Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 27 December 2017


A few days before Christmas, I was in a bookstore looking over titles that are worth reading and gifting. For me, a trip to a bookstore is mainly one of quiet adventure and discovery.

Bookstores and the nation’s literary pulse. The titles one sees in a bookstore provide some indication of how strong the nation’s literary pulse is . Often, I get the feeling that the pulse is very weak.

In our country, real bookstores are relatively few. What often pass for bookstores are elaborate stationery shops. Yet, as an economist I understand that owners of such stores are mainly responding to the market.

The books are there – but most of them are of the school-need types: dictionaries, how-to books, textbooks, pulp fiction, children’s books, comics, magazines, and entertainment.

But lately, there are bookshops with a small section that carries what I consider a literary or “serious” segment, where some great literature or writings of authors that we search for gets merged with books that most people want at the moment.

The Filipiniana section is often quite sparse, and so too is the section devoted to serious literature. The National Bookstore is a favorite place to go for its branches are easily found. Powerbooks and Fully Booked are much fuller bookstores, but they are fewer. In the old days, La Solidaridad (in Ermita district) represented the ideal small bookhop, but it has not thrived over time.

Filipino writers and their audience. On this occasion, I saw noteworthy new items on prominent display. For one, a noted international publisher of books has published under its Penguin classics series a collection of Nick Joaquin’s representative works under the title, The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.

The same publisher has put together F. Sionil Jose’s Rosales sagas under a single volume and Jose Garcia Gacria Villa’s collected poems, Doveglion.

Slowly, I ask myself, are foreign publishers waking up to Filipino authors to publish them for a larger international market? There is no contemporary Filipino writer with a world audience today. Is this due to the insularity of our writings in English, the fewness of the writers, and the small base of readers of serious literature.

Alternatively, this state of affairs might mainly be the result of poor marketing effort. A potential market might be there to be exploited. Yet, no one has yet fully succeeded in doing so, if it does exist.

Our local publishers have also been active in pursuing the same market. This year, Anvil Classics put out a new edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.

Translations of classic literature. A pleasant surprise greeted me in the Filipiniana section. Among the new books is a translation of Dante’s Impiyerno into Filipino by Resty Mendoza Ceña, a linguist scholar.

Dante Alighieri was the major poet of the Italian Renaissance of the 14th century. He wrote The Divine Comedy, of which Inferno is the first of three volumes. One is tempted to ask not in jest, but seriously, if Impyerno is here, would Purgatorio and Paradiso be far behind?

If this is a sign of things to come, this could be the beginning of a new awareness of the importance of classic literature translations in enriching our own.

Actually, there is a dearth of translation works for foreign literature in our own language, Filipino. The plain fact is that there is no strong market to respond to. Or if there is a market to develop, the writers of translated works are not there to do the job.

This is happening because our educational and literary institutions have failed to encourage our scholarship to undertake the job of doing the translations. If our scholars were well paid in their jobs, they would be content to dedicate their lives to their scholarship, their life’s works. I notice for instance that Impyerno’stranslator, though he publishes extensively in the Philippines, lives abroad and earns his income there.

I have yet to see a translation of important classic literature of foreign countries into our Filipino language. Has anyone seen a translation into Filipino of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s great works? There are no Filipino translations of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, to name only two well-known foreign classics.

But there is a major classic that is translated into Filipino and many local languages. This is The Bible. The translations have been done by the religious orders. With their mission to convert and to sustain the flock of faithfuls, they have invested long ago in the hiring of writers to do the translations. This explains why we have many translations of the Bible not only in Filipino but also in our other substantial local languages.

A disconnect? Even our successful writers in English have not been translated into Filipino. Is this because those who write in Filipino do not appreciate the writings of our compatriots who have written mainly in the English language?

Possibly, there is a great disconnect of the literature in Filipino written by those who write in that language and the literature of Filipino writers who write only in English for the audience. Is it the case they are separate genre and the two shall not meet?

Are we to know of NVM Gonzalez, Francisco Arcellana, Nick Joaquin, or Sionil Jose, to name some of the famous Filipino fictionists, only through their English writings.

Jose Rizal, only the one most translated. The most translated among Filipino writers is no other than our national hero, Jose Rizal. His writing in Spanish is translated into English and also into Filipino.

Rizal’s two novels, Noli Me Tangere and of El Filibusterismo, have been the most translated of Rizal’s work. Of the English translations, those by Charles Derbyshires and by Leon Ma. Guerrero stand out, the latter being the more recent.

Rizal translations into Filipino are plentiful, especially as a result of the educational requirement to put Rizal in the curriculum.

However, lately, Virgilio  Almario, the national artist, has provided us with the most distinctive Filipino translations of these two novels, both having been recently published within the last decade.