Looking Back

Rizal: ‘Ang Pangit na Sisiu ng Pato’

/ 05:06 AM September 26, 2018

Imagine the birthplace of the National Hero once represented by giant earthenware stove in the middle of town. This tacky icon, now mercifully gone, referred to the story behind the town’s name.

Once upon a time, a Spaniard supposedly strayed into town and asked a lady selling earthenware stoves, “What is the name of this place?”


Not knowing Spanish, the woman answered the question with a question: “Kalan ba? (Do you want a stove?)” So it was that Calamba got its name.

Today, the town is represented by a monument to its most illustrious son, Jose Rizal, that is 22 meters tall, to symbolize all of the languages he spoke fluently. I don’t want to be a spoilsport, because Rizal was truly multilingual — but, really now, 22 languages?


His mother tongue was Tagalog and his second language was Spanish. While in the Ateneo he learned Latin, Greek, French and some English. When he traveled to Europe, he learned German, Italian, probably a bit of Portuguese, some Japanese. In exile in Dapitan, he learned Visayan, Subanun and perhaps Chabacano.

That’s quite a lot as it is and need not inflate his reputation further, because Rizal is also supposed to have known Dutch, Arabic, Swedish, Chinese, Sanskrit, Malay and even Ilocano.

He was interested in other writing systems; I have seen evidence of his attempts to write in Japanese and in the pre-Spanish Philippine baybayin. He left stray jottings in Hebrew, and some pages in Egyptian hieroglyphics, but I don’t think he spoke or was fluent in these ancient languages.

Sometime around 2010, I gathered Rizal’s little-known Tagalog translations of five Hans Christian Andersen tales and proposed that my publisher print a small book, complete with his delightful drawings and a historical introduction by me.

National Artist Virgilio Almario reviewed Rizal’s 19th-century Tagalog and suggested a more contemporary orthography and style.

The project didn’t move quickly, until I met Jan Top Christensen, ambassador of Denmark to the Philippines. I got him interested in the project and put him in touch with Anvil Publishing.

It was Christensen’s enthusiasm that pushed my proposal into the finished book “Hans Christian Andersen and Jose Rizal: From Denmark to the Philippines,” which also commemorates the 70 years of diplomatic relations between our two countries.


Every schoolboy knows that Rizal published “Noli Me Tangere” in Berlin in 1887, but not many know that Rizal translated Friedrich Schiller’s “Wilhelm Tell” into Tagalog, or that he translated five fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen from a German translation into Tagalog.

He completed the Andersen manuscript, along with delightful drawings, in Leipzig on Oct. 14, 1886, and dedicated them to his nephews and nieces: “Sa aking mga pamangkin dahil sa uala laging isip kundi ang ikagagaling ninio kayong mga mismong bunga ng mga kinakapatid ai pinag inutan kong isalin sa matamis nating wika ang mga kalugod-lugod ng salita ni Andersen…”

Rizal translated “Ang Puno ng Pino (The Little Fir Tree),” “Si Gahinlalaki (Thumbelina),” “Ang Pangit na Sisiu ng Pato (The Ugly Duckling),” “Ang Sugu (The Angel),” and “Ang Batang Babaing Mai Dalang Sakafuego (The Little Match Girl).”

It is significant that three of the five tales have sad or depressing endings (“The Fir Tree,” “The Angel,” “The Little Match Girl”), and that all the tales concern a “small” person transformed for the better.

“The Ugly Duckling” is about transformation and finding oneself among those of the same breed, just as “Thumbelina” escapes attempts to marry her off to an insect, a toad and a mouse and, in the end, finds her prince.

Two of the tales are probably based on Rizal’s experiences and observations abroad.

For “Ang Puno ng Pino,” he described the German tradition of Christmas trees to his sister Neneng, in a letter from Berlin dated Nov. 11, 1886: “On Christmas Eve, they bring from the forest a pine tree and this tree is chosen because, besides being erect, it is the only tree which keeps its leaves during winter — I say it badly; not really leaves, but a kind of needle. 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.”

Rizal was not only multilingual but multicultural. He was a conduit between his country and the world in the last century, and even down to our times.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Calamba, Jan Top Christensen, Jose Rizal, Looking Back, Virgilio Almario
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