Thursday, November 23, 2023


Ralph Semino Galán’s translation of Merle Alunan’s Poem, “Tila Tula ng Pag-ibig,” from English to Filipino received First Place in the 2023 “Hubad Ta! Hubad Na! Translation Contest” sponsored by the Mindanao Creative and Cultural Workers Group, New Sindaw Writers Group, and Iligan National Writers Workshop. The Halo-Halo Review is pleased to present both poems as well as the Mr. Galán’s thoughts on his translation.


Appropriations and Approximations: Authorship,

Exactitude, and Poetry Translation in Theory and Practice

By Ralph Semino Galán


I shall begin my exegesis by problematizing the keywords of the title of this essay. Appropriation is the act of claiming something as one’s own. It is etymologically related to the word appropriate, which means “most suitable, fitting, apt, proper, correct, the right word.” 


Poet-translator Merlie M. Alunan avers that to come up with a successful translation one has to claim the poem as one’s own without betraying the spirit of the original, keeping in mind the Italian pun “traduttore traditore” (the translator as traitor); while Michael M. Coroza, another poet-translator, asserts that the translation of a poem must also be a poem, which Marne Kilates, also a poet-translator, refers to as “re-versification.” Keeping these theoretical guidelines in mind, I have ventured to translate Philippine poetry from English into Filipino/Tagalog.


Approximation, on the other hand, is the act or process of drawing together, which I am deploying to mean as the bringing together of two languages (i.e. source language and target language) in a common cause or emotion. But I constantly remind myself that an approximation is “a thing that is similar to something else, but is not exactly the same” 


In my desire to be loyal and true to the spirit of the original poem, I have opted to rely more on approximations rather than equivalences in my translation of Merlie M. Alunan’s “Sort of a Love Poem” from source language to target language, while at the same time appropriating the poem by inhabiting its particular linguistic and literary habitus or space through a thorough personal engagement in an attempt to arrogate it as my own.    


I will focus on my interventions as a translator to ferry across not only the literal meaning/fulness (otherwise known as mere transliteration or technical translation) of the original poem into the target language of the translation, but also to transport the poem’s literary features (metaphors and idiomatic expressions, among others), so that the reading pleasure (plaisir du texte) derived from reading my translation will approximate the jouissance of perusing the original text. 


As a general rule, I only translate poems which I personally like if not love, whose sentiments I can fully empathize with, and whose ideas I totally espouse. In short, I have to believe what the poems express—both in terms of deep emotions and lofty thoughts—for me to spend precious time in trying to follow the trail of their verbal labyrinths, and eventually unravel the mysteries of their literary constructions. Loving a poem in its original form will ensure that I will keep the faith in translating it into the target language, for as Fr. Albert Alejo avers in his book of poetry translations, Nabighani, “You do not betray what you love.” 



Problems of Equivalence in Poetry Translation 


Roman Jakobson points out the central problem in all three types of translation (i.e. intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic) is that while meanings may serve as adequate interpretations of code units or messages, there is ordinarily no full equivalence through translation, even in apparent synonymy. For example: scent, odor, fragrance, aroma, smell, and redolence are listed as synonyms, but each of them has its own particular nuance and shade of meaning that the others may not have. 


Because complete equivalence (in the sense of synonymy or sameness) cannot take place in any of Jakobson’s categories, he declares that all poetic art is therefore technically untranslatable: “Only creative transposition is possible: either intralingual—from one poetic shape into another—or interlingual—from one language into another, or finally intersemiotic transposition—from one system of signs into another, e.g. from verbal art into music, dance, cinema or painting.”      


The translation of idioms takes us a stage further in considering the question of meaning and translation, for idioms, like puns, are culture-bound. The same holds true with tropes and rhetorical figures, like metaphors and similes, euphemism and irony.


Menachem Dagut has this to say regarding the difficulty of translating a metaphor: 


Since a metaphor in the source language is, by definition, a new 

piece of performance, a semantic novelty, it can clearly have no 

existing “equivalence” in the target language, what is unique can 

have no counterpart. Here the translator’s bilingual competence 

is of help to him only in the negative sense of telling him that any 

“equivalence” in this case cannot be “found” but will have to be 

“created.” The crucial question that arises is thus whether a metaphor 

can, strictly speaking, be translated as such, or whether it can only be “reproduced” in some way. 



Translating “Sort of a Love Poem” 


Merlie M. Alunan’s lyrical poem is composed of 18 lines in six tercets, which is one of the features that attracted me to it. For the tercet as a stanzaic division, I have observed, when deploying it on my second poetry collection, From the Major Arcana, has these characteristics:   


In terms of versification, however, the number three in the form of the tercet does not only embody the rigidity of Apollonian order or the cthonic chaos of the Dionysian, but paradoxically both flexibility and stricture in lineation. In utilizing the tercet, I have realized that I can contain/sustain a thought unit by making the third line of a stanza end-stopped; or I can let the idea meander by making it a run-on line that spills over to the next stanza. Moreover, the ebb and flow, push and pull of the lines create a poetic tension which appears to almost mimic the rhythm of nature: cyclical like the changing of the seasons, circular like the endless sequence of birth, death, and rebirth.


In re-versifying Alunan’s poem, I have to respect its stanzaic divisions, which poses an additional challenge, since there is a tendency when translating poetry from English into Filipino for the silhouette or thickness of the poem to expand, or for the polysyllabic words to overflow into the next line. The last one is something I try to avoid like the plague—a poem originally written in tercets must not become a poem in tercets with occasional quatrains in translation. Otherwise, it shows a lack of technical control on the part of the translator. 


Musicality is another important quality of Alunan’s poetry, which I have tried to approximate by finding the best words in the best order in translating “Sort of a Love Poem” into Filipino. The title itself I have translated into “Tila Tula ng Pag-ibig” rather than “Parang Tula ng Pag-Ibig” or “Medyo Tula ng Pag-Ibig,” not only because it is alliterative, but also because the word “tila” suggests the apparent, or what is “clearly visible or understood; obvious” but at the same time “seeming real or true, but not necessarily so.”


Filipino as a language is blessed with words that rhyme, and this I have used judiciously to achieve euphony and mellifluousness, without sounding predictable in a singsong or nursery rhyme manner. Here are some examples: “ang mabigat na lupa, ang malalim na dagat.//“; “mga bangkay at kalansay ng balyena.//”, and “kakaripas,/ hihinga at hahayaang kukupas sa buhanginan/ Ang mga pulseras//,” whose “as” terminal sound is introduced earlier in the word “puntas.” In the last two lines I have decided to employ end rhymes, by using the word “nagtipan” (instead of “nagtagpo” or “nagkita”) to pair with “kaibigan,” to provide a sense of poetic closure. Incidentally, “tipan” the root word of “nagtipan” means covenant or agreement. 


Other rhetorical devices that I have employed for their auditory and sonic effects are alliteration (aside from the title, “linaw at liwanag”, and though spaced farther apart “bundok/ banlik/bangkay/balyena,” and “korales/kaligay/Kuwentong”) and assonance (too many to cite here one by one). 


Finally, in translating seaweed, I have chosen “lato,” which is a Cebuano term that has now entered the Filipino language through its gustatory inflection, rather than the cumbersome “halamang-dagat,” which would have increased the length of the line, thus destroying the silhouette of the poem. I have no qualms in including Cebuano words and phrases in my Filipino translations when necessary, like the way I have translated “How I miss you.” from Jaime An Lim’s “The Sorrow of Distances” into “Gimingaw ko nimo.” rather than into the more traditional melodramatic Tagalog “Nangungulila ako sa iyo.” or the more colloquial Taglish and contemporary-sounding “Miss na kita.” Nuances after all is not the exclusive domain of a dominant language, like English or Filipino. Cebuano can also enrich our perception and experience of the world and life through its unique words and turns of phrase. 



Sort of a Love Poem 


Alongside each other they lie, 

each one keeping to its side—

the ponderous land, the abysmal sea.


In the mountain, clarity and light, 

grey silt, downdrift sucking in 

carcass and skeletons of whale.


Perhaps on a September evening, 

the sea in a playful mood may curl 

upon the shore its wavelets of lace;


Beguiled, the somber land murmurs 

in a voice heavy with rocks and trees,

“Stay, stay awhile, a little longer.”


But the sea, tossing its frothy curls. 

gathers its weedy skirts and rushes away, 

sighing and leaving to fade on the sand


Its bangles of coral, cowrie and kelp.

A story, my friend, without a proper end.

And yet, I’m very glad we’ve met. 





Tila Tula ng Pag-ibig


Magkatabi silang dalawang nakahiga,

nananatili sa kaniyang puwesto ang bawat isa—

ang mabigat na lupa, ang malalim na dagat.


Sa bundok, may linaw at liwanag, 

kulay abo na banlik, pagguho na lumalamon

ng mga bangkay at kalansay ng balyena. 


Marahil isang takipsilim ng Setyembre, 

ipupulupot ng mapaglarong dagat ang puntas 

ng kaniyang mga alon sa dalampasigan. 


Mabibighani, bubulong ang seryosong lupa,

ang boses mabigat dahil sa mga bato at puno:

“Manatili ka, manatili ka muna kahit saglit.”


Ngunit ihahagis ng dagat ang mga bula, 

itataas ang malulumot na palda at kakaripas,

hihinga at hahayaang kukupas sa buhanginan 


Ang mga pulseras ng korales, kaligay at lato.

Kuwentong walang tamang pagtatapos, kaibigan.

Ngunit nagagalak ako na tayo ay nagtipan.





Ralph Semino Galán is prize-winning poet and translator, literary and cultural critic, translator, and editor. He is the Assistant Director of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, as well as a Professor of Literature, the Humanities and Creative Writing in the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters. He is the author of the following books: The Southern Cross and Other Poems (UBOD New Authors Series, NCCA, 2005), Discernments: Literary Essays, Cultural Critiques and Book Reviews (USTP, 2013), From the Major Arcana [poems] (USTPH, 2014), and Sa mga Pagitan ng Buhay at Iba pang Pagtutulay [translations] (USTPH, 2018). He is currently working on a research project sponsored by the UST Research Center for Culture, Arts and Humanities titled “Labaw sa Bulawan: Translating 300 Mindanao Poems from Cebuano into English (1930-2020)”


Merlie M. Alunan writes fiction and poetry in both English and Cebuano. Her poetry is collected in five volumes, namely, Hearthstone, Sacred Tree (Anvil, 1993), Amina among the Angels, Manila, (UP Press, 1997), Selected Poems (UPress, 2004), Tales of the Spider Woman (UST Publishing House, 2010), Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw ug uban pang mga Balak (AdMU Press , 2013), Running with Ghosts (AdNU Press, 2017). She was awarded the National Book Award in the 35th , 36th and 37th NBDB-Manila Critics Circle for four titles: Sa Atong Dila Introduction to Visayan Literature (UP Press, 2015); Susumaton Oral Narratives of Leyte (AdMU Press 2016; Tinalunay Hinugpong nga Panurat ha Winaray (UP Press 2017); and Running with Ghosts (AdNU Press, 2017), her latest collection of poetry. She taught literature at UP Tacloban College until she retired as Professor Emeritus of the University of the Philippines in 2008. Alunan has worked diligently for most of her life as a teacher in promoting writing and reading in the Visayan mother tongues.                                                                                                                           


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