“Every translation enlarges the possibilities…” – Interview with Jose Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

“Every translation enlarges the possibilities of the target language’s poetic tradition.”

José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes

Associate editor Angela Narciso Torres interviewed José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes, winner of the 2011 RHINO Translation Prize for his translation from the Tagalog of “Song of Hong Kong” by Filipino poet Cirilo F. Bautista. This interview was conducted April 30, 2011.




AT: At the participants’ reading the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference where we met almost 8 years ago, you read two translations of poems written by a mutual teacher of Filipino literature, the esteemed Filipina poet Benilda Santos. How long have you been translating, and what got you started?

JR: I first got into translating formally about ten years ago, during the last semester of my MFA. Before enrolling in the program, I had viewed it simply as an opportunity to hone my craft as a writer of poetry in English and to fill in the gaps in my literary education, particularly my knowledge of Western literature. Translating was the last thing on my mind.

Having been raised in a household that spoke mainly English, and, on occasion, Spanish, I was, and still am, much more comfortable with English than I am with Tagalog. I effectively grew up as the Filipino equivalent of a limited English proficient student, a stranger in what should have been a familiar land. I remember staring blankly at a test in first grade, asking my seatmates what to do, since I couldn’t understand the words on the mimeographed sheet. In high school, we had to memorize excerpts from works like the epic Florante at Laura (Florante and Laura) and recite them in front of the class. Though I could understand some of the words in isolation, their Tagalog was so deep that memorizing these texts was like memorizing strings of random syllables. When it was my turn to get in front of the class, I would stumble over the first two or three lines before having to go back to my desk, humiliated. Given all my struggles with the language, I was content to immerse myself (with a few exceptions) in literature written in and translated into English, from my elementary school days until well into my MFA.

What changed? As one of two foreign-born poets in my MFA class, and the only one not previously educated in the United States, I began to realize that literatures from the Philippines, whether, to use the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari, the “minor literature” of Philippine literature in English or literature written in another Philippine language like Tagalog, were unknown. Thus, the only authors I could discuss with my classmates were generally Western authors. This was in contrast to the time I was still living in the Philippines, when both Philippine writers in English and foreign authors were regular subjects of conversations with my writer-friends.

When my professor, the poet, translator, and editor Richard Howard, offered a translation seminar during my final semester, I immediately saw this as an opportunity to bring Filipino poets into American readers’ consciousness. Though this meant that I would have to wrestle with a language that has given me trouble all my life, I nonetheless felt that it was important for me to try to reclaim the tongue that I had, in a sense, forsaken. Translating Filipino poetry was something I felt had to be done, not only for my tradition, but also for myself.

AT: You have been a two-time recipient of the Der-Hovanessian Translation Prize from the New England Poetry Club.  Considering that you translate from your native tongue, and that you do it exceptionally well, how important would you regard one’s fluency in the poem’s original language, in making a successful translation?

JR: If my experience is any indication, it’s not. That may seem a bit flippant, but in many respects, I’m the last person who should be doing this. When I read a poem for the first time in Tagalog, I often don’t fully comprehend it. I may have a rough idea of what is happening, and some lines may be perfectly clear to me, but there could be gaps in meaning that I will need to fill with the help of dictionaries or friends. Translation, then, becomes for me an act of discovering a poem’s meaning. It also becomes a risk, because I may not know if the translation I produce is worth sharing to the world until I work my way to the end of the poem. But even in these cases, the effort is not wasted, because it helps improve my fluency with the language and my understanding of the tradition.

This isn’t to say that I undervalue precision or ignore what the author may have been trying to accomplish for a Tagalog-speaking audience. If I feel I have a translation that I think is worthy of being sent out into the world, I show it to the original poet whenever possible. But as G. K. Chesterton once claimed, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” That’s exactly how I feel about my own experience translating Tagalog poetry. I don’t know that my translations are successful, especially given my limitations with the language. If someone published flawed translations of, say, Rilke, that person would be criticized, largely because there’s already a large body of masterful translations to which his work would be compared, translations that have collectively brought such poets into the world’s consciousness. But in the case of Tagalog poetry in translation, there isn’t a lot being published in the United States. I hope that because of this absence, a lot of my translations’ faults will be forgiven, and that other translations sprout up, even and especially ones that are superior to my own.

AT: In Cirilo Bautista’s, “Song of Hong Kong,” the poem’s elegant two-part  structure is provided by the speaker’s inventive translation of Hong Kong’s first and last name into “Water” and “Money,” respectively.  Bautista uses these extended metaphors to evoke, in a lyrical voice the poem’s title suggests, a compelling sense of place, while making commentary on social, economic, cultural, race, and identity issues of an earlier Hong Kong.  What drew you to the task of translating this aesthetically complex and multi-layered poem?

JR: “Song of Hong Kong” had me at its first two lines—“The first name of Hong Kong / is Water”—and propelled me forward with its short, energetic, often enjambed lines that enact the movements of water and money in the poem. Though the word doesn’t appear in the translation, I feel the poem embodies the meaning of current, which is etymologically related to currency (as Bautista writes, “Water that has become / Money…”). Like you, I love the poem’s various currents that converge in mysterious ways, from the in medias res beginning that places the reader in the middle of the choppy waters of Victoria Harbour, to the depiction of the streets of Kowloon, to the meditations on the simultaneous permanence and anonymity of labor (“How many have died / working stone that / rose into skyscrapers?”), to the surreal image at the end of “stars / at the bottom of the sea / unable to weep.”

On a more personal note, before coming to the U.S., I lived and worked in Hong Kong—in finance, of all fields, which by definition involves money—for over three years. I held in my hands the currency, the “paper, green / or blue” (or, in the case of the HK$100 bill, red) issued by one of three banks, HSBC, Standard Chartered or the Bank of China—an interesting aspect of Hong Kong’s monetary system—and used it for my day-to-day transactions. One word I might use to describe the place is efficient. The Hong Kong I remember is a well-oiled machine—both its people, who go about their business day in and day out, and its infrastructure—so much so that when I left for Manila a few days before the Handover in 1997 and came back a few days after, there didn’t seem to be any significant change. For instance, its currency was still pegged to the U.S. dollar (it still is, by the way, at roughly the same exchange rate as when I left in 2000), and people, both the locals and the expats, acted as if nothing had happened. Though Bautista’s poem predates my sojourn, I think it captures very well the efficiency that was once part of my reality.

Victoria Harbour

Since my family and most of my friends were in the Philippines at the time, I spent many hours in solitude, with no companion but Hong Kong itself, and became intimately acquainted with landmarks that find their way into Bautista’s poem. I crossed Victoria Harbour countless times by ferry; though it was a more time-consuming mode of transportation than the subway, I looked forward to gazing at the skyline, the lapping waters. I often walked past the Standard Chartered building in Central, a narrow skyscraper with a distinctively beige color and topped by a narrow slab that, so I’ve been told, was added for no other reason than to ensure that the building would be taller than the adjacent building of its rival bank, HSBC. On weekends I might take the tram up Victoria Peak, and admire the view of the city’s skyscrapers and harbor. Or go to an art cinema in Wan Chai, where the race track is located. And at night, after a long day at the office, I would go home to my apartment in Ap Lei Chau, an island just off the coast of Hong Kong, and looking out my living room window at the South China Sea, in the general direction of the Philippines, I would leave the worries of the workplace behind. So when Bautista writes of the

ten thousand



[that] come and go—

without any kin

save for stars

at the bottom of the sea,

unable to weep,

those lines really resonate with me, as I once was one of these souls. At the risk of sounding trite, translating the poem brought me back to a place that I remember fondly.

AT: Just as there are many English words that have no equivalent in Tagalog (for instance, Bautista uses the English word “ferry” in his poem), several Tagalog words have no direct English counterpart.  Did you encounter any such linguistic complications in translating “Song of Hong Kong”?

JR: Early in the poem, Bautista writes:

…pareho ang saligang-batas

ng gatas, pindang-pindang

lagi ang prutas at baboy

sa makinang tuloy-tuloy ang tahol.

Translated literally, these two clauses might look like this:

…identical the constitution

of milk, lots of jerkies

always the fruits and pork

in the machines with continuous howling.

In English, it’s customary for the predicate adjective or noun to come at the end of a clause. In Tagalog, though, it’s the reverse. The first clause begins with the adjective pareho, which means “identical, the same, equal.” Saligang-batas is the fundamental law of the land, the constitution. But when the phrase gets completed in the next line with ng gatas, “of milk,” things get really complicated and interesting. What is the “constitution of milk?” Is it the fact that milk is our original source of sustenance? Is it the idea that we all milk each other dry? That being milked dry is a fundamental part of the human condition? In a poem that derives a lot of its power from a series of confident, direct declarations, this one phrase is like a lenticular image that changes, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. And I think that having a phrase that I can’t quite fully wrap my head around in the published translation (I decided to go with the Old English “law” that “all are subject to,” rather than the Latinate “constitution,” since there’s something more primal, more fundamental about this monosyllable) is fine, creating a sense of mystery.

The next clause was even more challenging. In Tagalog, a writer can intensify a noun or adjective simply by repeating it, something you cannot do in English. For instance, pindang means “jerky,” so pindang-pindang suggests a profusion of jerkies, quintessentially Chinese delicacies. Tuloy means “to go ahead,” so tuloy-tuloy means “continuously.” What’s tricky about this clause is that syntactically, “jerkies” is the predicate noun, so it belongs at the end, e.g., “the fruits and pork in the continuously howling machines are always lots of jerkies.” That just doesn’t sound right. I felt that it was important to try to replicate the placement of the ideas in the clause, that it was more important to start with the visual image of jerkies and end with the continuously howling (in anguish? in pain? in joy?) machines, than the other way around. I decided to translate makina into “machinations,” which is etymologically related to the more literal “machines,” but also carries the idea of device, a deep-seated conspiracy or plot. But what to do with the fruits and pork? I stumbled across the phrase “swinish fruits,” which admittedly is my own, but I’d like to think that this image is consonant with the overall experience of the original poem.

AT: I imagine that translators often feel pulled by the opposing forces of translating a poem’s literal sense and creating an effective poem. Where do you stand along that continuum?

If I may, I don’t know that it is a continuum. I think a translation must be an effective poem in its own right; whether it is literally accurate or not is a separate issue. But keep in mind that translation acts as a bridge between two different two poetic traditions. What may be permissible in one tradition may be eschewed in another, at least until translation happens. Perhaps it may be better to say that every translation enlarges the possibilities of the target language’s poetic tradition.


José Edmundo Ocampo Reyes was born and raised in the Philippines, and holds degrees from Ateneo de Manila and Columbia Universities. His poems and translations have appeared in various journals, including American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Pleiades, Subtropics, and Two Lines.Two of his other translations of Dr. Bautista’s poems can be found in Poetry International.

Cirilo F. Bautista, author of several books in English and Tagalog, is Professor Emeritus of Literature and University Fellow at De La Salle University-Manila, Philippines. His epic poem The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, portions of which have been published in such journals as TriQuarterly, Manoa, and World Literature Today, received several honors, including the Palanca Award, the Philippine National Book Award, and the Philippine Government-sponsored Centennial Literary Award. He was awarded an honorary fellowship in creative writing from the State University of Iowa, and was a visiting writer at Cambridge University.