Navigating a Spanish novel in Hiligaynon

Poet, essayist, translator and physician Dr. Alice M. Sun-Cua. / Photograph courtesy of Dr. Alice Sun-Cua

There is a severe dearth of Filipino-translated works of outstanding world literature. Rarer still are translations into other Philippine languages, robbing Pinoys of the experience of cross-cultural enrichment.

Recently, however, there has been a number of efforts to fill the gap, notably by the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino’s Aklat ng Bayan project spearheaded by National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario — as translation itself as a serious literary practice gains support.

Most of the translations are works written in the English language. There are very rare attempts of translating works in other languages. The most recent is Dr. Alice M. Sun-Cua’s translation of Carmen Laforet’s Spanish novel, Nada, into Hiligaynon.

Published by Santo Niño de Cebu Publishing House, the translation aptly comes on the birth centennial of the Spanish writer, considered one of the most important contemporary European writers.

The Hiligaynon translation of Carmen Laforet’s novel in Spanish, Nada. / Photograph courtesy of Santo Niño de Cebu Publishing House

Laforet, born in Barcelona on 6 September 1921, wrote Nada, her first novel, in 1944 when she was 23 years old and a law student at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. Her work was quickly noticed and compared to JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It won the prestigious Premio Nadal. Laforet died in Madrid on 28 February 2004, and Nada lives on as one of the most important books in Spanish literature.

Set in post-Civil War Barcelona and loosely based on the author’s life, Nada follows 18-year-old Andrea, who goes to Barcelona from the province to live with her maternal relatives so she can study at a university. The novel depicts the pain and suffering of civilians, as well as the coming of age of the young protagonist as she navigates a new life in Barcelona, the difficulties of making new friends at the university, hoping to find love and acceptance.

The book has been translated into many languages and now includes Hiligaynon. Sun-Cua, an award-winning poet, essayist and physician who has written several books, felt an affinity with the novel, being from Iloilo City, Iloilo, before settling in Metro Manila.

“A few years back, in one of my visits to the bookstore Casa del Libro along Gran Via in Madrid, I chanced upon a book entitled Nada by Carmen Laforet. I was still in the intermediate level of my Spanish classes at the Instituto Cervantes de Manila, but the first few pages that I browsed through in that bookshop surprised me. There were some new words, of course, and some “strange” conjugations, but I could more or less understand the beginning of the story. It grabbed me by the throat, and I was hooked.

A 2020 edition of ‘Nada’ in original Spanish. / Photograph courtesy of Austral

“I brought the book home. But because I read very slowly, it took me almost six months to finish the novel, marveling at the twists and turns of the life of the protagonist Andrea. The manner of living during immediate post-war Barcelona was an eye opener for me,” said Sun-Cua, who is known for her travel narratives published in several periodicals and in books such as Riding Towards the Sunrise and Other Travel Tales (Anvil Publishing, 2000), which won the National Book Award for travel writing; Autumn in Madrid and Other Travel Tales (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013); Kissing Through a Handkerchief and Other Travel Tales (UST Publishing House, 2017); and Golden Kumquats in Trieste and Other Travel Tales (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2018).

Her favorite part of the novel is “the description of the mysterious, eerie house in Calle Aribau, and the clash of personalities among the characters which brought them so alive in my mind.” In 2017, she thought of translating the novel as a dissertation for a doctoral degree in Translation.

“I got caught up in the whirlwind of the translation ‘fever,’ although I was doing it slowly, as I had to choose the appropriate Hiligaynon translation. My mother, who used to be only a phone call away about the needed Hiligaynon words, was no longer with us, and those were the many times that I really missed her. We spoke Hiligaynon between us, and now sometimes I find myself groping for the words that somehow remain at the tip of my tongue or thought. They do not come out as easily as before, so I felt that this project has brought me closer to home, to Hiligaynon,” said Sun-Cua.

She pointed out that she wanted to promote regional languages, especially Hiligaynon, which is spoken by more than seven million people in the Western Visayas as well as in southern Mindanao, where many Hiligaynon-speaking migrants settled.

In translating the novel, she strove to be “faithful to the original.”

Spanish writer Carmen Laforet. / Photograph courtesy Instituto Cervantes

“There are many similar words in Hiligaynon and Spanish, so it was not that difficult to do the translation. However, there are still times that I was stumped so I have to look up the words in my reference dictionaries of which I have four, at the moment, or call up Ilonggo friends to ask,” she related. “An example would be the Spanish word bañera which means ‘bathtub.’ However, the same word, but spelled banyera in Hiligaynon means a large round container for water. I then used the exact word bañera in my translation, using italicization, and added an asterisk to explain, in the last portion of that chapter, that it meant a bathtub.”

Despite the challenges, Dr. Sun-Cua described the process as “a joyous undertaking, knowing that one has somehow bridged the language gap between the two languages.” She has previously translated Spanish works — Jaime Gil de Biedma in the Philippines: Prose and Poetry (Vibal Press, 2006) into English, and selected works of Miguel Hernandez in Recoged esta voz (Fundación Cultural Miguel Hernández and Instituto Cervantes, 2004) into Hiligaynon.

“I hope this translation will hold a bright light to Carmen Laforet’s novel, especially because it has so many ‘shadowed’ corners, literally and figuratively, that the word la tiniebla or ‘the dark’ may well describe it. Hopefully with this translation, more and more readers can appreciate her works, and enjoy the story. Perhaps too, this will be the start of a desire in them to learn Spanish so they can read not only this novel, but also other classic and contemporary literary works, in the original Spanish. Learning another language means broadening our horizons, opening ourselves to new worlds, a different universe,” she enthused. “Also, I would like to reach out and recover the voice that I grew up with, a language that, after the death of my mother, I hardly use now. It is a language I associate with my childhood, of a life filled with joy and happy family life, of home, wherever home may be.”

The Hiligaynon translation of Nada will be launched via virtual event on 5 June, from 4 to 6 p.m., through Zoom and streamed live through the Facebook pages of the Santo Niño de Cebu Publishing House. The books will later be available at Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila; at Savage Mind Bookstore in Naga City); through online stores; and directly from the publishing house and from the author.

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