15 December 2008

Rizal's Spanish

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.


  1. Hugo Chavez's Ministry of Culture has made the Spanish version of Rizal's "Noli Me Tangere" available as a free download (pdf) at the Biblioteca Ayacucho website:


    The pdf seems to be an exact scanned version of the printed book they published in 1976 and 1982. Go to the website, enter Noli Me Tangere in the search box on the upper right, and click the "Buscar en catalogo" button. This will bring up a webpage with an image of the printed book's cover. Click that, and in the webpage that then comes up, there's a tiny icon that says "pdf." Clicking that will start the download. (Sorry for the long instructions, but the URL of the final webpage is too long to fit in the width of this comment box. I'll be glad to help if anyone has any problems downloading).

    Also, I'd want to know more about what exactly Baron Hernandez finds wanting in Rizal's Spanish. Aside from the likelihood that Spanish has changed since the 19th century, like English it's fragmented into several dialects to such an extent that when video and filmed entertainment is subtitled in Spanish, different versions are prepared for Iberia and for Latin America (interesting to speculate what the embargo might've done to Cuban Spanish!). This regionalization is probably accelerated by what appears to me to be a very Spanish tendency to accentuate differences as something to be proud of (Cf. criollismo). Finally, I think the Philippines were mostly ruled from Mexico and only directly from Spain after the Mexicans threw the Spanish out, so I'd expect Rizal's Spanish to be closer to that of Mexico rather than Spain (yes, I'm aware he studied in Spain).

  2. I don't remember Baron actually supporting his impression with any kind of solid linguistic analysis, but it seems very likely that Rizal spoke and wrote a variety of Spanish that today would be called Philippine Spanish (similar to the Philippine English that is now considered a major variety of International English). Like most "native" speakers of a language, Baron would have been uncomfortable with the indigenizing done by "non-native" speakers.