Column: Rizalian advice: ‘Putoc kong putoc’

I try to confine my Rizal-related column-writing to his birthday and his death anniversary. But pressed for time sometime the last week of November, I used the material nearest to hand. As it happened, the previous day I had been taking notes on Rizal’s correspondence. Published on November 24, 2009.

“Putok” is easy enough to explain to foreigners, although in Father Leo English’s monumental Tagalog-English dictionary, it occupies over a page of entries and choice sentences. English, for instance, makes a distinction between putok and “sabog,” which he defines as the sound of an explosion.

For our purposes, we can agree that putok means “explosion.” (In colloquial Filipino, of course, putok is also and often used to mean, ah, a unit of sexual commerce.)

Reading Rizal’s correspondence, I chanced upon an idiomatic use of putok that inadvertently revealed some curious patterns of translation—but at the same time also suggested a standard of behavior, a way of coping, for those suffering persecution.

The advice makes sense to anyone who has ever made the difficult but necessary decision. (I guess that includes, let me see, vice presidential candidate Edu Manzano.)

The letter, dated Sept. 6, 1890, is from Rizal’s eldest sister, Saturnina. (One possible point of reference: this was about the same time San Miguel beer was first brewed.)

She writes, among other things, about another misfortune visited on the Rizal family:

“Si Paciano, Antonino, Dandoy, Silvestre, Teong ay ipinalacad sa Mindoro ngayong hapon las cuatro y media; kami ni Sisa ang humatid; hindi kami umalis sa muelle hangang sa di tumulac ang vapor “Brutus” na kanila sinacyan. Silang lima ay masasaya; kami naman ay hindi nalumbay na paris niong unang lumacad si Maneng ngayon ay nabibihasa na ako, lalo at cung maalaala cong ang mga nangyayareng ito ay sa kagalingan ng lahat ako’y sangayon sa sabi mong putoc kong putoc.”

Part of the satisfaction one gets from reading someone else’s letters lies in the revelation of personality. In Neneng’s letter, we can imagine the busy life of the wife of an exile (Maneng is Manuel Hidalgo, her husband, and the first of the family to be banished on account of Rizal’s work). There are the grammatical infelicities, the run-on sentences, even, at the start of the passage, the blithe or breathless refusal to use an “and.”

The English translation most widely available (even on the Internet) is by Encarnacion Alzona, the most prominent of Rizal’s English translators, from “Letters between Rizal and Family Members (1876-1896),” one of the many volumes published to help mark the centenary of Rizal’s birth in 1961. In Alzona’s hands, the passage becomes:

“Paciano, Antonino, Dandoy, Silvestre, and Teong left for Mindoro at 4:30 o’clock this afternoon as exiles. Sisa and I accompanied them until the pier and we remained there until the departure of the steamer Brutus on which the poor ones were embarked. The five of them left gladly, it seemed. We the same; we did not look sad nor did we lament it as we did when Maneng was exiled for the first time. I’m now getting used to the pains of separation, and especially when I think that these cruelties and misfortunes would result in the welfare of all the more my faith in everything you said to me is strengthened.”

Note the many improvements. An “and” is inserted into the list naming Rizal’s brother and relatives. The politically explosive word “exiles” is appended to the first sentence. The five exiles are described as the “poor ones.” Their gaiety (asserted simply by Saturnina in this manner: “Silang lima ay masasaya”) is qualified by introspection, perhaps to tone down any suggestions of un-stoic behavior (“The five of them left gladly, it seemed”). The English translation lists explicitly (“these cruelties and misfortunes”) what Neneng, that gallant soul, merely implies (“ang mga nangyayareng ito”).

Above all, Rizal’s advice is improved beyond recognition. Neneng’s quietly assertive “ako’y sangayon sa sabi mong putoc kong putoc” becomes “my faith in everything you said to me is strengthened”—as though, I cannot help thinking, this letter of Sept. 6 provided yet another confirmation of Rizal’s extraordinary foresight.

In fact, what I like best about this particular passage is the revelation that Rizal’s eldest sister (indeed, at over a decade older than Rizal, she was the oldest in the family) had come to terms with something difficult Rizal must have told his family—and signaled it, not only with her cheerful letter (about some terrible news indeed), but also with her quoting Rizal back to him. “Putoc kong putoc.”

The problem with Alzona’s translation is that she wasn’t translating from the original; she was translating Teodoro M. Kalaw’s Spanish translation of the original. In the same volume of the Epistolario Rizalino, we read Kalaw’s version.

“Paciano, Antonino, Dandoy, Silvestre y Teong marcharon camino del destierro, a Mindoro, a las 4 y media de esta tarde. Yo y Sisa les acompanamos hasta el muelle y permanecimos alli basta la salida del vapor “Brutus” en que los pobres se embarcaron. Ellos cinco iban, al parecer, alegres. Nosotras lo mismo, no nos pusimos tristes ni nos hemos lamentado como cuando se fue Maneng por primera vez destetrado. Yo me voy habituando ya a estos dolores de la separacion, sobre todo cuando pienso que estas crueldades y desdichas habran de dar como fruto el bienestar de todos, mas se fortalece mi fe en todo cuanto me decias.”

The addition of “y,” the tendentious explanation of going on exile, the (false) appeal to emotion by inserting “los pobres,” the substitution of the generic (and truly stoic) “what happened” with “estas crueldades y desdichas,” the outright failure to do justice to Rizal’s advice—turns out all these are Kalaw’s errors. Patriotic, perhaps, but errors just the same.

Kalaw’s patriotism obscures the power of Rizal’s advice. Here’s a stab at meaning. “Putoc kong putoc” means, in for the long haul. It means riding with the blows.

(Next week: One on one with Manny Villar)

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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