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Rizal, via Augenbraum March 2, 2007

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.

Penguin Classics did something last year that passed beneath the media radar for the most part until well into the holiday season: the company published Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, newly translated from the Spanish by scholar Harold Augenbraum.

This is the first time that a Southeast Asian title has found its way to the imprint’s collection of classics, but by no means the first time it has been translated into English. Leon Ma. Guerrero’s translation is perhaps the most widely available, though in recent years Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s has been gaining in popularity. Then of course there is Charles Derbyshire’s English translation, which I had always perceived to be the definitive translation of the Noli into the language.

The obvious question ripe for asking is how well this new translation measures up, not just against those that have come before it but against the legacy of the Noli and its author. The answer: quite well. From his delicately crafted introduction, Augenbraum succeeds in contextualizing the novel within the Philippine revolution while assuring readers that he strives to be as faithful to the original Spanish text as possible. At the same time, it is evident that Augenbraum interprets the Noli from a unique, though not at all unfamiliar, viewpoint: in this translation, Rizal’s contempt of Church abuse is arguably more seething, and the overall sense of desperation at the iniquities from Spanish colonial governance much more pointed.

Naturally, this makes for a refreshing take on the Noli, but one that is not without its own shortcomings, if they can be called that. True, Augenbraum has perhaps come up with a translation of the great Philippine novel that will be accessible to English-speaking audiences, and it is pleasing to see that Rizal’s social critique resonates with as much force, if not more, to an “outsider”. However, rightly or wrongly Augenbraum also holds back on some of the weightier issues in the Noli, particularly whether the author’s intention was a call for reform or independence. For instance, the pivotal discussion between Crisostomo Ibarra and the anti-hero Elias is an even more perplexing “about-face” as I’ve read it depicted in a long time.

Overall, it is heartening to know that Rizal’s opus rates as an international classic and that outside the archipelago there is interest in the Philippine struggle. For international audiences, this translation should be a welcome addition to prior editions previously available on the internet at sites such as Project Gutenburg or Filipiniana.net. At the same time, readers on Philippine shores would do well to revisit Noli Me Tangere via Augenbraum, if only to see it with fresh eyes.



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