15 December 2008
The case of the 19th century Philippine writer Jose Rizal is instructive. His biographer and lifelong admirer, Jose Baron Fernandez of Spain, admits that Rizal's Spanish left much to be desired, presumably in terms of grammar and idioms. I am no great expert on Spanish, despite having been taught the language since 1956, when the Spanish Capuchins required the language in the small Roman Catholic school I attended in Quezon City, Philippines. But if the "native speaker" Baron is right, then Rizal, widely-read in Tagalog (since he is required reading in all Philippine secondary schools) and in English (the latest English translation of his first novel was published by Penguin), has not been properly read, in the literary criticism sense. In fact, his novels are not even available in the original Spanish, except in rare and out-of-print editions studied only by the most avid Rizal scholars. How can a writer gain such a great reputation for works that have been rethought by translators in other languages? For Rizal, of course, Spanish was a second language, since he grew up using Tagalog and, in fact, started but never finished a novel in Tagalog.