New book reveals 5 things you never knew about José Rizal

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“Hans Christian Andersen and José Rizal: From Denmark to the Philippines” includes five Andersen tales that José Rizal translated to Tagalog as a Christmas gift to his nephews and nieces. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Denmark, children’s literature specialist Katrina Gutierrez was scanning the book racks when she chanced upon the word ‘Tagalog’ as a label on one of the shelves.

“Was I reading it right? Was a wave of homesickness making me see things?” recalls Gutierrez in her essay, “Looking For Andersen and Finding Rizal.” The museum is home to the most extensive collection of Andersen stories in translation, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected to see a version in the Philippine language.

What astonished Gutierrez, however, was the person behind the Tagalog translation. “I pressed my face closer to the glass, and this time I was truly surprised. On the spine in faded but clear letters was the name: José Rizal,” she writes.

It turns out, Rizal was the first Filipino to translate the classic tales of Andersen into Tagalog. When he was in Germany studying medicine, he got a hold of the German edition of the tales and in order to practice his German, he translated five Andersen stories into Tagalog, drew illustrations to accompany the translations, and sent the manuscript back to the Philippines as a Christmas gift to his nephews and nieces.

The five translated tales — “The Little Fir Tree” or “Ang Puno ng Pino”; “Thumbelina” or “Si Gahinlalaki”; “The Ugly Duckling” or “Ang Pangit na Sisiw na Pato”; “The Angel” or “Ang Sugo”; and “The Little Match Girl” or “Ang Batang Babaeng May Dalang Sakafuego” — are now available for the rest of the Philippine public to read and enjoy through Anvil Publishing’s latest book, “Hans Christian Andersen and José Rizal: From Denmark to the Philippines.”

Photo-5 (20).jpg The Andersen tales that are now in Anvil Publishing’s version includes Rizal’s translations and some of his drawings that were preserved by the National Library, which had a photostatic copy of the manuscript. Photo by JL JAVIER

The book not only features Rizal’s tales but also the spot illustrations that were found in the manuscript. Ambeth Ocampo, the notable Rizal scholar and historian, says that nobody knows for certain where the original manuscript is, but one of the living relatives of Rizal told him that the manuscript is in fact “with some member of the family who should not have it.”

Ocampo also says that Rizal’s affinity with children’s stories isn’t only reflected on these Andersen tales. The Philippine fable and what is recognized as the first Filipino tale for children, “The Monkey and the Turtle,” was also made popular by Rizal, especially when the story was published in 1889 in a London publication called Trubner’s American and Oriental Record.

“When I was still Chair of the [National Historical Commission of the Philippines], somebody came to my office and said, ‘We want to show you the original ‘The Monkey and the Turtle,’” shares Ocampo. “They brought the notebook out and it was indeed the original … It had all other things inside — inscriptions by Marcelo del Pilar, drawings by [Juan] Luna, drawings by [Felix] Resurrección Hidalgo. So, I leafed through this and I made the mistake of asking, ‘Why do you have this?’”

The notebook has since disappeared. “I think because of the high prices of auction these days, it will surface and I think the original Andersen tales will surface [as well],” he adds.

The Andersen tales that are now in Anvil Publishing’s version includes Rizal’s translations and some of his drawings that were preserved by the National Library, which had a photostatic copy of the manuscript. Ocampo says the library’s copy is not the most ideal as it had been defaced by an “overzealous librarian who was so scared that the copy will get lost [so it was] stamped [with] property marks all over the pages.”

Nonetheless, the present product is another addition to our understanding of our national hero. As new information on what he spent his time and life on surface, it also tells us about his philosophies, things he stood for, and lessons he wants our country to learn back then. Perhaps, it is still significant now, when the quest for a unifying national identity still lingers. 

Photo-6 (16).jpg Rizal's manuscript of the tales included illustrations he drew himself for his nephews and nieces. Photo by JL JAVIER

Here is more interesting information about José Rizal that was brought to life during the research and compilation of the book:

Rizal was a comic artist.

Ocampo says that he would go as far as saying that Rizal could be the father of Philippine comics because he did various children’s tales in komiks.

“He did [‘The Monkey and the Turtle’] in this format. He did this for the ill-fated wife of Juan Luna,” he explains. “She had a notebook where people would write dedications and little notes and she said that there's something like 12 pages in the back [and asked Rizal,] ‘Can you do something?’ … So Rizal sat in the corner and drew the entire tale.”

The Philippine National Library also has a copy of Rizal’s other drawings in comic form: “The Baptism of Two Brothers,” a German tale, and “La curacion de los Hechizados,” a monograph on bewitchment.

Rizal held Germany close to his heart.

Much like Andersen, Rizal travelled and lived across Germany many times. It was in Berlin where Rizal became part of the Anthropological and Geographic Society as well as where he was admitted to the state library in which he exhausted resources about the Philippines.

Rizal also published the “Noli Me Tangere” in Berlin while he translated the Andersen tales in Leipzig, a city south of Berlin. From Leipzig, he wrote a letter to his nieces and nephews that accompanied the Andersen translation:

“Dahil at sa ualang laging isip kundi ang ikakagaling ninio, kayong mga murang bunga ng mga kinakapatid, ai pinaginutan kong isalin sa matamis nating wika ang mga kalugudlugud na salita ni Andersen upan ding mabasa ang mga natatalos ng ibang manga bata sa Europa.

Kung iniong kaalinang basahin, sulatin at isaulu ai mai masasalita kayo sa iniong kaibigang kapua bata, mamatimisin ng aking loob at papalain ang kinapaguran.”

Rizal wanted to make reading Tagalog easier for children.

In Gutierrez’s essay, she says that Rizal told Ferdinand Blumentritt in a letter that he was translating Andersen’s tales as “an exercise toward the improvement of Tagalog orthography, or the standard spelling system of the language.” His aim, he said, was to simplify Tagalog so that children can have an easier time while reading.  

Rizal also made sure that even through translation, he would be able to express abstract concepts like sound effects and animal noises into Filipino expressions that would be understood by children. So instead of “tweet tweet” for a bird, in the translation, it says “kuirrebirrebit”; and instead of “splash!” the word becomes “platseh!”

Photo-4 (16).jpg Historian Ambeth Ocampo surmises that the common theme among the five tales Rizal translated is the message of transformation — of stories of little beings (“The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina”) gaining strength and being empowered. Photo by JL JAVIER

Rizal might have been the first to introduce the Christmas tree to the Philippines.

In Ocampo’s essay in the book, he states that Rizal must have chosen “Ang Puno ng Pino” as one of the Andersen tales to translate because a letter to his sister, Neneng, detailed the German tradition of bringing Christmas trees into their homes.

“It is decorated with tinsel, paper, lights, dolls, candy, fruits, dainties, etc., and at nighttime, it is shown to the children (who should not see the preparation of it), and around this tree the family celebrates Christmas,” states Rizal in the letter.

Ocampo says that Rizal was indeed transmitting more than the stories, he was transmitting the culture that he was learning abroad as well.

Rizal shared Andersen tales that spoke of the oppressed being transformed.

The one question Ocampo and Gutierrez seek to answer is the reason why Rizal chose to translate these particular Andersen tales. The Danish author had a wide breadth of work, and it has become a bit of a quandary as to why Rizal centered on these five stories.

Ocampo surmises that the common theme among the five is the message of transformation — of stories of little beings (“The Ugly Duckling,” “Thumbelina”) gaining strength and being empowered. It was during this time that he was finishing “Noli Me Tangere” as well, so it could be that he was speaking to the Filipinos, the oppressed, to be on the pursuit of greatness no matter the circumstance.

Ocampo says, “I think what Rizal is teaching not just his nephews and nieces, but [also] the nation that he sacrificed his life for, is the whole idea of becoming greater than you are, becoming better than what you actually are.”