Journey to One’s Own Culture

Filipino author Victor Sugbo speaks with passion about his experience in bringing the Waray literature and culture. Here’s what he said in a session about ‘Regional Vs National and Global Literatures’ at APWT’s 2015 conference.

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It became a return to my cultural community of which I had little knowledge. I knew more about English and American literature and society but not Waray literature.

 

I BELONG in the Philippines who, after graduation from the university, did not know anything about literature in my first language, Waray.

I had little knowledge about the Waray as a people. My father would sometimes mention the name of a playwright in Waray, but I did not bother to inquire about this writer’s works further because he seemed remote and irrelevant to my immediate concern then, which was to find a job.

Things took a different turn for me when my graduate professor in Language and Literature—the doyenne of Bikol literature, Maria Lilia F. Realubit of the University of the Philippines—invited me to sit in a national committee for literary arts at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.

It was here that I met for the first time professor writers and critics who wrote in English and who came from the regions. They were the who’s who in the literature of the country. I was the initiate trying to understand the serious concerns of the academics and writers.

Though most of them wrote in English, they advocated the revitalization and propagation of Philippine literature in the other languages.

While they were having translation and anthology projects for their respective literatures in their mother tongues, I was compelled to propose an anthology project on Waray literature. This began my deep involvement in the translation of Waray language and literature. I started studying the myths and legends in Waray.

Waray

Initially I had difficulty reading Waray texts since I was conditioned to reading English medium books most of the time. I was able to overcome my reading difficulty only by reading with an open mind and shedding attitudes. My intention was to produce an anthology that was to introduce readers to Waray literature.

Inasmuch as I expected that the audience of the anthology would be the Waray speakers who had developed an aversion for reading Waray texts, I had to translate the literary texts to English. This was my way of bringing the Waray back to their literature and culture.
Translation became my own adventure into the Waray language and culture of my father and grandparents. It became a return to my cultural community of which I had little knowledge. I knew more about English and American literature and society but not Waray literature.

During the preparation stage of the anthology, I read documents and tomes on the history of Leyte and Samar and the outlying islands. One of the books revealed that in these islands during the 1600s different kinds of oral poems were sung on different occasions.

The ancient people had a sophisticated way of predicting weather. They had a flourishing boat building and jewelry industries. I also learned about their ancient customs and manner of dressing, and gathered their songs from existing museum collections; translating the songs was fun because I learned about their witticisms and ironic humor.

Translating the published literary works found in periodicals from the 1800s to the 1960s revealed that the Waray language had not really undergone drastic changes in vocabulary and syntax. The poetry over this period provided the narrative fabric of the social history of the people.

In the 1800s, the men were shy and since courtship customs were a bit difficult to follow, they expressed their feelings though love songs that revealed their sad plight. In the 1920s, the poems reported that people began to copy the manner of dressing of the Americans. In Calbayog, for instance, there was a time when women wore bathrobes when they went to market as they thought this was the fashion.

In the 1930s and 40s, during the American occupation, the writers assailed the people’s changing mores. The Waray began speaking English. Their women now spent more time preening before the mirror, wearing sleeveless dresses to the annoyance of the men. Government officials were flaunting their power in the community. About the Japanese war, the poets wrote about the heroism of the Waray soldiers.

In the ’50s, after World War II, writers riled against women who started to wear make-up, dress like Westerners, speak English to create snob appeal, and marry American soldiers instead of the local men. The literature during the period showed the writers’ growing apprehension over the increasing dominance of English in the weekly newspapers and similar periodicals. They worried that very few writers were writing in Waray. At the time, a sizeable number were already writing in English and since their works were imitations of American and English poetry and fiction, these did not elicit any significant attention from the educated Waray.

My translation of the Waray literary texts to English in the early 1990s was designed for the Waray who preferred reading English texts and who did not consider literature in Waray to be significant. The intent was to make them begin reading Waray literature after understanding the translations in English, and to have them appreciate their taken-for-granted literary heritage. My other intended audience were those starting to write in Waray. In a sense, my translation work was not intended for the international community of readers.

Today, after numerous writers workshops in Waray, young and new writers have produced new poetry and short fiction in Waray, which they occasionally translate to English. The absence of local publication venues, like periodicals and magazines, has pushed them to publish their works in e-zines and similar venues in cyberspace. The aim here has been to get critical notices from serious critics in the country and attract a wider reading community around the globe.

Globalization of information as an upshot of the new media could have been the channel for making the literatures of other Philippine languages known globally. They do not have to be approved nor endorsed by the powerful critics of Manila. By translating these works to English and making them available in cyberspace, they could now be read by literary critics outside the country. The majority of these works, however, have not earned the interest of these critics and readers; for this reason, one can say that the opportunities of having one’s literary output known globally are merely illusory.

Perhaps, one can learn from the experience of Brazil’s poet par excellence, Carlos Drummond de Andrade whose works got significant attention from the English-speaking world when these were translated to English sometime in the ’80s by Elizabeth Bishop and Mark Strand, two of America’s much admired poets.

The case of Miroslav Holub from Prague, Czechoslovakia took a different route. It was the translation and the “excellent introduction” by noted American critic, A. Alvarez that made Holub widely known. Federico Garcia Lorca of Spain became widely known with the translations of his poems to English by translators Rolfe Humphries, Ben Belitt, Stephen Spender and J. L. Gili.

Clearly, the road for an excellent writer toward international renown is for his works to gain first the critical attention of either accomplished American writers or translators who have good working relations with their publishers. The good fortune that came to Andrade of Brazil, Holub of Czechoslovakia and Lorca of Spain took place long before the onslaught of globalization. Today, the scene has not changed.

Apparently, in the realm of globalization, a little known writer’s work, particularly that coming from a developing country like the Philippines, gathers energy only when an international writer of renown or translator takes notice of the former and translates the text to English.

 

Victorio N. Sugbo has been a Professor of Communication and Literature at the University of the Philippines Visayas. He holds a PhD in Communication, an MA-Tesl and an MAIR, all from the UP Diliman. He has published articles in national refereed journals and edited books. He has likewise papers in international conferences. A poet, he writes in English and Waray (his mother tongue). His poetry has been included in national and international anthologies and periodicals.