Column: Erasing Ateneo

Published on June 16, 2009. A modest tribute to a school that turned 150 years old two days before the column came out. Contrary to the view of some of my more assertive readers, however, I did not criticize the erasure of “el Ateneo” from the Penguin edition merely because I was, I am, an Atenean. Give me a little more credit than that.

In the Penguin Classics edition of “Noli Me Tangere” (2006), translator Harold Augenbraum renders the title of the seventh chapter, “Idilio en una azotea,” as “Idyll on a terrace.” I think I can understand why; the meaning of “azotea” would still be transparent to a Filipino reader today, but to the international audience of Penguin-reading English readers, it would be opaque. “Terrace,” on the other hand, falls trippingly off the tongue.

But something else is lost too, when Juan Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara de los Santos meet for the first time since the young gentleman’s return from seven years of study in Europe. In the famous balcony scene (“balcony,” in fact, is how Leon Ma. Guerrero, translator of the popular 1961 edition of the “Noli,” renders “azotea”), the two lovers exchange gigabytes of information without saying a word, through what Augenbraum, a Latino expert in the United States and the executive director of the National Book Foundation, describes as “the language of their eyes.” But they also talk, both teasingly and in earnest.

At one point, Maria Clara responds to Ibarra’s effusive declaration (“Could I ever forget you?”) with a modest recollection (“Unlike you, I haven’t traveled.”) She then says: “We were still children; your mother would take us to swim in that creek in the shade of the sugarcane. So many flowers and plants grew on the banks, and you would recite their names to me in Latin and Castilian, since you had already begun your studies at the athenaeum.”

Athenaeum? Surely Rizal meant Ateneo? Just to be sure, I checked. “Athenaeum,” in the New American Oxford Dictionary that comes bundled on Macs, is first defined as a noun “used in the names of libraries or institutions for literary or scientific study,” and then as a noun “used in the titles of periodicals concerned with literature, science and art.”

In the wonderful, if sometimes wrongheaded, Merriam-Webster online dictionary, two senses are also recognized: “a building or room in which books, periodicals, and newspapers are kept for use” or “a literary or scientific association.”

Did Augenbraum think Ibarra learned the names of “so many flowers and plants” in a library?

Since some kind soul has uploaded the Berlin edition of  “Noli” to Scribd, it is possible for anyone with an Internet connection, even those like me who cannot read Spanish beyond root words, to read the novel, or at least parts of it, in the original.

“Eramos  aun  niños:  fuimos  con  tu  madre  a  bañarnos  en  aquel  arroyo  bajo  la  sombra  de  los  cañaverales.  En  las  orillas  crecian  muchas  flores  y  plantas  cuyos  estraños  nombres  me  decias  en  latin  y  en  castellano,  pues  entonces  ya  estudiabas  en  el  Ateneo.”

There you go.

Augenbraum knew Rizal studied at the Ateneo; he says so himself, in his fine introduction to his own translation. Did he perhaps think that “el Ateneo” was much too local a reference for an international audience of English readers?

This seems to be the same tack favored by Guerrero, like Rizal a brilliant graduate of the school that was founded a mere two years before the hero was born (and whose 150th anniversary the Society of Jesus and its many sons and daughters celebrated only last Sunday).

His version of this part of  “Noli” is not in fact a translation but a paraphrase—a limpid rendering, but still a paraphrase. Guerrero wrote: “Once they had gone bathing in the river with his mother. He had already started school with the Jesuits in Manila, and had told her the Latin and Spanish names of the familiar plants and flowers on their way, but she had gone off chasing butterflies.” (The eminent scholar Benedict Anderson’s takedown of Guerrero’s translation is worth a closer look, some time in the future.)

The translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin (1996) substitutes “bamboo clumps” for “sugarcane,” and seems like a faithful and modern-day re-writing of the original: “We went with your mother to bathe in that stream under the shade of the bamboo clumps. Along the bank grew many flowers and plants with strange-sounding names that you kept teaching me in Spanish and Latin, because by then you were studying at the Ateneo.”

(I note that Locsin rendered “castellano” as “Spanish,” displaying a surer touch for the way Filipino readers think. For a Filipino, “Kastila” means not something from Castile, but anyone from Spain.)

The Ateneo is mentioned a second time in the “Noli,” when rumors about the disturbance in San Diego town and the role of the Jesuit-trained Ibarra whirl through the friaries of Manila. One friar expostulates (Augenbraum’s translation): “You see? He’s a student of the Jesuits. Subversives come from the athenaeum!”

This seems to me now like a deliberate decision on Augenbraum’s part to “genericize” Ibarra’s school. I find this hard to understand, because the Penguin edition has space for 278 footnotes. (Footnoting is exactly what Locsin did, introducing the Ateneo Municipal as a school that used “the most advanced methods of instruction then known in Europe,” and as Rizal’s alma mater.)

I raise this point, not only because I mourn the loss of what journalists call “local color” (blue and white, of course, to this alumnus), but because important context is missing. Rizal’s novels were meant to provide its original readers the shock of recognition; details, such as the new and already influential school run by the Jesuits, were integrated into the narrative as signs of currency, of contemporaneity. “This is now.” (Indeed, in “Fili,” Rizal carries off the uncanny trick, first practiced by Cervantes, of including real people’s names—among them his brother and his brothers-in-law—in the story.)

“El Ateneo,” in other words, was a sign of the times.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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