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Reviewed by:
  • The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines
  • Thomas O. Beebee (bio)
Vicente L. Rafael, The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. xviii +231 pp. Cloth, $79.95, hardcover, $22.95.

Rafael's book "examines the beginnings of Filipino nationalism in the later nineteenth century until the events of the revolution of 1896. It argues that early Filipino nationalism has its roots in the dual history of Spanish colonialism and Catholic conversion, and that it sought to account for its contradictory origins by means of translation" (xvii). Literary texts serve as important sources for locating Filipino fascination with and aversion to "Castilian" (as the Spanish language is consistently referred to by Rafael). Such literary sources range from the comedias of the early nineteenth century through the Tagalog epic, Florante at Laura, to the novels of José Rizal. In all of these, Rafael finds translation effects that point to Filipino use of Castilian for nationalist purposes.

The back cover places Promise of the Foreign in the categories of Postcolonial Studies, Anthropology, and History. The author holds a faculty position in history, but one could imagine him as a literary scholar or professor of translation, which is perhaps an indication of how much translation studies (a sub-field of cultural studies) and cultural history currently draw from the [End Page 529] same sources. One of the encomia on the same back cover, however, says that the book will also be "loved and emulated" by those in "comparative literary studies," while also noting its relevance for Southeast Asian studies. This review of Rafael's book is from the perspective of comparative literature and translation studies.

Philippine nationalist hero José Rizal (1861–96), executed by the Spanish for his activities in favor of independence, was the author of two novels, both of which Rafael treats at length. In El filibusterismo, recently reprinted in English translation but with the Spanish title preserved, by the University of Hawaii Press (2007), Rafael discerns the theme of authorship as a sublimation for anticolonial violence and revenge. Rafael's analysis of Noli me tangere, on the other hand, brings a variety of scenes—an "album of snapshots" (71) of Philippine life—into conjunction with each other to create the indirect image of a discourse network of nationalism that transcends and subverts colonial discursive practices. The plot of the novel revolves around a failed uprising engineered by the local padre to foil the protagonist's love for Maria Clara. Oddly, the uprising itself and its repression by Spanish authorities seem to be of little interest to Rafael (and to Rizal?). Instead, the "language games" that precede and follow the violence become the focus of analysis; these are conducted in a language of mourning that provides the basis for a discourse of nation.

In contradistinction to the analysis of Rizal, the two brief chapters on comedias—dramas/pageants versified in native languages on Spanish and European themes, especially the fights between Christians and Moors—eschew detailed analysis of any particular text, taking a more anthropological approach in terms of the celebration of actors, the attitudes of audiences and authorities to performances, and above all the presence of untranslated Castilian terms within the plays. Plot, language, and performance all served to make the plays transform Tagalog (or other local languages) into something else bearing the promise of the foreign. The following analysis, though uncredited, seems clearly indebted to Russian Formalist or Prague Linguistic Circle insights into literature:

The style of theatrical speech sets language apart from everyday discourse. . . . Language comes across as material artifice, palpable and audible apart from any instrumental function. In other words, speech in verse demands to be attended to as if it were another kind of language, one split between a regulated relationship between rhythm and rhyme on the one hand and a range of references crafted by tropes on [End Page 530] the other. The very form of the comedia then gives to the vernacular the sense of being two languages, not one.


In this fashion, the comedia may be seen as another...


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