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Spain, but the A is Silent Because of America's Attempt to Spin History

Spain, but the A is Silent Because of America's Attempt to Spin History
Historical distortions in The Philippine Islands: 1453-1896 by Blair and Robertson.

As the barber and priest scanned Don Quixote’s vast library, sifting through the titles and looking for the suspect books that had corrupted the confused caballero’s impressionable mind, they came across translated texts written by non-Spanish writers. The two deliberated the merits of such works: if found noteworthy, they were to be saved; if not, then they were off to be greeted by the warm reception of a blazing pyre. The priest, armed with the best possible literary education biblical learning could provide, opined that all translated works had one thing in common, “no matter the care they use and the skill they show, they will never achieve the quality the verses had in their first birth.”

Since then opinions varied. Gabriel Garcia Marquez believed that Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of his Cien años de soledad was far more superior than the original. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges even went further and reversed the conundrum. He put the onus on the writers, saying that their original works aren’t even faithful to the translations (“el original es infiel a la traducción”). Write for the translators, he seems to say, maybe. Then come the Italians who are still fighting a decades-long battle against pineapple-laden translations of their pizza. They side with Cervantes’ cleric in the claim that translations often degrade the quality of original works, accusing translators as criminals with their charge: “traduttore, traditore,” the translator is a traitor.

While the jury is still busy debating, those attending the tribunal can learn a thing or two from the proceedings. Filipino historians and history enthusiasts take note.

For three hundred years, Spain has placed the archipelago on her hands, largely shaping its destiny in world politics and economics. In that span of time, cultures were transformed, many were erased. Languages were adapted, others were silenced. Pueblos were raised, native villages were razed. So it’s understandable that those three centuries are often brushed aside as an unwanted memory. Nationalist ethos encourages fingers to point at Filipinos wanting to devote their research on things related to Spanish Philippines, then castigate them as having “colonial mentality.” After all, the Spaniards found the islands already inhabited by various peoples each with their distinct cultures, so why not focus on them instead? To (re)learn Spanish, therefore, even if it is to better understand 333 years worth of manuscripts on Philippine history, is akin to rubbing the roughest stone on your brown skin to make it white. It is an act of national treachery that deserves shame. And herein lies an irony: to know the nation, one must study its history; but doing so involves an act of betrayal against the nation: the study of imperialist language. Historians scratch their heads in confusion. But dig a little deeper and two important questions emerge: Does diving into the colonial past automatically make one subservient to the mission of colonisers? Does reading texts in the tongue of invaders give one a taste for imperialism?

History enriches. And history cannot be undone. The most we can do is acknowledge the fact that despite the forms by which history is written, careful study can uncover data free from latent biases. Keyword: careful. There is much to learn about the history of France by reading Julius Caesar’s account of his Gallic conquests, but reading it does not require the building of two walls to starve a blockaded retreat. And if one is to extract more from old historical records, there is the necessity of understanding the languages used by those who write history. In the case of the Philippines, Spanish.

There is much to be gained by doing so. The current catalogue of available translated works from Spanish are all valuable. However, their objective worth as research materials do not necessarily express the quality of their translations. Most of these works were done decades ago, receiving little to no adequate criticisms and corrections from posterity. For instance, the national hero Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere has had many versions, all of which deserve their own merit. However, each also contains the stamp of their translators, often blotting out the original cadence and content found in the original. As an example, let’s look at one passage from the opening sequence of the Noli that is of great interest.

In An Eagle Flight, the first English translation of the Noli published in 1900,1 which the anonymous translator based on an earlier French version, an iconic line from the first chapter goes as:

“The news spread, therefore, with lightning rapidity in the world of the sycophants, the unemployed and idle, whom heaven has multiplied so generously at Manila.”2

The second English translation published in 1902, Friars and Filipinos, completely omits the line. But in the third English translation, Charles Derbyshire’s widely read The Social Cancer of 1912, a repeat performance of An Eagle Flight’s flurry is found, but with more flash:

“Like an electric shock the announcement ran through the world of parasites, bores, and hangers-on, whom God in His infinite bounty creates and so kindly multiplies in Manila.”3

Later translations by Filipinos also bring up a similar scenario. Leon Ma. Guerrero, the country’s first licensed pharmacist and one of its earliest literary figures, wrote in his version:

“So the news of his dinner party ran like an electric shock though the community of spongers, hangers-on, and gate-crashers whom God, in His infinite wisdom, had created and so fondly multiplied in Manila.”4

The latest local offering by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin in 1996 flows like the Derbyshire translation:

“Like an electric jolt the news circulated around the world of social parasites: the pests or dregs which God in His infinite goodness created and very fondly breeds in Manila.”5

All versions conjure an image of Manila full of lazy freeloaders just waiting for the latest current to spur their inertia. They are parasites of various forms, profiting from others with minimal effort on their part. But is this the picture Rizal had in mind when he wrote the passage? There is one important Spanish word in the original that is lost in all translations that provides a much better metaphor of Manila’s then inhabitants, one that was likely closer to what Rizal had seen and what Rizal had in mind:

“Como una sacudida eléctrica corrió la noticia en el mundo de los parásitos, moscas ó colados que Dios crió en su infinita bondad, y tan cariñosamente multiplica en Manila [emphasis added].”6

It can be argued that Rizal’s choice to use the word mosca, fly, is deliberate. Unlike in the English translations above, the image of the fly suggests active movement. The Manileños of Rizal’s day were not merely “sycophants,” “hangers-on,” or “pests,” but they were organisms busily struggling from the filthy conditions that were imposed on them. Like flies buzzing from one faecal feast to another, Rizal understood well the makings of colonial society that made locals dependent on the droppings of those who had more power and wealth. And why would Rizal, with all the benefits of elite education, offer just a simple metaphor? He was a trained naturalist and had studied medicine. He knew the biology of flies and the medical dangers they posed. This is why the fly metaphor works as a better analogy for the society that Rizal witnessed and railed against. He wasn’t just offering a description, he was also assigning a diagnosis.

The imagery of the fly may seem very insignificant, and this is supported by the disregard shown by the translators. To them, the specific species was irrelevant, it was enough to have captured the bothersome essence it connotes, so there was no big deal in swatting the fly away. From the surface, it looks like a choice out of sheer convenience, without any surreptitious motivation behind it. However, a closer inspection of the translation efforts by the Americans to legitimise their rule in the archipelago shows enough reason to suspect that it was ideologically influenced: flies are easy to shoo away, what needs to be dealt with are the maggots they leave behind.

Nowhere is this ideological commission more evident than in the multi-volume The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, mainly annotated, compiled, edited, and translated by Emma Blair and James Robertson (from hereon their work will simply be referred to as BR). Noted Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo, who calls the BR “biased and defective in parts,” summarises the scope of the project:

“BR consists of 55 volumes of over 10,000 pages of primary source material on the Philippines, published by the Arthur Clarke Company of Cleveland, Ohio from 1903-1909, in a limited edition of 500 that sold at $400.”

As a whole, the BR is an impressive undertaking that has been extremely invaluable to historians. It is perhaps America’s greatest contribution to Philippine history and historiography. And as such it is patently American, in the sense that it bears the extra-large mark of America’s imperial ambitions and mission. Translators are humans. (As of writing, DeepL and Google have yet to produce an academic translation of old manuscripts.) They bear the baggage of their epoch and education. The cultural and political climate they live in shape their worldviews, and consequently their outputs. So although popular imagery paints scholars as objective scions whose works are purely moulded out of scientific rigour, the truth is that they are as vulnerable to the bombardment of external influence and indoctrination as the rest of the population, and often times they are the ones providing the ammunition. That is why you see scholars such as Stanford University’s founding president James David Starr writing Blood of a Nation in 1902, a short tract that promoted wrong notions of biological inheritance that were popular among Anglo academics. The ideas Starr helped germinate somehow found their way to an angry Austrian painter who has had some struggles with the Jews.

The BR served as an important set of documents that helped legitimise the American colonisation of the Philippines. And at the heart of it was an academic attempt to distort, twist, and spin history. Its main thrust was to establish two claims about the archipelago’s history: that the three centuries of Spanish rule represented a “dark age,” so that the Americans were within reason to seize control and introduce their reforms into the islands; and second, that the Filipinos were a backwards people that needed their supervision, that is to say, they were what the translated passage of the Noli called as “sycophants,” “parasites,” “pests,” “the unemployed and idle.” This dual aim is best explored in Evidence for the Deliberate Distortion of the Spanish Philippine Colonial Historical Record in “The Philippine Islands 1493-1898” by Gloria Cano.

Cano begins by describing the incubation period of the project. From the outset, she already finds a problem. The BR was envisioned to cover the entirety of Philippine colonial history, ideally requiring scholars who have had sufficiently studied that specific period; however, the first person tasked to lead the undertaking was Edward Gaylord Bourne, an American historian whose academic expertise was on Latin America. An obvious question arises: why choose Bourne when at the time there were many other scholars, albeit non-American, who were far more knowledgeable about Philippine history?—like Wenceslao Retana, Leon Ma. Guerrero, and Isabelo de los Reyes to name a few. It is true that the Philippines and Latin America were colonised by Iberian kingdoms, granting both some degree of similarity, but there was and is a significant disparity between the two that should have been considered in the selection process. To mitigate his shortcomings, Cano says that Bourne “explained the history of the Philippines through a Spanish-American perspective, making the archipelago an appendage of Latin America and the colony of an evangelising mission. This is the reason the multivolume work starts in 1493.”7

From there it just gets better for the Americans and worse for historians. After the publication of the fifth volume, a rather scathing review of the project emerged from the pages of The American Historical Review in 1903. The reviewer, an American scholar named James LeRoy, “accused Blair and Robertson of selecting unnecessary documents that were already published.”8 Blair would then invite LeRoy to join the team after reading his criticisms. From thereon, LeRoy would steer the BR into the direction which he saw was proper in promulgating America’s foothold in the Philippines. It was under his leadership that the project completely “became linked to the American administrative machinery,” because, as Cano explains, “he was closely in touch with the architects of United States colonial policy in the islands.”9

But even before LeRoy could fully inject his vision of empire into the BR, Blair and Robertson were already guilty of “mistranslation, decontextualisation and misinterpretation of the documents and the facts they contained”;10 these became more pronounced when LeRoy became its director from volume six onward. Cano exposes several instances where the two translators deliberately misinterpret passages to change their original meanings, for example, the phrase in one ordinance that goes:

“…que los dichos Indios sean muy bien tratados.”11

is translated by Blair and Robertson as:

“…that the said Indians shall be better treated.”

The comparative adverb “better” is contextually misused. It implies a previous condition that will be improved; most likely, Blair and Robertson wanted to insinuate that this improvement started from a bad condition. However, that is far from what the phrase means. In English, it simply goes: “that the Indians be treated very well.” Absent in this more accurate translation is the implication that “the Indians had been earlier mistreated.”12 In order to comprehend the full ramification of Blair and Robertson’s wrong translation, we must contextualise the phrase to where it belongs: in an ordinance that details how Filipinos should be treated in judicial settlements. The full sentence from the BR goes as:

“The said president and auditors shall make inquiry as to the manner in which the ordinances and instructions are given in regard to this matter have been and are observed, punishing the guilty with all rigor, and providing means to bring it about that the said Indians shall be better treated and shall be better treated and shall be instructed in our holy Catholic faith, regarding them as our free vassals.”13

Now, if we are to replace their translation with the more accurate one, the tone and meaning changes:

“The said president and auditors shall make inquiry as to the manner in which the ordinances and instructions are given in regard to this matter have been and are observed, punishing the guilty with all rigor, and providing means to bring it about that the said Indians be treated very well and shall be instructed in our holy Catholic faith, regarding them as our free vassals [emphasis added].”

At first, the difference may seem very subtle, and it can easily evade a quick scan. But a careful reread shines light on the controversial weight of being “better treated” in contrast to being “treated very well.” As stated above, the word “better” is a comparative adverb, it is used in comparing. Take the sentence “X is better than Y” as an example: it might be true because X is comparably tastier than Y, or X is obviously more durable than Y. For a more concrete example, one can say silence is better than Coldplay. But underneath Blair and Robertson’s “shall be better treated” is a well hid contrast, an invisible “than,” because they don’t mention a point of distinction. This failure to contrast leaves an ambiguity that is hard to reconcile with what is being said in the text, because what is “better” may not at all be an overall improvement: having a baseball cap while lost in the middle of the Sahara desert at noon may be a bit “better,” but it doesn’t really ensure your survival, and it’s still going to be very hot day for you. So in the context of the ordinance, the BR version is an incomplete instruction on what to do in such legal cases, because, again, there is no basis for comparison, nothing to judge how treatments can be “better.” Whereas to be “treated very well” is immediate, without needing any qualitative precedent. The order even becomes more powerful when taking into account the adverb “very,” as it commands an exceptional degree of treatment for the locals.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Blair and Robertson simply made an honest error. However, Cano thinks otherwise. “These do not seem to be innocent mistakes of translation.”14 To prove her point, she provides another example of a blatant mistranslation. In their translation of the passage:

“Yttem mando que quando alguno por su authoridad despojase a otro de la possession de los Yndios que tuviere la mi Audiencia, quitandola tal fuerza, y haciendo justicia.”

Blair and Robertson translate “fuerza” as “violence,” so their version goes as:

Item: We command that when anyone by his own authority shall deprive another of the possessions of the Indians whom he shall have, our Audiencia, prohibiting the said violence and doing justice.”15

From this example, there can be no more doubt regarding Blair and Robertson’s complicit participation in shaping the translations for American propaganda. It takes a great amount of political conviction to misconstrue “fuerza” to mean “violence.” While “fuerza” is indeed related to the English “force,” “fuerza” does not have the innate negative, physical consequence of “violence.” It needs to be modified with an adjective for it to do so. Or, pardon the pun, the implication has to be forced. In equating “fuerza” with “violence,” Blair and Robertson are trying to “infer that the king prohibited the violence with which the Indians were being treated.”16

And while they easily see violence where there is none, they conveniently turn away when they actually see one. In their translation of Miguel de Loarca’s Relacion de las Yslas Filipinas, which comes with a transcription of the original Spanish version, an early excerpt about the island of Bohol mentions that it had been attacked by the Moluccans, scattering the people of Bohol away to the different nearby islands. In a later passage, however, they merely state that many Boholanons simply transferred to the island of Panay “on account of the people of Maluco.”17 This dilutes the strong description by Loarca, who wrote that the Moluccans had “despoblaron a Bohol,” that is, the Moluccans depopulated the island. Blair and Robertson would have had a field day with this passage if only it were the Spanish that were responsible.

Worse, their commitment to pitch American propaganda often led to historical lapses. For example, they fail to take into account that words gain, lose, or maintain meaning across time. Loarca wrote in his Relacion that Bohol had “una gran poblacion,” meaning that Bohol was largely populated, as the word “poblacion” means population. But in the BR, the passage is translated as “there was once a large town.”18 The word “poblacion” did eventually mean central area or village centre in later centuries, but when Loarca wrote his account in 1582, the word only meant “population.” Cross-checking with other documents from around the same period, like Antonio de Morga’s 1609 Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, confirms that the populace had yet to morph into a town.

It’s curious to note that Blair and Robertson sanitised the depopulation of Bohol at the hands of the Moluccans, an event that becomes vividly graphic when considering that the island did have many inhabitants before the brutal scene. Was it because they found it hard to spin the story as an indictment against Spain? They needed to decorate a single enemy that a whole nation could easily notice, identify, and despise, an enemy that America expertly vanquished at the benefit of the Filipinos. The Moluccans hardly fit the criteria. They didn’t have the recency that the Spaniards had in national memory. And so the violence of Spanish colonisation became the justification for the violence of American rule.

It’s been more than a century since the publication of the BR. Its lasting influence is a testament to the power of historical distortion in shaping national consciousness. As the decades rolled, many other enemies had been conjured and added: activists, journalists, lawyers, farmers, educators, community organisers, indigenous peoples, workers, the poor have been targeted by state forces and institutions as dangerous elements to the stability of the nation. Their designated roles as “pests” and “sycophants” against the backdrop of national prosperity mean that, in many cases, to swat them like flies is not only necessary but is also celebrated. This is why the era of Martial Law in the Philippines remains so intoxicating to many, as they think it was a period when the nation’s supposed enemies were harshly dealt with, never mind that it was actually Marcos, his family, and his cronies that sucked the nation dry and starved many to death. It is also the same force that has pushed Duterte up to the presidency, where he imposed his brutal machinations to shield the many clandestine operations of his friends and allies.

The lessons in the BR are plenty and peculiar. Much can be learned from reading its pages and knowing the history behind its conception. And as a product of imperialist historiography, it requires more than just outright rejection for it to be properly addressed. We need better intellectual tools to fully comprehend the scope of its aims and the damage it has inflicted. Learning Spanish is one good step. It can help historians uncover data and scrap away concealed biases in translations, be it in favour of Spain, America, or even the Philippines. And once we’ve exposed deliberate attempts to misconstrue and mislead, what’s next? Perhaps the priest in Don Quixote was up to something. After all, those who consume false historical narratives often follow dangerous paths: like the Germans who attempted to establish Aryan rule or the Anglo fetish to embody Viking imagery and ancestry. Historical distortion has created many Don Quixotes, and one confused caballero is already one too many. There are not enough priests and barbers to survey the sources of their confusion.



  1. Anna Melinda Testa-de Ocampo, “The Afterlives of the Noli Me tángere,” Philippine Studies 59, no. 4 (2011): 496. ↩︎

  2. Jose Rizal, An Eagle Flight (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1990), 1. ↩︎

  3. Jose Rizal, The Social Cancer, trans. Charles Derbyshire (Manila: Philippine Education Company, 1912), 1. ↩︎

  4. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, trans. Leon Ma. Guerrero, 2nd ed. (Manila: Guerrero Publishing House, 1995), 1. ↩︎

  5. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, ed. Raul Locsin, trans. Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin (Makati: The Bookmark, Inc., 2006), 1. ↩︎

  6. Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (Barcelona: Casa Editorial Maucci, 1909), 25. ↩︎

  7. Glòria Cano, “Evidence for the Deliberate Distortion of the Spanish Philippine Colonial Historical Record in ‘The Philippine Islands 1493-1898’,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 39, no. 1 (2008): 2. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., 27–28. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., 2. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., 5. ↩︎

  11. Ibid., 24. ↩︎

  12. Ibid. ↩︎

  13. Emma Blair and James Robertson, eds., “Foundation of the Audiencia in Manila,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, vol. 5 (1582–1583) (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1903), 298. ↩︎

  14. Cano, “Evidence,” 25. ↩︎

  15. Blair and Robertson, “Foundation,” 300. ↩︎

  16. Cano, “Evidence,” 25. ↩︎

  17. Miguel de Loarca, “Relacion de Las Yslas Filipinas,” in The Philippine Islands: 1493-1898, ed. Emma Blair and James Robertson, vol. 5 (1582–1583) (Cleveland, OH: The Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1903), 67. ↩︎

  18. Ibid., 47. ↩︎

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