Crossing languages
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - October 12, 2019 - 12:00am

This week, I received a message from my publisher, Penguin Random House in South East Asia. They asked if I would be interested in translating Lope K. Santos’s master work, Banaag at Sikat? This novel published in 1906 will be the first book from the Philippines that will form part of the Penguin Classics series to be launched in 2020.

Naturally I said, “yes,” since I will be free for the most part of December and, true to my nature, I hunkered down to work. Since I do not have my copy of the novel with me in Malaysia, where I live, I looked for a copy in the internet. Lo and behold!, the South East Asian Studies Library of the University of Michigan has uploaded a copy.

I also came upon the excellent essay written by Bayani Santos Jr., a grandson of the late novelist and one of our professors of Journalism at The Manila Times College, where I served as a dean and later as a president.

In a scholarly article published in Unitas, the academic journal of the University of Santo Tomas, Professor Santos translated the first chapter of the novel. He also enumerated the challenges a translator would face when working on this novel.

“The Filipino sensibility. The translator must understand the locale and the qualities and sensibilities of characters, and the author’s intentions in each character, their strengths, follies, and comic or tragic qualities. In this effort, the translator ought to discern the ‘equivalent’ sensibilities recognizable to the contemporary audience. Although a translation is assumed mainly for English-reading Filipinos, the translator must consider the possibility of a ‘universalized’ translation.”

Another issue was “conflict of literary traditions. Western authors and critics… are against long, essayistic remarks of characters that tend to reflect the position of the author with the arguments presented and represented in the characters. The translator is faced with the choice of adhering to the original text and intent of the author, or resorting to the simplification or corruption of the text, with the expurgation of long dialogues.

“The English tradition now commonly frowns on essayistic dialogues as those found in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. In a similar vein, western-oriented readers may find cloying the prolonged lovers’ spat and the courtship between Meni and Delfin in Chapter 1 of the Santos novel. But the translator stood by the author in his intent to depict the elegant courtship and the lovers’ spat, which readers of contemporary literature my find rather excessively sentimental or romantic.”

Professor Santos also deals with “customary traditions. The novel is a documentation of the mores, cultural norms, fashion and traditions at the turn of the century and presumably for centuries before. For example, the translator has to understand what difference in social status a buntal hat confers on the wearer. This demands sociological historical research.”

Lastly, the novelist’s grandson points out the importance of the flora and fauna to show the richness of Antipolo’s land at the turn of the 20th century. “The novel is so precise even in the description of the flora of Antipolo. The equivalent terms in English are themselves obscurely known, except to the experts. The translator would benefit from the rich vocabulary of a bilingual botanist.”

I am now working on the first chapter, and indeed, many of the arguments that Professor Santos hold true. I have lived mostly in the Philippines, and in fact spent some years living in Antipolo in the 1980s. The gap of 70 years must have brought vast changes to Antipolo, which is now dotted with subdivisions. But since I am also an avid student of the Filipino psychology, I think I can pass muster the challenge of dealing with the Filipino sensibility.

As for the second point, I will have to follow the route taken by the late ambassador and writer, Leon Maria Guerrero, when he translated Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo “for a contemporary audience.” His translations were published by Longman Publishers in the UK during his tenure as our ambassador to the Court of Saint James. To ensure the smooth flow of the narrative for the modern reader, Ambassador Guerrero edited the prolix scenes with long dialogues that sound like speeches and essays. Since the translation I will be doing is for the modern readers, challenged as they are with limited attention spans and an aversion to slow scenes, I will go for a faster pacing by pruning sentences that do not move the story forward.

As for the need to do sociological and botanical research, we have ample materials at the Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University, where I will return to teach in January, that could help me in my research for the perfect context or the perfect turn of phrase.

I think another important consideration for a translator is to find the voice and the tone of the novel. I translated The Fault in the Stars, a popular novel by John Green, into Filipino, and the most challenging part was getting the tone right. The novel deals with young and intelligent American teenagers who are both ill. I needed to capture the tone of the teenagers’ voices when they speak, as well as render it into Filipino.

It helped that I taught English and Creative Writing to American students at Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2001, when I was on a post-Fulbright Scholarship program. Moreover, I have been teaching at Ateneo de Manila University for 30 years and have taught three generations of English-speaking, Hollywood-watching, students. I used to have a teenaged nephew in the house, as well as my adopted daughter who was then turning 12. I would eavesdrop in their conversations and study how they speak, their idioms, the very words they used.

But what really horrified me was when I saw that the novel had excerpts from William Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot! I almost burst my blood vessels translating these difficult writers. The excerpts from Julius Caesar, “Seven Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and The Wasteland” haunt me still. I did translate them, yes I did, but with fear and trembling!

Comments can be sent to

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with