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Rediscover the Roles and Potential of Women in “Mga Munting Babae”

The classic novel Little Women is now in Filipino with the title “Mga Munting Babae.”

At a time when so many of us feel so drained by the chaos created by corrupt and unintelligent governance exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a relief to read narratives that both entertain and inspire.

Recently, Southern Voices Philippines—a small publishing house in Quezon City that carries a big mission—launched a translation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.”  A classic, Little Women is the first of a series of books Alcott wrote about the March family of Massachusetts in the late 1800s in America, the sequels being “Good Wives,” “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys.” 

This time, read the adventures of sisters Jo, Meg, Beth at Amy in the vernacular.

Alcott wrote Little Women at a time when women in America were not allowed to vote, were not required to acquire a formal education beyond grammar school, and were essentially limited to the roles of spinsters, heiresses waiting to be engaged, or mothers. A feminist and suffragette, Alcott wrote “Little Women” as a means to make her own independent living, but also as a tribute to women and their innate talents and gifts that were then being “protected” against the world.

By describing in interesting and loving details about the lives of the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and their mother Marmee (their father—a Civil War chaplain and Protestant pastor – was a calming presence in the background for the most part), she revealed to the world what creativity, compassion, skill and intelligence women are capable of. Such women were then told by society to stay at home and to keep “harmless pursuits” like sewing, cooking, keeping house. The March sisters did all of these tasks and duties, but they did more—they wrote stories and plays, read the classics, painted, learned music, sang, studied foreign languages like German and French.

They did all this within the confines of their home and their immediate neighborhood.

Imagine if these women had been allowed or had been given the means to pursue higher learning! The intelligence and compassion they were capable of could have been shared with even more others, and the rest of society would have been made all the better for it.

On feminism and the roles of women

Still, some have called the book “anti-feminist” for how the March sisters eventually found contentment even if they never really pursued careers. This is understandable. The standards we now apply for what makes a woman a role model are now much higher compared to what they were back in Alcott’s time.  

For young readers who have yet to discover themselves and what they truly want, however, the book shows a way to begin: by working hard and cultivating one’s skills. And for adult readers –stay-at-home mothers among them—they can find comfort in how the book gives importance to the role of women in strengthening families, in guiding their children, and simply making homes a place of love of comfort.

Feminism, after all, is also about recognizing the many roles of women and all their little, big, and cumulative contributions to improving society so it can move closer to humanity’s highest ideals. It should not exclude women who do not achieve greatness beyond being living with honesty, righteousness, and respect for others.

And Filipino readers—especially women and girls –can find inspiration from the March sisters’ resilience and from how the values they lived by made them more than just little women but good women. The simple aspirations and daily efforts at goodness that ordinary people have are enough to make their lives worthy. What else can be done to make life profound will rely on the impact it can make in the lives of others.

Translations serve

To make ideas and ideals accessible

These narratives describing humble but meaningful lives have been translated into Filipino by alternative classroom educator and women’s rights advocate Sophia Flor Perez and award-winning writer, poet, and University of the Philippines Prof. Rowena Festin. Both Perez and Festin are members of the Gabriela Women’s Alliance, the highly-respected political organization of Filipino women championing the rights of women and children.

Perez and Festin have succeeded in making Little Women more accessible to Filipino readers—especially for women and girls—by writing it with the aim to introduce characters whose experiences and circumstances may be similar to their one in varying degrees. The concepts of women empowerment and the realization of potential are introduced in “Mga Munting Babae” in how each of the March sisters is described to live with dignity and resolve, even when they each had weaknesses and small vanities. Their poverty was never a barrier to their learning. Their being women was a strength, not a burden. They did not rely in the men of their lives for the decisions they made and the paths they took—they were friends, partners, and equals with them in relationships of mutual respect.

What Perez and Festin aimed for in “Mga Munting Babae” is the preservation of the characters’ personalities and the motivations and dreams that sustained the energy and meaning of their waking hours. The difficult technicalities of the art of translation aside, they utilized the lens and the perspective of progressive Filipino women to convert a narrative written in English and make it more familiar and even relevant to Filipino readers.

The translators have also explained at length in posts and videos posted on Facebook that it is impossible to exactly translate books because of differences in cultural contexts, geography, and of course the meaning of the words themselves—and how they are used in metaphors, aphorisms. Literal translations never do well, but by embracing the fluidity of language and how good translations serve to enrich the language used in the translation, the resulting work will not be inferior.

And given that “Mga Munting Babae” is the work of feminists, it would not be at all surprising  if the novel’s dialogue, characterization, and narrative exposition have taken on a more progressive tone. This only makes the book better. When it’s progressive women translating the meaningful work of other women, there is a level of guarantee that the integrity of the original work is maintained.  

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