I have just finished translating a Bikol novel into English. Some hours ago, I stepped away from the world of Niles Jordan Breis, the multi-awarded writer. It felt, by way of the message I sent Breis, I had left a place I would never visit again, a time I shoud never be in any future.
Other translators with numerous and varied experiences need not announce such a terminus. They would be preparing to venture into another act of translating—another time, another deadline. But I was never the default translator in that group called Savage Mind. When Kristian Sendon Cordero handed me the novel Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan, I saw it as entrusting me with a map. That was all. I don’t think publishers hand out advice to translators. They should not in fact. They know that translators are, to quote a deadly, cheesy existentialist cliché, condemned to be free.
Unwritten were other mundane and menial matters—that I would be paid for this travel, for the solace and empty moments spent looking at the laptop, wondering whether I had enough terms and labels that would allow me passage into that distant and complex past conjured by Breis.
As I am, by training, an anthropologist, I immediately conceded to one approach to translation: this will be my anthropological fieldwork that, according to James Clifford in the paper, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” as both a scientific “laboratory” and a personal “rite of passage.” For Clifford, the two metaphors “capture nicely the discipline’s impossible attempt to fuse objective and subjective practices.”
The objective approach was going to be provided by what I first considered as “an arsenal of vocabulary,” an idea that would not be fruitful in the long run, for that word “arsenal” delivers an image of a combatant, as if to translate was to wrestle with another world, instead of a negotiation, a re-appropriation, even a resignation in the face of a construct that had no equivalent in the English language. Even this attitude that was commensurate to giving up became part of an academic exercise, an intellection necessary when imagination did not suffice anymore.
The subjective approach to translation is the most common: we come into the deal of translating a work that is in one language into a piece that is now delivered by a different language, with the power that we can do whatever we can. We have been authorized to bring that world into worlds where new or alternative sets of comprehension are now available.
Did it matter that I was a Bikolano translating a work of another Bikolano? Did understanding that culture comes first or were the cultures embedded in the words and moving them from that space into another space or spaces meant naturally and organically interpreting the society from where they came from? Or, did that even matter? Fidelity to the field was the rule.
In the world created by Niles Breis was a land that was bisected by a cliff that fell into the sea and hills climbed by rebels or those that did not follow the law of the land. Between those geographic extremes was a town peopled by child-savants and old temperamental women who could read faces like tarot cards. In the middle of the town was a kind of magic garden planted to taro, the delectation of the region turned into enchantment. The episodes turned violent sometimes but always dreams entered the picture and a hazy atmosphere took over. The prose by turns became lyrical or matter-of-factly.
I knew then and there that when I leave that place I would like to bring the memories of a place as the storyteller meant it to be—a time and space of languor, loss, recovery, remembering, and murderous resolutions.
“These emotions should color my translation,” I told myself.
As I proceeded, I began to realize a profusion of terrifically passionate, breathless prose. It was here that I opted to enjoy the process—to respond to the rush manufactured by the long-winded, complex sentences of Breis in Bikol. While in the original, there was a marked need for “asin,” translated as “and,” I took the liberty of using other coordinating conjunctions and marveling at the fact that the meanings and nuances were not affected by that intervention.
In general, the sentences in Bikol are complex and compound and lengthy. I opted not to touch or edit them, allowing the circuitous ideas to surface and enabling the convoluted syntax (only from the perspective of the English grammar) to be celebrated. I only touched them when the apprehension of the ideas they were carrying were difficult to get through.
Is empathy with characters needed for the translation to be compelling? How do we understand corpses that do not rot and decay? How to embrace a person that is imagined and becomes real? How do we deal with a man whose palm yields the image of a taro leaf, which then gets transferred to a little boy’s palm?
In the end, when the narrator visits to gaze at the incorruptible body of her friend, she remembers the instruction of another friend: Open the palm and blow on it. The wind that comes from you will enable the truth to come out.
Of the four months I spent translating Niles Jordan Breis’s novel, a great part was opening my palm, when I was about to give up, and blowing on it to bring out the truth from behind the words.
Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan was declared winner Ex Aequo in the first Premyo Valledor for Bikol Novel with Jerome Hipolito’s quasi-experimental romp of a confessional. Both are published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press. I was one of the jurors in this competition.