detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Monday, April 23, 2001

: . I recently ordered a back issue (1898-1998: The Spanish-American War and Its Legacy) of culturefront, a now sadly defunct magazine of ideas once published by the NY Council for the Humanities. I got the magazine in the mail a week ago, only three days after I ordered it, but managed to read it only this past weekend. The highlights:

1. Vicente Rafael’s essay The Undead: Photographs from the Filipino American War—a much earlier version of what would become one of the showpieces of his collection White Love and Other Events in Filipino History. Rafael suggests that photographs of the Filipino dead in the Fil-Am War challenge the certainties of American colonial and our own nationalist narratives: the ghastliness of the corpses caught in film before the ceremony of burial resists the closure, and therefore the rites of separation, brought by mourning and historical representation. Rather, they figure as persistent, otherworldly presences drawing us to the limits of our understanding where we are always at a loss for words. He concludes:

The photographs are haunting—and haunted—precisely because they remain forever unburied and displaced. Their recovery can only lead to their recirculation, which never stops. Looking at them, we cannot close the circle or square accounts, determine blame, or seek revenge. Rather we find ourselves, whether ‘Filipino,’ ‘American,’ ‘Filipino-American,’ or some other, in the midst of spectral wanderings that historiographic narratives and centennial celebrations can only disavow and foreclose. Only then can we recall, if that is the word, the trauma and crime at the foundation of empire, the unaccountability of deaths in the course of war, and the perhaps inevitable failure to narrate the truth of a history that exceeds our capacity to see.

2. Luis Francia’s review of the Soledad Lacson-Locsin translation of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Francia regards the new, faithful translation as ‘clumsy’ and ‘awkward’ but ‘serviceable.’ Lacson-Locsin’s translation is therefore ‘more workmanlike than inspired.’ ‘Rizal merits a translator with the stature of Gregory Rabassa; but until we have a version that cannot be faulted, Lacson-Locsin’s rendering will provide a sufficient measure of the original.’

Gregory Rabassa is the great, Cuban-American translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez among other Latin American writers. I wonder why he hasn’t been recruited by some foundation in Manila to translate Rizal’s works? Other translators come to mind: Margaret Sayers Peden, the translator of Isabel Allende or Eliot Weinberger, the translator of Octavio Paz. Team them up with Ambeth Ocampo and we could have a truly topnotch Noli translation. Then there is the great Nick Joaquin, who at this very moment is very likely pickling his liver with too much San Miguel beer. He did a splendid job translating the writings of Filipino nationalist and Hispanophile Claro M. Recto in The Recto Valedictory. Why hasn’t anyone begged and pleaded with him to translate the Noli before he boozily fades away? Or why not summon Filipino academics who happen to be fine writers as well? Both Carol Hau and Vince Rafael have read the Noli in the original, have written about the book at length, and have offered their own fluid and sensitive translations of some Noli passages. All they need is a patron with deep pockets.

3. Jessica Hagedorn’s The Haunted Archipelago in the Year 2000 which I’m still puzzling over. The best section:

What does it mean to be (F)Pilipino? We are magnificent mongrels, the essence of hybrid. Hybrid is the future. Think Blade Runner. But, I say -- and there always seems to be a "but" looming about in these rich, rambling conversations of ours -- all those movie polyglots live in subterranean worlds, perennial outlaws and beatniks, while Harrison Ford gets to fly around being a noir-ish, futuristic detective.

Does mongrel necessarily = underdog?

4. Two photographic portfolios. One, entitled Flesh and Spirit features scavengers in Smokey Mountain and penitents in San Fernando, Pampanga. Extreme desperation and extreme faith. The other, The Question of Progress features impoverished Muslims and ‘pagans’ in southern Mindanao juxtaposed with their impoverished Christian brothers and sisters toiling in the dark heart of the Imperial Metropolitan Center, urban Manila. Needless to say, the photographs aren't as poignant or powerful as the the those found in Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines.

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