The Learning curve

To think and write in our native tongues

In the past few years the Ateneo de Naga University Press under the leadership of its director, Fr. Wilmer Joseph Tria, SJ, has been feverishly releasing titles in Bikol, not only to showcase the work of its homegrown writers but also to highlight classics in world literature to which Bikolanos should be exposed.

That was how the paths of its deputy press director Kristian Sendon Cordero—award-winning poet, fictionist, translator, director, and filmmaker—and Czech Republic Ambassador Jaroslav Olša Jr. crossed.


Cordero, often described as the enfant terrible of Bikol contemporary literature, is bent on spreading and propagating the literature of Bikol and the language itself. It became a mission for the press and for Father Tria and himself as college professors and writers to expose fellow Bikolanos to what world literature offers by translating classics to various Bikol languages in editions illustrated by Bikol artists. After the initial translation of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” came the translation of the stories of another Czech writer, Karel Capek. These were meant for the students and teachers in Bikol “who need[ed] to realize the beauty and splendor of their local languages in Bikol,” Cordero said. They especially targeted those without a university education that “continues to privilege the English and Filipino languages at the expense of the local languages.”

Cordero writes in Bikol, Filipino, and Rinconada (spoken in Camarines Sur), and has translated the works of Borges, Rilke, and Wilde to these languages.


I was both amused and edified to listen to Cordero at a forum, tracing the beginnings of his literacy and love for language from the frequent letters he would receive from and write to his mother, then working overseas, and, in the absence of books, from reading all the novenas that his grandmother prayed.

Cordero was elated to begin a partnership with Ambassador Olša and the latter’s own efforts at literacy diplomacy because of the rich and expansive world view that resulted: The Bikol translations strengthen the local cultures and open these up to European cultures beyond the more familiar Spanish or Italian. He has proposed that instead of the tired United Nations celebration template in schools that have degenerated into song-and-dance beauty pageants, why not a Czech Writers Day featuring Kafka and Capek? He is especially proud of a forthcoming anthology where the works of Bikol writers Luis Cabalquinto and Frank Peñones are published in Czech.

Olša himself has had translation on his mind from his first diplomatic assignment as envoy to Zimbabwe in 2000. By the end of his posting, three books by Czech writers had local translations, and in reciprocity, he had edited an anthology of Zimbabwean English-language translations to Czech. In his next assignment in Korea, Olša collaborated on an anthology of stories of all EU member-states translated to Korean. But the situation was different in the Philippines, where European titles were hardly translated to Filipino.

It is a herculean task for the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino led by National Artist Virgilio Almario to have Filipino and 170+ other Philippine languages spoken, enriched, and preserved—after an orthography of these languages is documented and accepted. So the efforts of the Ateneo de Naga University Press are commendable and significant.

Cordero has just completed a residency at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. After another residency at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, he will begin a summer residency at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has grander and more ambitious plans, and is optimistic that other cultural agencies will see the value of collaboration in promoting translations and regional languages, especially since this model has moved from the Ateneo to other schools.  He looks to the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education in the regions to uphold translation efforts so that these projects will “create a stronghold for us—people who have been deprived of a right to speak, write and think in our local languages.”

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: ATENEO, Bikolanos, classics, world literature
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