, well-choreographed maritime battles, and guerrilla warfare on the ground.

This is simply a well-written action fantasy. Its political ramifications, however, are still as relevant as today's news. When the book described repeatedly – too many times for one's comfort – that "sans prior investigation, a person could be thrown into a river full of man-eating crocodiles, pilloried and fed to the ants, hanged on the lunok tree, buried neck-deep in hot sands, cut, quartered, and fed to wild beasts, and subjected to other forms of gruesome tortures", one could be forgiven for glossing over the exaggerations present in a fictional narrative. But once confronted in real life by gruesome allegations involving crocodiles, quartering, dumping, etc., then the reader can only surmise that between allegations in life and in fiction, one or both versions must be true.

If only someone is bold enough to adapt this into a mini-series. Enough of the second-rate, trashy imitation fantasies that are celebrated in TV today. (review)

5. Typewriter Altar by Luna Sicat Cleto, translated from Filipino by Marne L. Kilates

In Typewriter Altar, a middle-aged would-be writer looks back on her childhood and adult life full of domestic baggage and angst. She is also full of unexplained guilt and grief whose magnitudes seemed to exceed those of the fanatic carriers of original sin. The writer's problematic relationship with her father is the central pivot of the story. The episodic story revealed the interior life of a writer struggling with her craft, with demons and ghosts, and with the poetic allure of melancholic existence. (review)

December 4, 2016

El consejo de los dioses

"El consejo de los dioses" in Konseho ng mga Diyoses; Sa May Ilog Pasig (El Consejo de los Dioses; Junto al Pasig) by José Rizal, translated by Virgilio S. Almario and Michael M. Coroza (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2016) [dual language edition]

On 23 April 1880, the Liceo Artistico Literario de Manila accepted entries for an annual writing contest to commemorate the 264th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes. For that literary competition the nineteen-year old José Rizal (1861-1986) submitted a one-act play about an unusual literary competition called El consejo de los dioses. In his play, the gods reunited in Olympus to serve as literary jurors and choose from among three writers the most deserving of immortality. The finalists were: Homer, Virgil, and Cervantes. No, this was not a conventional Nobel Prize for Literature. The judging panel could not arrive at a consensus choice from among the three formidable writers. Each writer had his own celestial champion. The heated deliberations of the gods almost resulted to a Ragnarök of sorts. If not for the wise intervention of Jupiter and one impartial judge, the brewing conflict among the judges would have resulted to a civil war among the divine.

The play opened with Jupiter announcing the idea behind the literary contest, the three major prizes to be won by the laureate (a soldier's trumpet, a lyre, and a crown of laurel, all magnificently crafted), plus the criteria and scope of judging. Jupiter's motive behind the contest – commemorating the triumph of the deities against the rebellion of Titans now incarcerated in Tartarus – was similar to the nasty Hunger Games.

JUPITER: Nagkaroon ng isang panahon, mga kataas-taasang diyoses, na ang mga suwail na anak ni Terra ay nagtangkang makaakyat sa Olimpo upang agawin sa akin ang kaharian, sa pamamagitan ng pagpapatong-patong ng mga bundok. At natupad sana ang kanilang nasà, nang walang anumang alinlangan, kung hindi nagtulong ang inyong mga bisig at ang kakila-kilabot kong mga kidlat upang ihulog silá sa Tartaro at ibaón ang iba sa púsod ng naglalagablab na Etna. Ang ganitong kalugod-lugod na pangyayari ay nais kong ipagdiwang nang buong dingal, na siyáng nababagay sa mga inmortal [...] Kayâ nga, ako, ang Kataas-taasan sa mga diyoses, ay nagpapasiyang ang pagdiriwang na ito ay magsimula sa isang timpalak-panitik. Ako'y may isang marangyang trumpeta ng mandirigma, isang lira, at isang koronang lawrel at pawang napakarikit ang pagkakagawa. [...] Ang naturang tatlong bagay ay magkakasinghalaga, at ang makilálang may napakataas na ambag para sa pagkalinang sa panitikan at sa mga katangian ng puso't damdamin ay siyáng magkakamit ng nasabing kahang-hangang hiyas. Ipakilála nga ninyo sa akin na ang mortal na sang-ayon sa inyong paghatol ay karapat-dapat na tumanggap ng mga ito.*


Hubo un tiempo, excelsos dioses, en que los soberbios hijos de la tierra pretendieron escalar el Olimpo y arrebatarme el imperio, acumulando montes sobre montes, y lo hubieran conseguido, sin duda alguna, si vuestros brazos y mis terribles rayos no los hubieran precipitado al Tártaro, sepultando á los otros en las entrañas de la ardiente Etna. Tan fausto acontecimiento deseo celebrar con la pompa de los inmortales [...] Así, que yo, el Soberano de los dioses, quiero que comience la fiesta con un certamen literario. Tengo una soberbia trompa guerrera, una lira y una corona de laurel esmeradamente fabricadas [...] Las tres valen igualmente, y el que haya cultivado mejor las letras y las virtudes, ese será el dueño de tan magníficas alhajas. Presentadme, pues, vosotros e mortal que juzguéis digno de merecerlas.

One by one, the bookworm-gods spoke and nominated their favorite writer. Juno made a case for Homer on account of his bold and daring ("matapang at pangahas") Iliad and his thoughtful and restrained ("mapaglimi at mapagtimping") Odyssey.

After Juno, Venus took center stage and respectfully objected to the former's choice. She herself made an impassioned plea for Virgil who celebrated the life of her son Aeneas (yes, these gods had their own interest in mind, they were not about to inhibit themselves from the proceedings!). She pointed out to Jupiter the great and merciful quality of Aeneas compared to the fiery temperament of Achilles. For her, Virgil satisfied all the criteria of the singular writer Jupiter was looking for: the one with a substantial contribution to the cultivation of literature and the heart ("may napakataas na ambag para sa pagkalinang sa panitikan at sa mga katangian ng puso't damdamin" / "el que haya cultivado mejor las letras y las virtudes").

A word war ensued between Venus and Juno, after which Minerva took the stage and made an equally heartrending plea for Cervantes, the "son of Spain" who was at first a neglected and pitiful figure (Minerva was alluding to the adventures of Cervantes as a soldier before becoming a novelist) before giving birth to the light his masterpiece.

Ang Quijote, ang kanyang kahanga-hangang anak, ay isang latigong nagpaparusa at nagwawasto ng mga kamalian, nagpapabulwak hindi ng dugo kundi ng halakhak. Isa itong nektar na hinaluan ng mga birtud ng isangmapait na medisina; isang kamay na humahaplos ngunit matigas na pumapatnubay sa mga pasyon ng tao.

EL QUIJOTE, su parto grandioso, es el látigo que castiga la risa; es el néctar que encierra las virtudes de la amarga medicina; es la mano halagüeña que guía enérgica á las pasiones humanas.

And then Minerva discussed some more the form of enlightenment Cervantes brought not only to his land but to other shores. Apollo then spoke to second Minerva's appreciation of the Spanish novelist, with this parenthetical quip between his lofty statements: "I implore you not to assume I am partial to Cervantes because he devoted many beautiful pages to me." ("Ipinakikiusap ko sa inyo na huwag ipalagay na ako'y mahilig kay CERVANTES sapagkat ako'y pinag-uukulan ng kanyang maraming magagandang pahina." / "Os ruego no me tachéis de apasionado porque CERVANTES me haya dedicado muchas de sus bellas páginas.")

The deliberation of the gods continued becoming less and less godlike (read: uncivil), with some of them resorting to the oldest tricks in the book: appeal to pity and argumentum ad hominem.

Marte (Mars) joined the fray by slamming Cervantes who apparently defamed him in the novel and ridiculed his exploits ("ang aklat na nagpabagsak sa lup ng aking kaluwalhatian at umuyam sa akong mga nagawa" / "el libro que echa al suelo mi gloria y ridiculiza mis hazañas se alce victorioso"). The angry Marte even marched to the middle of the hall, issued a challenge with his defiant eyes, and brandished his sword.

Minerva spoke again in support of Cervantes and contextualized the Spanish writer's position on the use of arms and letters. (I think she refers to Don Quijote's discourse on arms and letters.) Then she accepted Marte's challenge and prepared for an Olympus showdown. Belona sided with Marte, while Apollo hopped to Minerva's side and stretched out his arrow ready for battle.

Seeing the warlike attitude of the gods, Jupiter's temper flared and he wielded his lightning. Like the wise Solomon he ended the debate by enlisting the help of a most impartial judge who will weigh (literally) the books in her scales using the highest standard possible (not the thickness, one presumes).

Mercurio put each of the two books (the Aeneid and the Quijote) first on the scales of Justice, and what do you know, the scales tipped right in the middle, not a hair's breadth more or less to the right or left! The two tomes were equal in weight. Mercurio removed the Aeneid and replaced it with the Iliad. Up and down went the two scales, up and down, the suspense built up. Then the two scales would stop at the very same level! Justice had spoken not in so many words. What Justice said, was justice served. Jupiter distributed the prizes to the three candidates.

JUPITER: [...] Mga diyoses at mga diyosas: Naniniwala ang KATARUNGAN na magkasimbigat ang tatlo: patas. Magsiyukod kayo, kung gayon at ibigay natin kay HOMERO ang trumpeta, kay VIRGILIO ang lira, at kay CERVANTES ang lawrel. Samantala, ilalathala ng FAMA sa buong daigdig ang pasiya ng KAPALARAN.



Dioses y diosas: la JUSTICIA los cree iguales; doblad, pues, la frente, y demos á HOMERO la trompa, á VIRGILIO la lira y á CERVANTES el lauro; mientras que la FAMA publicará por el mundo la sentencia del DESTINO.

Rizal's "Alegoría", as El consejo de los dioses was subtitled, unanimously won the first prize from the Liceo Artistico Literario de Manila. The play's epigraph "Con el recuerdo del pasado entro en el porvenir" (“I enter the future remembering the past”) hinted at the how the young Rizal valued and appreciated literature not only in literary terms but on "the weight of history", a world history fraught with monsters and wars, cruelties and inhumanities.

Unlike his two famous nationalist novels, Rizal's short play was often neglected because he wrote it when he was only a teenager. But here one could detect the source of didacticim in Philippine novel writing where writings were supposed to not only contribute to the development of literature but also to contribute to a positive change in attitudes and behaviors. The only possible arbiter of such writings is justice and to find justice in a work is to weigh them dispassionately and blindly. For Rizal, works that serve justice in all its forms are the kind of works that last, the works that must be celebrated are the ones that celebrate human dignity and human rights. Perhaps it is the "rights-based framework" of literary criticism that integrates the piecemeal concerns of Philippine literature. Not the Marxist alone, not the nationalist, not the feminist, not the queer, not the postcolonial.

*Above quotations in Filipino are from the translation of Virgilio S. Almario. The Spanish quotations are taken from El consejo de los dioses at Project Gutenberg which has slight variations from the Spanish in the book published by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino.

December 2, 2016

All books 2016

I read 42 books this year, lower than last year, which is lower than the year before that. This is the lowest since I started counting (and blogging) in 2009. The peak year is 2012 when I read 84 books.

Goodreads tells me I read 733 books in my lifetime so far, but this number is conservative. I could not account for all titles I read prior to 2009. I did not include in the catalog the books I read from the Hardy Boys series, Nancy Drew series, Hardy Boys Casefiles series, and Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Supermystery series. Not to mention the Bobbsey Twins series and Tom Swift series. Not counting the children's picture books I pored over in the library. Funny graphic comics and other local comics being rented out by my grandmother in her sari-sari store. I am getting nostalgic.

Time is very forbidding, but I am happy to list whatever books I have the chance to read.

1. Contempt [post 1, post 2] by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson

2. The Character of Rain [related post] by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Timothy Bent

3. Dr. Jekyll at G. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, tr. Largo Labor

4. Pitóng Gulod pa ang Layo at Iba pang Kuwento (Seven Hills Away and Other Stories) by N.V.M. Gonzalez, tr. Ed Maranan

5. The Golden Dagger by Antonio G. Sempio, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

6. Hinggil sa Konsepto ng Kasaysayan (On the Concept of History) by Walter Benjamin, tr. Ramon Guillermo

7. Bulosan: An Introduction With Selections by E. San Juan Jr.

8. Ang Maglaho sa Mundo: Mga Pilíng Tula (To Vanish from the Face of the Earth) by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Kristian Sendon Cordero.

Also read and reviewed: Shakespeare's Memory, from Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Andrew Hurley

9. Bibliography of Filipino Novels: 1901-2000 by Patricia May B. Jurilla

10. Haring Lear by William Shakespeare, tr. and adapt. Nicolas B. Pichay

11. Konseho ng mga Diyoses Sa May Ilog Pasig (Council of the Gods by the Pasig River) by José Rizal, tr. Virgilio S. Almario and Michael M. Coroza

12. The Monkey and the Tortoise: A Tagalog Tale by José Rizal, illus. Bryan Anthony Paraiso

13. The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, tr. Jonathan Wright

14. Shri-Bishaya [post 1, post 2] by Ramon Muzones, tr. Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava

15. Juanita Cruz by Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, tr. Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni

16. A Lion in the House by Lina Espina-Moore

17. Typewriter Altar by Luna Sicat Cleto, tr. Marne L. Kilates

18. A Place in the Country by W. G. Sebald, tr. Jo Catling

19. Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert

20. Halina Filipina by Arnold Arre

21. House of Cards by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu

22. Diin May Punoan sa Arbol (Where a Fire Tree Grows) by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu

23. Ang Inahan ni Mila (Mila's Mother) by Austregelina Espina-Moore, tr. Hope Sabanpan-Yu

24. Martial Law Babies by Arnold Arre

25. Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila (Part Two) by Carlo Vergara

26. Love in the Rice Fields and Other Short Stories by Macario Pineda, tr. Soledad S. Reyes

27. Pag-aabang sa Kundiman: Isang Tulambúhay (Waiting Along Kundiman: Autopoetry) by Edgar Calabia Samar

28. At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag, ed. Paolo Dilonardo and Anne Jump

29. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

30. Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

31. Testment and Other Stories by Katrina Tuvera

32. A Blade of Fern by Edith L. Tiempo

33. At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities by Jean Améry, tr. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld

34. Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home by Pope Francis

35. The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, tr. Joachim Neugroschel

36. A Roomful of Machines by Kristine Ong Muslim

37. The Pact of Biyak-na-Bato and Ninay by Pedro A. Paterno, tr. National Historical Institute and E. F. du Fresne

38. The Birthing of Hannibal Valdez by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, with an accompanying Pilipino translation by Romulo A. Sandoval

39. The Alien Corn by Edith L. Tiempo

40. Stringing the Past: An archaeological understanding of early Southeast Asian glass bead trade by Jun G. Cayron

41. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal

42. Ang Balabal ng Diyos / Ang Silid ng Makasalanan (The Cloak of God / The Sinner's Room) by Rosario de Guzman Lingat [review of the English translation The Cloak of God here]

2016 montage

Ang Balabal ng Diyos / Ang Silid ng Makasalanan
The True Deceiver
Stringing the Past: An Archaeological Understanding of Early Southeast Asian Glass Bead Trade
The Alien Corn
The Birthing of Hannibal Valdez
The Pact of Biyak-na-Bato and Ninay
A Roomful of Machines
The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories
Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home
At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities
A Blade of Fern: A Novel About the Philippines
Testament and Other Stories
84, Charing Cross Road
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches
Pag-aabang sa Kundiman: Isang Tulambúhay
Love in the Rice Fields and Other Short Stories
Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila (Part Two)
Martial Law Babies
Ang Inahan ni Mila

November 20, 2016

To be modern: On Contempt (2)

Contempt by Alberto Moravia, tr. Angus Davidson (New York Review Books, 2004)

Riccardo Molteni decided to write down his memories of his wife and their doomed love affair in order that she would be exorcised of him. So he dwelt in his own melancholic recollections, seemingly sustained by a framework of pathological grief, romanticism, and naivete. He could even be considered heroic in his self-imposed funk, preferring to dream of a world in which he felt he was for ever barred, "a world in which people loved without misunderstandings and were loved in return and lived peaceful lives." All this inner emotional acrobatics of Riccardo only served to implicate him in the mess of a narrative bathed in pathos and dreams. The gaps in his memory he could only attribute to "a fainting fit, or ... some kind of collapse or unconsciousness very like a fainting fit."

Contempt represented a kind of trap for readers. The consistency of tone throughout the narrative reinforced an impermeable, blameless quality to the way it was told. Ultimately it proposed certain ideas about the perception of classical art and how it was valued by the present world through interpretations and endless interpretations. The varied interpretation of the Odyssey inside Contempt was a sneaky device. It brought to light the variety of meanings that could be derived from the intersection of the classic and the modern. Specifically, how the Odyssey was interpreted by the characters yielded many openings into the story. The variety of views into the epic poem, and its correspondences with the marriage plot, became the launching pad for dichotomizing modernity and tradition, contemporary and classicism, civilization and savagery. Must we interpret the classics in our own time using our own zeitgeist or should we stick to the classical framework of Ulysses' heroism and nobility? Must the modern (and its attendant philosophical and psychological baggage) intrude so much on the sacrosanct value of the epic?

Riccardo wanted for his screenplay a version of the Odyssey that hewed closely to the supposed original intents of Homer ("made as Homer wrote it"). Rheingold, the movie director hired by Battista the producer, wanted a modern adaptation of it, with s Freudian spin on the relationship between Ulysses and Penelope ("in accordance with the latest discoveries in modern psychology"). The distance of time, the wide gulf between the ages, was very pronounced in this. "Dante is Dante: a man of the Middle Ages," said Rheingold. "You, Molteni, are a modern man." Ostensibly about the breakdown of a marriage, the novel could also be about the interpretation and reinterpretation of art through the ages. We were no longer just reading about one failing marriage but the contextual, literary clues behind it. The characters were now dishing out concepts like heroism and steadfastness, being civilized and being barbaric.

Was Emilia breaking off with Riccardo because he was "civilized", as Rheingold described him? If by "civilized" we mean not stepping on other toes, being politically correct, guided in life mainly by the invisible hand of materialism, prodded on by the selfish gene, then Riccardo must be it. He had a certain deficiency in his character, a certain insensitivity. He must be one of the most insensitive characters in fiction, rivaled to some extent by the intellectual coldness and rationality of Shimamura in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country.

In Emilia's traditional view of the world, at least as Riccardo interpreted her, "civilized" alone would not cut it. Civilized might be the working of a pure intellect or reason. It is not empathy; one has to care sincerely, genuinely. Though not the literary type, Emilia was perhaps the better interpreter of feelings. Her actions spoke volumes—not in so many words as the wordy Riccardo spouted in his funk-filled memoir—about rejecting the imbalance in her husband's temperament, the "lack" that made him superfluous and less than a man.

Whether I was despicable or not—and I was convinced that I was not—I still retained my intelligence, a quality which even Emilia recognized in me and which was my whole pride and justification. I was bound to think, whatever the object of my thought may be; it was my duty to exercise my intelligence fearlessly in the presence of any kind of mystery.

By Riccardo's own admission, only his intellect could sustain him. Without it he would not be able to fully crystallize his thoughts and conjure the whole story. Emilia, for her part, would be sustained by the powerful feeling of contempt for him. Given the masculine forces vying for her attention, contempt could only be her handhold.

The modern novel, Borges believed, was a narrative devoid of heroes and knights and epic battles. It was filled with superfluous characters bound to degrade themselves by their own telling and bound only to demonstrate their epic psychological breakdown. Modernization was, necessarily, and according to Riccardo, a work "of debasement, of degradation, of profanation", which was how he described James Joyce's Ulysses, an adaptation with which Borges also had several issues.

The modern novel is the novel of literary criticism. How art is or ought to be perceived is already contained in it. Because it is already aware that it is a narrative construction (because its building block is complex memory), its artfulness is detected in this self-awareness. Modernism in novels like Moravia's, realist or otherwise, is already colored by interpretation, by mimicking and then flouting the conventions of literary criticism.

And so the characters in these novels would be intellectual and literary. They would not be typecast as hero or villain, and they would not be tied down by any labels. They would not commit to one neat explanation of their profound or banal situation. Instead they would go on, even after the last page; they would not cease to be the hero-character or the villain-character, to be Ulysses or to be Penelope. They would continue to speak and spin meanings and assert their unfathomable modernness. And the novelist would not allow any of these characters to have the last word.

The contribution of modern novels, imho, was proffering challenge to envision the alternative pathways, many views and perspectives, often the very opposite views of the popular and the commonplace, in fact. And to acknowledge that barbarity plays a role in exploring generous and compassionate ways of transacting with fellow human beings. If by "barbarity" we mean disabusing oneself of the ideal notion of politics, being pragmatic but not ruthless and unfeeling, accounting for savagery and pure appetite (the Battistas of the world), and sometimes wallowing in a funky tedium and emerging with a certainty that everything, the world, was not tidy and will never be.

Rheingold resumed: "And now I should like to explain some of my ideas to you. I presume you can drive and listen at the same time?"

"Of course," I said; but at that same moment, as I turned very slightly towards him, a cart drawn by two oxen appeared out of a side road and I had to swerve suddenly. The car heeled over, zig-zagged violently, and I had considerable difficulty in righting it, just in time to avoid a tree, by a narrow margin. Rheingold started to laugh. "One would say not," he remarked.

"Don't bother about that," I said, rather annoyed. "It was quite impossible for me to have seen those oxen. Go on: I'm listening."

In simple words, modernity was openness to ideas, driving and listening at the same time, trying to avoid freak accidents, trumping a calcified vision of a new world order. Bring in the daring adaptations. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. Bring in literary criticism inside novels. Die Ästhetik des Widerstands by Peter Weiss. Perhaps years from now, someone would write or adapt in post-modern fashion a novel in which characters debate about the motivations of the characters in Contempt.

November 13, 2016

The task of the translator

In The Character of Rain, translated by Timothy Bent, Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb had a gifted toddler-age girl already speaking and reading very well in French and Japanese. These talents she intentionally concealed from her family except her nanny, the only one she had had regular conversations with.

"Do you really understand everything I'm saying to you?"
"You learned how to speak Japanese before you learned to speak French?"
"They're the same thing."
And indeed, I hadn't known there were such things as separate languages, only that there was one great big language and that one could choose either the Japanese version of it or the French version, whichever you preferred. I had not yet heard a language I couldn't understand."

The child was given to understand that that there was only one vocabulary from which she could pick out words in French or Japanese. This was a child who taught herself to read just by flipping books. If there was another language she could learn, then she likely would just expand the vocabulary of her single, perfect language.

In a post-Babel, multicultural world, this belief in a single, coherent language was a perfect dream and a child's wish. This belief in a unifying language was evident in the process and function of translation to combine together languages into a perfect harmony. Walter Benjamin thought so in "The Task of the Translator", his famous and widely anthologized essay that was a staple crop in translation studies:

Kayâ nga ang layon ng pagsasalin, sa madalîng salitâ, ay ang pagpapahayag ng pinakamatatalik na ugnayan o relasyon ng mga wika. Hindi maibubunyag o maipakikita ng mismong pagsasalin ang matatalik na relasyong ito; gayunman, maaari nitóng katawanin o bigyang-representasyon ang mga nasabing relasyon kung isasakatuparan sa paraang panimula at intensibo.... Gayunman, ang ipinalalagay na matalik na ugnayang ito ng mga wika ay isang relasyon ng di-pangkaraniwang pagtatagpo. Nakasalig ito sa katotohanang hindi magkakahidwa ang mga wika sa isa't isa, at gaya ng tanggap na paniniwala at taliwas sa lahat ng mga ugnayang pangkasaysayan, may pagkakaugnay-ugnay ang mga wika sa kanilang ibig sabihin. [1]

[Translation thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the innermost relationship of languages to our answer. It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realizing it in embryonic or intensive form.... As for the posited innermost kinship of languages, it is marked by a peculiar convergence. This special kinship holds because languages are not strangers to one another, but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.]

If Benjamin was to be believed, then translation was the ideal, harmonizing medium to filter and express linguistic meanings and effect. The attempt to transfer what was written from one language to another was an attempt to reconcile discrepant thoughts and philosophy, thereby bringing languages closer (in innermost kinship) together. Ideas in one language might be resistant to translation. Put under the legislating mind of a capable translator, these ideas would be carefully considered and transformed and coded in another language. There was an aura of mystery to this transformation, the transformed idea authenticated or validated by how much it retained or emitted the energizing effect, the echo or reverberation (alingawngaw), of the original.

In another section of his essay, Benjamin asserted that translations were capable of hiding the language of truth.

Ano't anuman, kung may isang wika ng katotohanan na panatag at tahimik na kinalalagakan ng pinakamahahalagang lihim na pinagsisikapang matuklas ng lahat ng pagdalumat, ang wikang ito ng katotohanan, kung gayon, ang tunay na wika. At ang wikang ito—na ang lahat ng pagpapalagay at paglalarawan ay inaasahang makamit ng pilosopo—ay masinsinang nakakubli sa salin. [1]

[If there is such a thing as a language of truth, a tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate secrets for which all thought strives, then this language of truth is—the true language. And this very language, in whose divination and description lies the only perfection for which a philosopher can hope, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.]

Benjamin was obviously talking of good translations wherein the true language hides. In his essay, he took great pains to characterize the "unrestrained license of bad translators" [2] who were mainly concerned with the transfer of "inessential content" (di mahalagang nilalaman) and suffering from literalness. Literalness was not entirely evil in design. In fact, Benjamin understood that the desire to be faithful to form (yet another way of being literal) impedes the transfer of meaning. Translation as a balancing act meant a text's fidelity (literalness) to form was considered alongside freedom to diverge from form and content.

But negative formulation to define bad translations could only get one so far. It was only Benjamin's entry toward exploring the issues of translatability, liberation of meaning, and the hidden poetry in languages.

Unity and truth in language (through the translation medium) were concepts leading toward the dream for another language. Here we were given an optical image of translation as facilitating the view of the original through transparent lenses.

Ang pinakamataas na papuring masasabi, lalo na sa panahon ng pagkakaakda ng salin, ay hindi ang "nababása ang salin na para bang orihinal ito sa wikang pinagsalinan." Kataliwas nitó, ang halaga ng katapatan na sineseguro ng literal na salin ay nása pangyayaring sinasalamin ng akda ang marubdob na lunggating maging ganap (kompleto) ang wika. Lagusang-tanaw (transparente) ang tunay na salin: hindi pinalalabo ang orihinal, hindi tinatabingan ang liwanag ng orihinal, at sa halip, hinahayaang makapaglagos ang wikang wagas—na animo pinag-ibayong lakas ng sarili nitóng anyo—upang lubos pang masinagan ang orihinal. Nagagawang posible ito sa pamamagitan ng pagtatawid ng sintaksis nang salitâ-sa-salitâ; at ipinakikita nitó na ang salitâ, hindi ang pangungusap, ang orihinal na elemento ng salin. Sapagkat ang pangungusap ang siyang pader sa harap ng wika ng orihinal, ang salitâ-sa-salitâng paglilipat ang siya namang lagusan.

[It is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.]

It was translation that had the capacity to recall pure language, to build the wordy edifice of an expansive novel, sustained and animated by the power of the original novel, with a renewed and renewable force of imagination. The transparent prose of that great novel was the "arcade" or bridge that conveyed stuff both familiar and mysterious, recognizable and strange.

A language of unity, truth, and purity was a language against intolerance, wars, colonialism, racism, and tyranny. Linguistic translation as a liberating force against misunderstanding: this, for Benjamin, ought to be the translator's duty: Ang palayain sa kaniyang sariling wika ang wikang wagas na naengkanto sa banyagang wika, ang palayain ang wikang napiit sa akda sa pamamagitan ng muling pagsulat dito. (To release in his own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.) [3]. Pierre Menard was turning in his grave.


1. Quoted from "Ang Tungkulin ng Tagasalin" (The Task of the Translator) by Walter Benjamin, translated into Filipino by Michael M. Coroza, in Introduksiyon sa Pagsasalin: Mga Panimulang Babásahín Hinggil sa Teorya at Praktika ng Pagsasalin, edited by Virgilio S. Almario (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, 2015). All subsequent quotations in Filipino were from this source.

Coroza based his Filipino version of the essay on three translations: two in English (by Steven Rendall and Harry Zohn) and one in Spanish. All passages in English translations were from Zohn's translation of the essay, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-1926, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings.

2. In Coroza's Filipino version: walang habas na kalayaan (loosely: untethered freedom).

3. A literal rendition of the Filipino can be: "To liberate in his own language that pure language which was enchanted within the foreign language, to liberate the language incarcerated inside a work through rewriting of that work."