Saturday, November 20, 2021


[Previously published in Kritika Kultura 31 (Ateneo de Manila University, 2021)

Filipino/English Play-Drive: Reflections on the Translation Game

By E. San Juan, Jr.

What does it mean to speak of the “interpretation” of a sign? Interpretation is merely another word for translation . . . What are signs for, anyhow? . . . They are to communicate ideas, . . . some potentiality, some form, which may be embodied in external or in internal signs. But why should this idea-potentiality be so poured from one vessel into another unceasingly? Is it a mere exercise of the World-spirit’s Spiel-trieb—mere amusement?

—Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Basis of Pragmaticism” (388)


What is translation? On a platter / A poet’s pale and glaring head. / A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter, / and profanation of the dead.

—Vladimir Nabokov, “On Translating Eugene Onegin” (531)


If all discourse is effectuated as an event, it is understood as meaning... It is this dialectic of event and meaning which makes possible the detachment of meaning from the event in writing.

—Paul Ricouer, ‘“Writing as a Problem” (321)

Translation studies as a disciplinary research field has recently become institutionalized in the Western academy, with university courses and publication programs devoted to it. Translators of European authors are highly paid in the trade-book industry. The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) has a flourishing trade in publishing English translations of obscure, esoteric texts. In a recent MLA Newsletter, Barbara Fuchs laments how, when the singer Jennifer Lopez interrupted her medley of songs in English with the Spanish translation of two lines of the Pledge of Allegiance during the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, her computer screen inserted the caption: “Speaking foreign language,” thus negating the point of her intervention. Fuchs objects to that “automated, mechanistic force of its characterization” as negating the singer’s “gesture of political inclusivity”: “While the performance was undoubtedly an important moment of signaling, its immediate framing as an interruption of the foreign, the untranslatable, the unknown—in the form of a language spoken by over fifty million people in the United States—signals the important work yet before us” (2). Fortunately, in the Philippines, we sing the national anthem in Filipino, spoken by at least 80 percent of 110 million citizens, not distracted by English captions. But in the daily practice of Filipinos in social media and in government and business affairs, English easily trumps Filipino or any of the vernaculars.

Translation may indeed be more than a gesture of political inclusivity. The Vulgate translation of the Hebrew and Greek Bible by Saint Jerome (347-420), adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, underwent diverse mutations in the national languages of the Protestant countries in Europe. Luther’s rendition and the King James version are easily the most influential. Incidentally, they all followed St. Jerome’s error of translating the Hebrew word keren (meaning “radiated light”) into “grew horns,” thus Moses was sculpted with horns.

St. Jerome should have followed Constance Garnett’s habit of leaving out words she did not understand for her translation of the Russian classics into English. The usual expectation that a cross-language version must be a carbon copy of the original, transferring facts, style, and structure of the source into the target language, is what business and government interpreters/translators must fulfill. But the literary translation of poetry, in particular, imposes more exacting demands. The complexity and singularity of the languages involved, not just structure (grammar and syntax) but also idiomatic or metaphorical networks, demands more rigorous standards. It thus involves what Schiller called “Spieltrieb” (407), an instinctive play- drive, whose object is the living form of beauty (Lebende Gestalt), the coalescence of material and form, being and becoming.

Schiller’s concept may be seminal but arguably utopian. Almost all practitioners seek a balance between extremes (the literal and tropological), between what Croce called “faithful ugliness or faithless beauty” (Holman 451). This may explain why the impulse to translate mutates into a demiurgic motivation to create an original, such as Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859). In any case, translation is not just a matter of producing verbal equivalents, either literal or not.

All translators produce what Charles Sanders Peirce calls “interpretants” linking signifiers to their objects on some ground, purpose, or rationale, not arbitrarily as Ferdinand Saussure assumed in his semiology. In Peirce’s semiotics, translations produce interpretants of three kinds: immediate, or the specific way that signifiers can be actualized in various ways; dynamic, or the “single actual event” or experience of making sense or getting the intent of the signifiers; and the final or logical interpretant, which is the understanding of or belief in the purpose or purposes for which the signs/signifiers are being used (“Lady Welby” 421-21). What this amounts to is that there may not be any agreement about the ultimate purpose or intent of the translation (the dynamic and final logical interpretant) except the attempt to actualize the immediate interpretant. In Peirce’s semiotics, “there is no final confluence of interpretations” (Short –), that is, there is no such thing as correct, accurate, or faithful translation leading to a consensus of beliefs because authors/translators vary in time and place, as well as readers/ listeners. Sociohistorical contingencies cannot be eluded and must be taken into account, one way or another.




This does not imply that anything goes, since meaning has to be formulated in further signs, into intelligible discourse for some community or other. Translation is then the versatile exercise of the play-drive. It is an artful linguistic game sui generis, its criticism a heuristic method for its appreciationThat is why, perhaps, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who at nine years old translated Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” into Spanish, advised that we attend more to the context (the cultural horizon of communication and nuanced speech-acts) than the text or the formalized referent (178). In short, the six functions of linguistic communication outlined by Roman Jakobson needs to be given appropriate assignments. To be sure, translation is a human, not machine, performance. This may explain why translators such as Edward Seidensticker (in the case of the Japanese Yasunari Kawabata) and Gregory Rabassa (with Gabriel Garcia Marquez) produced versions more genuine-sounding or authentic to their English readers. Consider then this conundrum: can the translation claim to be a sovereign, original source-text, with a life of its own not dependent on its author? We are then plunged into the abyss of endless semiosis.

Modern literary criticism since the romantic period posited the organic fusion of form and content, thus questioning the possibility of translation as a faithful convergence of linguistic life-worlds. Shelley, for instance, likened translation to subjecting a violet to chemical analysis while Robert Frost opined that poetry is “what gets left out in translation” (Hyde 200). Surely, no one expects a rigorously strict correspondence between source and target texts. The English poet John Dryden translated many classic works into the contemporary idiom of his time. He distinguished his practice as an act of paraphrasing the translated work’s style, “to vary but the dress, not alter or destroy the substance,” thus violating the axiom of the organic unity of form and content (Hyde 201). Contradistinguished from Dryden’s formula of paraphrasing, imitiation as a mode of synthetic mimesis or reconfiguring of the original may be exemplified by Robert Lowell’s “Imitations,” as well as by Ezra Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and Louis Zukovsky’s mimicry of Catullus’ Latin originals (Hyde 201). Whether paraphrase or imitation, this mode of translation seeks to capture the complex, singular phenomenology of a given artistic creation or artifice for their respective audiences, thus bridging disparate times and spaces.

We are reminded of Walter Benjamin’s concept of translation as the purgation of profane language so as to reach a higher spiritual divine level, releasing the “unexpressed and creative word” from its merely communicative use. However, paradoxically, we begin with the literal rendering of the syntax of words to capture the “intentio of the original”: “For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade” (79). The more incomprehensible the translation (as Holderlin’s version of Sophocles) since it is further up the ladder of truth or doctrine that language is the symbol of the incommunicable, Benjamin concludes, so much the better! The more wayward the translation, the more cogent it is, thus confirming the indictment: traduttore, traditore. This accords with Peirce’s semiotics and the hierarchy of interpretants (immediate, dynamic and final/logical), still cognizant of the six linguistic functions already invoked.

Before situating translation in the Philippine context, I want to remind would-be linguistic traders and word-players of the dangers involved in this act of transfer as a mode of communication. In the global conflicts today, thousands of Afghan translators/interpreters who worked for the U.S. military are facing assassination by the Taliban for their services. About three hundred of roughly 18,000 Afghanis have been killed since 2014; and thousands today face certain death as the U.S. finalizes its withdrawal from that war-torn country (Zuccchino and Rahim). Iraqi interpreters suffered the same fate when the U.S. destroyed and then withdrew from Iraq. One wonders whether Filipinos who translated captured revolutionary communiques for the American invaders in the Filipino-American War 1899-1913 were prosecuted, or those who translated/interpreted for the Japanese aggressors in World War II were ever brought to trial as collaborators of the enemy. Translation then becomes treason or treachery and betrayal depending on which linguistic, political camp one happens to find oneself in the end.

Historical specificity thus informs and determines the ethical-political valence of linguistic exchanges. What is instructive is the fate suffered by Arab scholar- translator Mohamed Yousry in the wake of  9/11. Yousry, a graduate student at New York University, was then employed by attorney Lynne Stewart who was convicted for allegedly aiding the blind Muslim cleric Abdel Rahman; Sheik Rahman was then serving a life-sentence in federal prison for conspiring to bomb New York City landmarks (Preston). Because Yousry translated from Arabic to English the messages of the cleric for attorney Stewart, he was implicated in the charge of violating prison rules, deceiving the government, and aiding terrorism. So translators, beware! Your scholarly talent and linguistic skills might render you vulnerable, since even the American Translators Association and the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators would not come to your succor in times of need or emergency, in a climate of moral panic and jingoistic exceptionalism.



One of the more provocative commentaries on the politics and ethics of translation has been made by Steven Ungar in his contribution to the anthology Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2002)Ungar summarizes the opinions of various scholars who assayed the poetics of translation as a cultural political practice open to ethical dimensions involving greater respect for linguistic and cultural differences. He cites Sherry Simon’s feminist view urging a cultural turn so as to promote a critical, pragmatic, or functionalist approach: “Instead of asking the traditional question which has preoccupied translation theorists—‘What is a correct translation?’—the emphasis is placed on a descriptive approach: ‘what do translations do, how do they circulate in the world and elicit response?” (131) (For the application of Jakobson’s functionalist linguistics on translation, see Aveling; also Heaney and Hass).

From that perspective, the historical-ethical situation of the translator in the Philippines is anomalous if not an affront to their Western counterparts. Who cares about Filipino/Tagalog poetry and its translation into English or other prestigious languages? In the early years of Spanish colonization, the Spanish missionaries destroyed much of the pre-contact literature composed in syllabary and initiated the lexicographical inventory of the vernaculars. The first translations of Tagalog poetry into Spanish were ascribed to Fernando Bagong-banta, a ladino or bilingual native. They were included in a religious instruction book entitled Memorial de la vida cristiana en lengua tagala (1605) by the friar Francisco de San Jose. Bienvenido Lumbera describes the priest’s “archaic metaphorical prose” expounding the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith (). Translation was thus a utilitarian, pedagogical instrument for proselytizing; in effect, it was weaponized for sustained evangelization in the service of imperial domination. Analogous to that pattern was the systematic imposition of American English as the official language in the first three decades of US colonial pacification of the Philippines (1899-1930).

Three centuries after Bagong-banta’s intervention, the Jesuit-tutored Jose Rizal deployed his language skills to educate his relatives by translating Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell and the French  Declaracion des droits de l’homme et de citoyen(1789) into Tagalog (Ocampo 120, 341-472). Katipunan leaders Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Jacinto followed Rizal’s example. In the period of revolutionary ferment, Filipinos who engaged in translation pursued a conscienticizing (to use Paulo Freire’s term) agenda—one might even label it “tendentious” translation—dictated by the needs of the embattled community. When English became the official and aspirational language of the US colony, the imperative to translate vernacular writing lost its rationale with the establishment of universal public education, the wide circulation of mass media in American English, and the inferiorization of indigenous speech-acts.



It is only in our recent history that translation—between the colonized and colonizer’s tongue—can be conceived as an emancipatory act. Moving from one language system/conceptual framework to another can be construed as not just a mode of cross-cultural understanding. It is also an exploration of our motives and purposes in engaging in the translation-act. One recent example is Bienvenido Lumbera’s adaptation, not translation, of Carlos Bulosan’s classic ethnobiography,America Is in the Heart. Lumbera’s artifice was not a symmetrical transfer but a re-functioning of narrative episodes in response to the political exigencies of the mass movement after Benigno Aquino’s assassination in , a strategy inspired by Paula and Carolina Malay’s earlier translation of the book into Tagalog, Nasa Puso ang Amerika, praised by Lumbera as endowed with rich, sutble, vigorous, “contemporary urban flavor” (Suri 291).

It is now difficult to obtain copies of Bulosan’s filipinized chronicle of the early diaspora. Those two play-drive attempts at verbal gaming may be compared with Jose Lacaba’s efforts to adapt (“halaw” is his rubric) to colloquial Filipino poems by Sappho, Marvell, Neruda, Brecht, Pound, Tu Fu, etc., and Pia Arboleda’s skillful translation of Ninotchka Rosca’s stories into Filipino, in order to gauge the distance between acts done under pressure (the mass protests against the Marcos dictatorship), and those performed in more leisurely, self-reflective fashion. The simple lesson is that we cannot appreciate and judge the art of translation detached from the historical-political situations of the translators, as well as their intentions, and the audiences that their projects addressed. Such variables constitute the parameters for evaluating the success or failure of translation-experiments.

This brings us finally to the question why we need to measure the power and potential of our vernacular tongue (in this case, Filipino) by the amount and quality of the works that have been carried out. The hypothesis is challenging, if not scandalous. In 2000, Mario Miclat cited the inventory of translations into Tagalog made by Lilia Francisco Antonio: two titles a year in 400 years since the Doctrina Cristiana (1593), the first book published in the Philippines. If it were not for the ladino Tomas Pinpin and his progeny, Miclat insinuates, we would still be barbarians, unlettered savages awaiting tutelage by our Castilian and Yankee conquerors.

Miclat is pleased to inform us of the three-volume translation of Alejandro Dumas’s Ang Konde ng Monte Cristo by Pascual Poblete, but he bemoans the fact that no one has yet translated Don Quixote. He therefore urges more Westernization, following the path of Japan and China, forgetting the status of Chinese and Japanese as exemplary, archetypal languages with thousands of years of usage and elaborate refinement compared to our relatively primitive vernaculars. Miclat remarks that we are too lazy; however, he abruptly concludes that “Having defined the Other, we have defined ourselves”—a wholly mystifying conclusion. Undeterred, Miclat observes that we need to “define our translation needs” and rouse ourselves to satisfy those needs without which we cannot belong to the affluent industrialized nation-states of Europe and North America.



A brief personal history may be instructive here. Long before I read Miclat’s alarming call and enjoyed the artifices of Lumbera, the Malays, and Arboleda, I had been recruited by the late Rogelio Mangahas in the 1960s to work with the collective Kapisanang Aklat, Diwa at Panitik (KADIPAN) compatriots. I helped Alejandro Abadilla edit his avant-garde magazine Panitikan. Long before I encountered the charge of “traduttore, traditore,” I had been engaged in this treacherous pursuit for some time. After a lengthy correspondence with the poet, I translated selected works of Amado V. Hernandez into English, published in 1966 as Rice Grains by International Publishers in New York—perhaps the first international edition for a Tagalog poet. The motive? Inspired by his fortitude during Cold War McCarthyism, I struck a friendship with the poet while completing my graduate studies at Harvard University where I discovered William James’s anti-imperialist writings.

The nationalist resurgence in the sixties combined with the Civil-Rights anti-war mobilization in the US produced an incalculable impact. Our generation shifted its bearings and orientation. In that conjuncture, I had begun to write in Filipino when I became more involved with other vernacular writers, especially with the feisty maverick Abadilla. Throughout the decade, I cooperated with Abadilla in publishing his anthology Ako ang Daigdig and other projectsand with Rogelio Mangahas in gathering materials for his 1967 anthology, Manlilikha, a project of KADIPAN, and the volume Makata by Makata, Inkorporada. We were also immersed in anti-martial-law agitprop and research into Filipino labor struggles, in particular the farm-workers movement in California and the Northwest where Bulosan and his comrades were active in the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union.

Historical circumstances ineluctably overdetermine personal choices. The nationalist upsurge from 1970 to 1986 influenced my decision to write fiction and poetry in Filipino and to publish in Liwayway, Free Press in Filipino, and other venues. I was encouraged in this by Hernandez, Abadilla, Mangahas, Ben Medina Jr., Teodoro Agoncillo, Anacleto Dizon, and others. This was before the bold effort to “intellectualize” the vernaculars in line with Virgilio Enriquez’s invention of “sikolohiyang Pilipino” and Lumbera’s historical inquiries into Tagalog poetry.

In high school, we were assigned Balagtas’s awit as an exercise in grammar and syllable-counting, oblivious to its ethico-political function. This is still the standard way of teaching this classic touchstone. In 1969 I ventured a philosophical exegesis of “Florante at Laura” entitled Balagtas: Art and Revolution, which Patricia Melendrez-Cruz and Apolonio Chua included in their anthology Himalay. Around the same time, the artist-critic Rodolfo Paras-Perez invited me to translate Balagtas’ poem accompanied by his drawings for a limited deluxe edition issued in 1978. The background for this translation is my Filipinization of Western poetics ranging from the Anglo-Saxon “The Seafarer” and “The Dream of the Rood” to Horace, Gautier, Holderlin, Lu Hsun, Brecht, McDiarmid, Hemingway, Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Langston Hughes, Vallejo, Mao Tse-tung, Ernesto Che Guevarra, McGrath, and assorted Vietnamese poets (see my Sapagka Iniigbig Kita at Iba Pang Bagong Tula). The milieu and vocabulary of those writers, not that of the hallowed George St. Clair version, mediated my play-drive performance or creative rearticulation of Balagtas’s epic narrative.



My English reworking or, more precisely, my prosaic imitation of Balagtas’s masterpiece was finally given wider reception in the NCCA 2019 publication of Florante at Laura: The Exhibition, curated by Annatha Lilo Gutierrez. The flavor of that postmodern rendering of the archaic awit may be discerned in my transfiguration of the penultimate stanza: “Therefore the militant masses, in gratitude, raised their clenched fists to the sky. The king and queen thought of nothing but to scatter the fruits of production to their partisans.” The original was bare: “Kaya nga’t nagtaas ang kamay sa langit, / sa pasasalamat ng bayang tangkilik; /ang hari’t ang reyna’t walang iniisip / kundi ang magsabog ng awa sa kabig” (Paculan 99).

The interpretants I marshalled above were intended to activate the emotive and conative potentialities of the source-text. Since my focus was on the target text/ contemporary audience, I had resorted to the alchemical strategies that Andre Lefevere had catalogued in Translating Literature. Taking account of the ideological/ political frame of the original, its illocutionary nuances, and contrived tactics to modernize a dusty canonical text, I opted to register the spirit, the structure of feeling, not the referential veracity of my source. Hence, the “clenched fists,” “fruits of production” and “partisans” conformed to the universe of discourse of the third- world, left-wing youth, and civil-rights movement of the translator’s time (compare the Victorian idiom and monotony of George St. Clair’s version). Immersed in the author’s milieu, I recalled how that awit inspired Rizal and the 1896 revolutionary propagandists. The aim of readability coincided with the imperative of capturing the ambience, the contour of sensibility, of the original.



Before the West Philippine Sea controversy, we were already fascinated with Taoism and Zen Buddhism via Ezra Pound and my teacher at Harvard, I.A. Richards, who had annotated Mencius’s speculations on thinking/mind. Mao’s Yenan Forum on literature was not far behind. The next act of “traitorship” occurred in the last decade of the twentieth century, with my Filipino version of Lao Tzu’s classic Tao Te Ching based on the interlinear translation of Gregory Richter. This method accords with Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice endorsing interlinear models as “the prototype or ideal of all translation” (82). Why this experiment? Well, before I studied Peirce’s semiotics, I was inspired by Pound’s technique of capturing the ambience of canonical texts (from Propertius and troubadours to the Analects and Japanese Noh plays). I was also then engaged in inquiries into materialist dialectics and its analogies in Taoist/Zen Buddhist dynamics. So the Tao was re-christened: “Landas & Kapangyarihan sa Makabuluhang Buhay.”

My other purpose in grappling with Tao Te Ching was to find out if the maxims of Taoism can be expressed in the vernacular idiom. Consequently, from the two last lines of the text in the English of Ames and Hall, “Thus the way of tian [heaven] is to benefit without harming; The way of the sages is to do without contending” (204), I inferred this insight: “Ang landas ng langit ay nagsasabog ng buti at pakinabang; hindi ito pumipinsala. /Ang landas ng pantas ay nagsasakatuparan nang walang pakikipag-unahan” (66). Notice that I do more “explicitation” or emendation, as well as compensation, to use Lefevere’s terms, to foreground the senses of “benefit” and “contending,” as well as insert the notion of achieving or fulfilling some intent or mission. Viewed from Peircean semiotics, I yoked the logical (legalistic) with the immediate interpretant (enigmatic), eliding the dynamic moment of interpretation which would reconcile contradictions by dialectical mediation. This preference for analogical mirroring or mimicry as a recreative mode of translation has been observed by Prof. De Villa in her comparative appraisal of various translations of Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, a problematic field of power/ knowledge which requires a longer analytic inquiry we reserve for another occasion.



What are the lessons deducible from the trials and ordeals of the Spieltrieb discourse of translation? Suffice it to mention one, for now. My discovery is that the Filipino lexicon needs to expand its power of abstraction. It is rich in feeling- words, gestures, vocabularies of perception and sensory apprehension (see Maggay’s Pahiwatig). But this sensorium, this organon of cognitive investigation, needs universalizing terms to appeal to a cosmopolitan audience schooled in the language-games of public argumentation from Plato/Aristotle to Kant, Hegel, Peirce, Freud, Russell, Wittgenstein, and so on. The vernacular contains words that are condensed or compressed, e.g., “buti,” that needs spelling out to elaborate its various semantic possibilities when used in diverse frames. The frame enables various scenes (connotations, tropes, expressive nuances) to surface, with the cultural/ideological contexts determining which ones are appropriate in conveying shades of meaning. Again, however, the translator’s paramount objective—to transport the source-text’s original vision, temper, modus of sensibility—serves as the controlling principle of the transfer strategy. The spirit of the original should dictate the final configuration of the product, as Heaney and Gass affirm in re- validating the efficacy of Pound’s practice.

As a testimony to what I have suggested above, I confess to fabricating an early specimen of traitorship. One can verify my failure to transliterate or transcode verbatim, but nonetheless generating a nexus of interpretants yielded by the actual process of reading/glossing on the purport of the chain of signifiers. In short, what beliefs or actions are stimulated in the reading process? Here is a famous poem by Pound entitled “The Return” followed by my version:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative 

Movements, and the slow feet,

The trouble in the pace and the uncertain 


See, they return, one, and by one, 

With fear, as half-awakened

As if the snow should hesitate 

And murmur in the wind,

     and half turn back;

These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”



Gods of the winged show! 

With them the silver hounds,

                        sniffing the trace of air!


Haie! Haie!

                        These were the swift to harry;

These the keen-scented; 

These were the souls of blood.


Slow on the leash,

     pallid the leash-men! (Pound 24)




Ang Pagbabalilk


Masdan mo, bumabalik sila; ay, sundan ang nagbabaka-sakaling 

Paggalaw, at mga paang mabagal,

Ang bagabag sa paghakbang at ang walang katiyakang 



Masdan mo, bumabalik sila, isa, at isa pa, 

Natatakot, at nangangalumata,

Wari bagang nag-aalinlangan ang yelo

At bumulong sa hangin, 

                 at lumingon

Iyan ang mga “May-Bagwis-ng-Sindak,”


               Di masalang, 

Bathala ng mga paang may bagwis!

Kasiping ng mga asong pilak,

               inaamoy ang bakas ng hangin!


Ay! Ay!

     Ito ang maliksing umusig

Mga matalim na pang-amoy; 

Mga kaluluwa ng dugo.


Malumanay sa buntot-page,

               maputlang umuusig! (San Juan 133).


The biographer Noel Stock considers this poem exemplary for “the poet’s feeling for the weight and duration of words,” illustrating Pound’s belief in “absolute rhythm . . . which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed” 1964, 89-90). Sensory, feeling-ful cognitive mapping of interpretants is primary. In comparison to the accentual music of English, the Filipino syllabic mode demonstrates the possibility of a different tempo, the staccato rhythm, which evokes approximately the emotion of diffidence, anticipation, surprise. Each language enables a range of illocutionary effects that parallel or resonate with those of other languages, hence fidelity to what the poet wants to accomplish.



When I wrote my 1966 essay “Translation and Philippine Poetics” after the Balagtas experiment, my orientation was primarily empiricist and formalist (following the American school of New Criticism). After my course with I.A. Richards in English poetics at Harvard University which utilized Roman Jakobson’s linguistics, I was fascinated by Jakobson’s schema of language functions, specifically his judgment that “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination” (358). What was missing was the historical or syntagmatic process in which discourse is inflected by the cultural shifts and ideological/political contingencies of addresser and addressee. The reason why the referential function of language, the context (out of the six functions of any communication that Jakobson diagrammed), is often sidelined is due to the stress on the message/the code.

Of course, the other functions—the emotive (addresser), conative (addressee), the phatic and metalingual, are operative, in accord with the structuralist paradigmatic/syntagmatic formula (353-57). Jakobson’s hierarchy of functions explains the varying qualities of translation, depending on which other function is allied with or catalyzed by the strictly poetic function. This then accounts for my tendency to conjoin the poetic with the conative or agitational impulse, as evidenced in my manner of translating my poems below.

Historical context is the desideratum for grasping what is worthwhile transferring. This is what I highlight when rendering the following three poems in Filipino, with the premise that readers today are familiar with the historical events and sociopolitical conflicts surrounding “Bangkusay,” “Smokey Mountain,” “Mendiola,” etc. “Elehiyang Nabuking Binigkas ng Batang Tubong Blumentritt” itself alludes to Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Austrian scientist and close friend of Rizal. “Bangkusay” designates the Spanish conquistador’s defeat of the Muslim indigenes of Tondo, near Fort Santiago. “Smokey Mountain” connotes ongoing impoverishment of a neocolony ruled by oligarchic violence (killing of Mendiola demonstrators during Cory Aquino’s presidency). The same goes for the second poem, “Lakbay ng Baguntaong Naglagalag,” where the most important reference is the recent event of a fishing boat rammed by the Chinese in the disputed zone of the West Philippine Sea, as well as to allusions of historical events from the Tamil Tigers (the Maoist guerillas) in Sri Lanka to Rizal’s tulisan filibusteros/ rebels mounting an attack on Fort Santiago in Intramuros, the famous Walled City, signifying the hoary centuries-long burden of Spanish colonial heritage.

Parenthetically, innovative transfers, not just faithful imitations, can create miracles. Consider how the Portuguese singer Dulce Pontes transformed the erotic resonance and ambience of Ennio Moricone’s “Love Song” (from the Italian spaghetti Western film, Once Upon a Time in the West) into “Amor a Portugal,” which has become a Portuguese anthem via the Internet—a dazzling performance witnessed by millions on YouTube. She converted the original text’s imagery of “Your love shines in my heart” into the impersonal “A thousand fires burn without being seen” in Portuguese, evoking the spirit of fado and the generic thematics of longing. Could we do the same with a new version of “Dahil sa Iyo” or “Bayan Ko” via traitorous transmigration?



Lest I end with a futile apologia for betrayal, allow me to use my translation of an older poem that captures the sense of estrangement linking various personae, locations, and historic intervals. My translation of “Biyernes nang Hapon sa Oktubre, Willimantic, Connecticut, USA” hopes to earn the trust of those already instructed not to expect fidelity, only assurance of the effort to aspire for being worthy of it.

Deploying a mock-surrealist tone in this poem, I attempt to suture the referential and phatic to the conative function of Jakobson’s linguistic chain so that a chain of immediate and dynamic interpretants are generated simultaneously. Meanwhile, the contemplative voice of the speaker reflects on the historical transition from rural-farm town to urban-money economy (neoliberal globalism) in the United States, especially after 11 September 2001, which inaugurated the “Global War on Terrorism.”

The speaker observes the cracks in the asphalted road (like wounds) from the town of Willimantic, Connecticut, to the American-Indian-operated Foxboro Casino near New London, a nuclear-submarine base. The pasture-land where Pequot Indians lived long ago have been covered by a bridge with sculpted frogs on each side, reminiscent of the legend in which frog-cries warned colonizing villagers of Indian attacks. Gone are the frogs like cigarette stubs while pigeons fly around, searching for food. Especially on Friday at dusk, folks drive southward to the Foxboro casino to gamble, chance governing future stakes. Here I combined immediate, dynamic, and logical interpretants so as to fix a belief in doubting the propaganda about extremism when the inaugural genocide against native Americans (Pequots) remains stark proof of the lethal irrationality of disastrous neoliberal casino imperialism.

Indeed, after 9/11, what’s the future for migrant Filipinos avoiding the lack of employment in “shithole” countries threatened by Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists? Is Willimantic a refuge for non-white “strangers”? Is the dream of success in milk- and-honey America an illusion behind curtains of decrepit windows in decayed towns? Here, the referential/denotative function blends with the sound symbolism of the Abu Sayyaf, Pequot, Bridge of Frogs, and Foxboro casino, in a climate of fear, doubt, and unpredictability evoked by “sugat na umaantak sa lamat” and “Naupos na sigarilyo’y ibinurol . . .” The last two lines cannot really be conveyed by the English phrases because the efficacy of the words “sumingit” and “sinisilip sa gunita ang kutob at kilabot” depends on recursive sound echoes, while “Abu Sayyaf” and “Amerika” fuse into a menacing brew of hope and aversion. I recommend that readers just listen to the sounds of Filipino after the English prose summary to apprehend the sense/meaning as well as somatic resonance and import of the original poem, as Benjamin suggested.

Given the discordant texture of the Filipino text, I am doubtful if the English version can really convey the poignancy of the anger and pain in the source-text. This is only to say that the translator ironically succeeds by urging the reader to learn Filipino, to go back to the original, since the traitor always betrays. The melancholy ordeal of translation—as transubstantiation or sublimation of the source-text— confirms our tragic plight in the Tower of Babel, wondering if silence can be the only viable or feasible alternative. We can afford to be lazy, not translating Don Quixote, because we live in a more violent, quixotic time with nuclear windmills all defying control. But why do we need Google’s translation engine when we are plunged in jouissance, singing the refrain “magkasiping buong gabi” from a popular Rico J. Puno song?



Three Poems with English Translations by the Author



Oo, tapos na, ’di na tayo pupunta sa Tondo ng ating kamusmosan— 

Kung saan sabi mo mahal mo ako, di malilimutan—Tapos na iyon! 

Di na tayo babalik doon—Oo, sa Bangkusay o Plaza Moriones—

Hindi ko na matandaan kung sa Tayuman o Bambang tayo unang nagkita 

O baka sa tren sa Tutuban o sa loobang sanglaan sa Divisoria . . .

Oo, ’di na tayo babalik sa Tondo, doon sa lumundong dulo ng buhay—


. . . Hindi ko na nga maalala kung saang liko sa Juan Luna ang daan . . .

Oo, tapos na, ngayong gabi nagpasiya kang tapos na ang pagsuyo— 

Gabing kay lungkot, umaapaw hanggang sa estero ng Binondo 

Hindi na tayo babalik doon tulad nang nakalipas—Ay, hindi na!

Hindi ko na magunita kung saang sulok sa Tondo tayo nagtapo 

Tapos na, hindi na tayo babalik sa Gagalangin—mundong kaylupit! 

Kung saan ang sumpang binitiwan ay naligaw sa tulay ng Dimasalang

. . . Hindi ko na nga matandaan kung saang liko sa Dapitan lumisan . . .

Oo, ’di na tayo babalik sa pook ng lambingang ngayo’y Smokey Mountain . . .


’Di ko na nga maalala kung saan kita naiwan, saang lugar babalikan— 

Kapus-palad na pag-ibig, ay, nasawi sa mundong nagsalabit sa pangako—

Ay tapos na, ’di ko na nga matandaan ang daang papunta sa Tondo—


’Di ko na magunita ang tipanan sa Quiapo? Sa Mendiola ba o sa Luneta?

Oo, tapos na, ’di na tayo babalik sa tinding niyapos, ay, kumilig sa pag-sinta—

. . . Dito na lang kayo muna sa Blumentritt pagkagaling sa Culi-Culi, 

Nakalimutan ko na ang ruta papunta sa sementeryong La Loma—

Oo, hindi na tayo babalik, hindi na, tapos na, magpakailanman— 

Pagkasiyahin ang pira-pirasong pulutang napanis sa gabi ng sumpaan . . .






Yes, it’s over, we’ll not go to the Tondo of our childhood

Where you said you loved me, never to be forgotten—

That’s finished! We’ll never return to that spot—Yes, Bangkusay or Plaza Moriones—

I can’t recall whether it’s Tayuman or Bambang where we first met, Perhaps in a Tutuban train or an indoor pawnshop in Divisoria...

Yes, we will not go back to Tondo, there where life’s horizon-line sagged—


. . . I can’t remember now which street-turn in Juan Luna marked our path . . .


Yes, all over, tonight you decided that our dalliance is ended—

A night so wretched, overflowing up to the stinking canal of Binondo . . . 

We will not go back there as we did before—Aie, no more!

I cannot remember at which corner in Tondo we first met,

It’s finished, we’ll not retreat to Gagalangin—a world utterly ruthless! Where our promises, disavowed, got lost on the bridge in Dimasalang . . .

Indeed, I cannot remember which street-corner in Dapitan I fled from . . .

Yes, we will not withdraw to the place of caressing, now Smokey Mountain . . . 

I can’t recall now where exactly I left you, where I should retrieve you— 

Curse-stricken love, Aie, victimized in a world bewildered by promises—

Aie, it’s done, I can’t remember the streets leading to Tondo—

I can’t find in memory our trysting spot in Quiapo? Or Mendiola or Luneta? 

Yes, it’s finished, we’ll not go back to the pain we embraced, amorous shudder—


Let’s stay here, linger in Blumentritt after visiting Culi-Culi,

Anyway I have forgotten the route debouching to the La Loma cemetery—


Yes, we will not go back, no more, it’s over, forever and ever—

Let the fragments of this appetizer suffice, spoiled in the night of avowals

and disavowals . . .





Pumalaot na, walang tiyak na daungan o dalampasigan—

Kung saan ko naisip makarating, wala ako roon, humantong man . . .


Sandaling sumungaw sa butas ng aking himlayan, bulalakaw!


Nakabalik ka rin mula sa Taormina, sintang balikbayan, 

Tumupad sa pangakong magbabalik kung kinakailangan


“Kusang binangga kami ng Intsik, di kami tinulungan— 

Umikot muna upang tiyaking lumubog na, tapos tumakbo!”


Batid mong ngayon ay inaanod, napapadpad sa kinabukasan

Kaya hindi ka na tumigil sa Thessaloniki, naibsan ang pighati—

Sabi ng pilosopo, ang gumugulong ay di hihinto hanggang di pinipigil . . .


Umiiwas ka sa unos o sigwa, di mo akalaing babanggain ka . . .


“Oo, umikot sila, nilente kami, nang matantong lubog na, 

Dagling sumibat, tumakbong palayo! Walang awang mga hayup!” 

[Testimonyo ng kapitan ng GEM VIRI, 6/14/2019]


Nakabalik na mula sa Colombo, Sri Lanka, taglay sa pusong nawindang 

Ang memorabilya ng Tigreng Tamil, mandirigmang nakaligtas . . .


Kung hindi ikaw, sino ang sasagip sa nasawing manlalayag? 

Umiwas ka sa lagim ng sakuna, sa tukso ng Mutya ng Bali,

Kundi ngayon, kailan pa? Saan isusugod ang katawang naipit?


Binangga kaming pumalaot, lumayag, tinawid ang panahong masungit . . .


Binangga nga—Gulat, nasindak, daigdig mo’y abot lamang sa hiyaw 

Ng saklolo sa dalampasigan ng Davao, Jolo, o Zamboanga—

Buti’t di ka napikot ng aswang sa Siquijor o tokhang sa Mindoro—


Binangga ka ng maamo’t mailap na buwitre ng imperyong sumasakop—


Di na kailangang humibik, ngitngit ng himagsik sa kapalarang nasapit— 

Bakit nga ba tumawid ang hayop sa kabilang ibayo?

Tanaw mo na sa pinto ng San Agustin ang kumakaway na bisig—

Sa Balwarte ng San Diego naglalamay armadong kaluluwang lagalag . . .







[From the Philippine Customs Declaration Form No.117, Item #7 prohibited: “Materials advocating or inciting treason, rebellion, insurrection, sedition against the government of the Philippines”]


Shipped out, no definite pier to reach or shoreline—

Where I thought of arriving, I am not there, even if the drift compels the traveler . . .


For an instant, through a hole in my sleeping quarter, flashed a shooting star!


So you’ve returned from Taormina, beloved expatriate, 

Fulfilling the promise that you’ll come back if needed—

“We were rammed by the Chinese, they didn’t help us— 

They circled first to make sure we’ve sunk, then scrammed!”

You know now you’re being carried away, floating toward tomorrow 

So, therefore, you did not tarry at Thessaloniki, with grief subsiding—

The philosopher taught: what is rolling will not stop until it is impeded . . .

You were trying to elude squalls or storms, you didn’t suspect they will strike . . .


“Yes, they turned around, spotlighted us, when sure we were sunk, 

Swiftly they fled, sped away! Beasts devoid of pity or mercy!” 

[Testimony of the captain of the fishing boat GEM VIRI, 6/14/2019]


You’ve returned from Colombo, Sri Lanka, bearing in your bruised heart 

Memorabilia from the Tamil Tigers, guerilla warriors who survived . . .


If not you, who else will save the disaster-stricken voyagers? 

You evaded the misery of accident, seduced by the Muse of Bali, If not now, when? What will the wrecked body assault?

We were rammed, far out in the ocean, defying the miserable weather . . .


They hit us—Shocked, panicked, your world touched only by the shout

Of succor at the shores of Davao, Jolo, or Zamboanga—

Lucky you were not tempted by the Siquijor witch or police-killers in Mindoro—

You were rammed by gentle but sneaking vultures of the colonizing empire—


No need to cry out for help, rebellious anger at the fortune encountered— 

Why indeed did the animal cross the road to the other side?

You can glimpse from the door of St Agustin’s church those arms waving— 

At the San Diego rampart, in nightlong vigil, armed souls wandering . . .






Sa hapong tag-lagas may sugat na umaantak

Sa lamat ng mga kalsadang aspalto sa lungsod na dating pastulan ng mga 

katutubong Indyang Pequot.


Anong kabulaanan ang itinatago ng mga kortina sa durungawan? 

Hindi alam ng mga kalapati kung ano ang kulay ng pag-asa.


Naupos na sigarilyo’y ibinurol ko sa tabi ng Tulay ng mga Palaka 

Habang patungo ang prusisyon ng trapik sa Foxboro Casino

na pag-aari ng Indyang Pequot.


Kung bakit sumingit sa isip ang Abu Sayyaf?

Sa takipsilim ng taglagas sinisilip sa gunita ang kutob at kilabot 

bago tayo naglakbay patungong Amerika.


            (Oktubre 1, 2005, Willimantic, Connecticut, USA) 





In the autumn afternoon a wound festers
in the crack of the asphalt roads in the city once a pasture field for the native 

Pequot Indians.


What fraud and deceptions do the window-curtains hide? 

Doves and pigeons do not know the color of hope.


My cigarette stub I interred beside the Bridge of Frogs
while the traffic procession headed for the Foxboro Casino now owned by the Pequots.

But why does the Abu Sayyaf sneak into the mind?
In the Fall’s twilight hour I sneak into memory’s fissure, a voyeur filled with

           apprehension and terror

                                                            before we journeyed to America.



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E. San Juan, Jr. is emeritus professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut and Comparative American Cultures at Washington State University. He was recently visiting professor in the Department of English of University of the Philippines Diliman and Cultural Studies professor at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. His recent books include Faustino Aguilar: Kapangyarihan, Kamalayan, Kasaysayan, Metakomentaryo sa mga nobela ni Faustino Aguilar (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2121); Carlos Bulosan—Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States: A Critical Appraisal (Peter Lang, 2107); In the Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation, Ethnicity in the Postmodern World (Lexington Press, 2117), and Sisa’s Vengeance: Jose Rizal’s Sexual Politics and Cultural Revolution (Vibal Publishing, 2120).



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