Taste in Translation

To what extent should literary taste be thought of as a given, especially when applied to literature from elsewhere? As a number of recent posts on ARCADE have lamented the lack of translations into English and attention to the diversity of languages, it occurs to me that some of these inadequacies rest partly on underlying if unspoken notions about certain literatures in certain langauges as simply “more interesting” or even “better” than others. After all, it’s hard to devote inordinate amounts of time to a literary tradition one doesn’t enjoy reading (whether raptly or attentively). But it seems to me that while discussions on ARCADE have centered on explicit thematic or political dimensions as reasons for why certain literatures and writers come to be well-known in the United States, left unexplored are formal and aesthetic dimensions of literary preference that are an inseparable part of literary reception.

One example of this tendency can be found in Lee Konstantinou’s questions in response to a recent comment to Gregory Jusdanis’s post, “Writing World Literature in English”: “What is so important about the literary consensus within particular national climates that we should value its conclusions above and beyond the consensus within our own? Kazantzakis and Hagedorn are beloved among U.S. literary intellectuals but not among Greek and Filipino literary intellectuals, yes... but so what?” While Lee goes on to write that we in the U.S. should be self-critical of how we may “cynically love their novels because they conform to our imperialist fantasies,” he seems to leave behind the notion that one reason for why we should care about literary consensuses elsewehre is because they reveal formal and aesthetic qualities distinct from their overt politics or thematics, qualities which have the potential to enhance and expand our perceptions of literary possibility.

A clear way that these issues have come up in my own work on modern Philippine poetry, especially as compared to modern French poetry and the Negritude movement, is the former’s continued reliance on form even as the concept of modernity many Western literatures is predicated on its lack. As Jonathan Monroe notes as part of his brilliant reading of Aimé Césaire’s “Le Verbe Maronner” [“The Verb To Escape”]: “[T]he idea of returning to conventional forms of poetry would be comparable for Césaire to a willingness to submit once again to the shackles formerly placed around the necks and arms of slaves trying to escape.”* Having this conception of modernity in poetry left me puzzled that modern and contemporary Filipino poets continue to write in rhyme and meter even as they tend to assert a fiercely anti(neo)colonial stance.

It was only through a more thorough examination of their work occasioned by translation that I gained enormous insight into the processes involved in the persistence of form in Filipino poetry. As an example, I give you Ariel Dim. Borlongan’s “From Saudi with Love.” Here is the whole poem in the original and in my own translation:

From Saudi with Love
ni Ariel Dim. Borlongan

Kumusta na minamahal kong kabiyak,
Okey ba ang grades ng ating mga anak?
Ang aking Junior, nagba-basketball pa ba?
Si Anna, tiyak na siya ang Reyna Elena
At hinangaan noong Flores de Mayo,
Kumusta na si Kumpareng Serapio?
Kumagat siya sa kumalat na tsismis
Na kumaliwa ang kanyang misis
Kaya nagkunwari siyang tinotoyo
Sa araw-gabing pagsubo ng pako.
Ako tuloy ang napilitang tumanggap
Ng extension sa kanyang pagtuwad,
Ayos ba ang padala kong colored TV?
Nadale ko iyon sa raffle. Ano’ng sabi
Ni bayaw sa collection ni Springsteen?
Akala ko, makabayan siya, ba’t humiling
Ng imported? Teka nga muna, mahal,
Ano’t dumalang ang iyong liham?
Hindi ako bilib sa voice tape ni Inang
Na naloloko ka sa bagets na kapitbahay,
Alam mo naman ang hirap ng buhay dito….
Nakasosora na ang manok na elado,
Oo, may ubas, kahel, at mansanas.
Pero iba talaga ang Pilipinas.
Mula nang ilipat ako dito sa Riyadh
At wala nang balitang natanggap
Mula sa iyo at sa ating mga anak,
Laging alboroto ang aking utak.
Sa homesick, natukso ako sa beauty
Ng misis ng aking among Arabe.
Patawad. Huling liham ko na ito.
Sa Biyernes, pupugutan ako ng ulo.
From Saudi with Love
by Ariel Dim. Borlongan

Good day my love, my dear, my other half
I hope our children get good grades and laugh.
My Junior’s still the king of basketball?
And Anna? She must be the queen of all,
the one admired at Flower Festival.
And how is Sir Serapio, poor old pal?
He bought the wildly spreading rumor
His wife had found another suitor
So he pretended to go off the rails
And day and night he spent just eating nails.
I then was forced to be the one to take
His own extension when he couldn’t wake.
And how was that colored TV I sent?
I won that at a raffle. Hope it went
Well with your brother’s gift of Springsteen?
Claims he’s a patriot, but why so keen
On foreign things? But wait a bit my love
Why have your letters lately been so rare?
I don’t believe the tape of Grandma’s voice
That says you’ve snatched the teenage neighbor.
I’m sure you know how hard life here can be...
I hate the frozen chicken they feed me.
Yes, there’s orange, and grape, and apple too
But nothing like the Philippines with you.
Since I was transferred lately to Riyadh
And I have not received any letters
From you, my dear, or even just one child
My brain was fried, I think that I went wild,
Was homesick, so was tempted by the lure
Of beauty from my boss’s wife so pure.
Forgive me. But this message is my last.
I know on Friday they’ll behead me fast.

In my initial investigations of modern Filipino poetry, a movement that did not flourish until the 1970’s after the publication of the first book of literary criticism in Filipino, Virgilio Almario’s Ang Makata Sa Panahon ng Makinda [The Poet in the Age of Machines], I tended to steer clear of rhymed and metered poems. My own received systems of signification caused me to judge them as vestiges of colonization, as the Spanish brought the alexandrine form to the Philippines, which then became the basis for what is now perceived as the classic rhymed, twelve-syllable Filipino verse line. It irked me that Filipino poets were continuing to communicate modern themes through borrowed forms, often without any hint of irony.

What I discovered through translation is that the notion of form as shackle hardly applies in Filipino, where the more limited sound inventory and the cadence of the language makes meter and rhyme much more easy to accomplish. Filipino poetry’s assumption of form through colonial influence can thus be seen less as subjugation, but more as a formalization of poetic processes in place prior to colonization, so that it is not necessary for Filipino poetry on its own terms to dispense with form as a signifier of modernity.

In Borlongan’s case, it is in part the disruption of form that brilliantly captures the alienation and ultimate fall of a Filipino overseas worker in Saudi Arabia that is his subject matter. The poem gallops jauntily in twelve-syllable lines, which I’ve translated into iambic pentameter, only to disrupt itself midway through it’s penultimate line like the breath of the worker due to be cut as a result of his transgression. The effect of this disruption, palpable in English, is even more shocking in Filipino because of that language’s rhythm, the way that it more automatically arranges itself into utterances that have the feeling of regularly swaying back and forth.

Of course, there are many elements that are lost in translation, not the least of which is the interaction of Filipino and English especially in the rhymed endings. Gayatri Spivak has stated in her essay “Translating Into English” that she engages in translation in part to provoke the possibility that her work may inspire others to learn how to read the original.** Readers of Filipino thus have the unique pleasure of reading Borlongan pair Tagalog-derived words with English loanwords that produce the most wonderful slant rhymes--TV with sabi (say), Springsteen with humiling (wish). The source of their pleasure lies less in meaning than in utterance, so elusive in print, which only heightens the metaphor of taste not only as a matter of intuitive reaction, but also of learned appreciation. It is fortunate that one of Borlongan’s pairs--beauty and Arabe--is at least orally legible to more people since the second term is a Spanish loanword from the country’s first brush with colonization.

What the example above shows is that gaps in literary taste are not only a matter of politics or thematics but lie in realms of form and beauty that are at the core of why we read literature in the first place. And the reason we must pay attention not only to our own literary taste but to the taste of those from other places is because they provide myriad insights into the operations of literature, and broaden the ways that we perceive it possible for words and their meanings to interact. To settle into our own received taste denies this possibility, and to do so in a context of enormous material privilege participates in the prioritization of certain literatures merely as correlatives of economic power, rather than as subjects of critical interest and appreciation for their own sake. It is in this sense that we must not hasten to judge what is unfamiliar to us, and that it is only through great yet worthwhile effort that we can come to glimpse the worth of literatures that can be so easy to dismiss simply because they come from places or are written in languages that are unfamiliar.

* Monroe, Jonathan, “Mischling and Métis: Common and Uncommon Languages in Adrienne Rich and Aimé Césaire,” Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? Ed. Gustavo Pérez Firmat. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 1990, 290.

** Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Translating into English,” Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation (Translation/Transnation), Eds. Sandra Bermann, and Michael Wood, Princeton, NJ:: Princeton University Press, 2005. 93-110.

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