Hans Christian Andersen, José Rizal, and the tradition of Storytelling

Hans Christian Andersen and José Rizal: From Denmark to the Philippines was launched by Anvil Publishing Inc. in September 2018, a year brimming with events that promote the cultural ties of our country and Europe. Just four months prior, National Bookstore hosted the first-ever European Literature Fair, coinciding with the release of Agos: Modern European Writers in Filipino, an anthology of contemporary European literary works translated into Tagalog.

From Denmark to the Philippines was edited by Jan Top Christensen and features five fairy tales in English written by Andersen and translated into Tagalog by Rizal. The fairy tales include The Fir Tree/Ang Punong Pino, Thumbelina/Si Gahinlalaki, The Ugly Duckling/Ang Pangit na Sisiw na Pato, The Angel/Ang Sugo, and The Little Match Girl/Ang Batang Babaeng May Dalang Sakafuego. The volume is prefaced with four critical essays written by preeminent Andersen and Rizal scholars—Ejnar Stig Askgaard, Katrina Gutierrez, Johs. Nørregaard Frandsen, and Ambeth R. Ocampo. 

Father of Modern Fairy Tale

Andersen is not only a gifted storyteller, he is also considered as the inventor of a modern genre in children’s literature. His technique of narration was inspired by earlier fairy tale authors such as the Brothers Grimm and E.T.A Hoffman, but it is in his unique use of the Danish language where one can locate the modern quality of his works. Just as how Dante revolutionised the literary tradition of Italy with the use of the vernacular, Andersen introduced a new dimension for children’s literature through the combination of the colloquial, ironic, and romantic in his style (31). With this development in writing for children, fairy tales became a space where delight and education are delivered. Characters, both the animate and inanimate, were sketched to better reflect complex human conditions. Andersen’s speech and imaginative lens agree with the logic of a child, but Gutierrez noted that just because his style is childlike it does not mean it is childish.

Presenting layered consciousness has to be the most challenging part of being a writer of children’s literature. A good fairy tale carries a message for the children listening and the adult telling the story, and this explains why we see stories that fuse child-friendly elements and mature themes in a single plot. There is a narrative layer intended for the appreciation of young readers, and there is also another layer for grown-up sensibilities. I love how I see this quality in all of Andersen’s writings because it further establishes his reputation as an excellent author. According to Frandsen, Andersen’s narration takes place at several levels at the same time, thereby involving several narrative voices. This feature reminds me of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia, the co-existence of various languages or voices in the discourses within a novel. Each voice takes on a personality that interacts with other personalities in the narrative.

The multiplicity of voices is exhibited in The Fig Tree where non-human creatures were given human-like consciousness. This element is now a staple in children’s fantasies, most notably in Disney and Pixar films (33). On the one hand, we see how the fig tree represents the desire that is common among young people: the urge to grow up, become independent and prove one’s worth. Once we use a more mature lens to interpret the story, we see that it is actually a panoramic image of life from birth to death. The journey of the fig tree shows both the glorious and depressing moments of mortal existence, and his eagerness to always be somewhere else mirrors the insatiability of the human soul. Readers end up realising that happiness should either come from the now or nowhere else, considering the strict and ever-moving forward condition of time.

Like The Fig Tree, Thumbelina couples a fantastical journey with complicated morals and life lessons. It is interesting how a feminist reading would unveil a whole new different level of social depth in the story, especially with the portrayal of fixed marriages and issues of consent. Thumbelina was constantly offered help that demands something in return, such as the insistence of the field mouse to marry her off to the mole after providing her with a place to stay. Her success to escape impositions of the domesticated role of a wife is a feminist victory that celebrates the ability of women to decide for themselves.

The judgmental eyes of society take a central role in Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. First published as one of the four stories in Nye eventyr (New Fairy Tales, 1844-8), The Ugly Duckling is a story that countless children across the world have heard. In fact, it may well be the most popular among all the five fairy tales Rizal translated into Tagalog. I have read different versions of the story as a student, most of which are abridged to remove certain ‘inappropriate’ scenes. But to remove the rather controversial elements of the story disturbs the whole purpose of it because showing how cruel society can be and revealing ‘the way of the world’ is the principal goal of the ugly duckling’s ordeal. Andersen offers an antidote to the rigid demands of society by highlighting the importance of one’s inner capacity: ‘Being born in a duck yard does not matter if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg’ (162). The moral of the story preaches Andersen’s belief that a person’s potential should hold more value than the sorry state he was born into. He is certainly the authority on the subject as someone who was born on the lowest rung of the social ladder but managed to become one of the most successful writers of his generation using his sheer literary talent. 

The Angel and The Little Match Girl both portray the transfiguration of a young soul into a heavenly entity. The tales communicate the theology of Andersen about the ‘divine justice’ through which people who gravely suffered on earth can expect great rewards in the afterlife. Askgaard said this belief of Andersen is the reason why he thanked God in his diary on hearing that his mother died at the age of twenty-seven. He was convinced that death is a form of liberation from earthly trials and tribulations, and a transition into a happier existence (5). Destitution and mortal misfortune saw the sick kid in The Angel and the poor little match girl die in the worst conditions. However, both of them found happiness in the end as they approached the divine presence of God.

Rizal as a Translator

In comparative literature, we treat translation as a semiotic activity that relates to the transfer of meaning contained in one set of language signs into another set of language signs. However, the success of the process is not solely contingent on satisfying linguistic criteria. A good translator never takes the text in isolation from its culture. Following this standard, Rizal did an excellent job of translating five major fairy tales by Andersen into Tagalog. The National Hero understood the Danish author’s social reality and capitalised on retaining the layered consciousness of the tales so that the fantasy effect is left undisturbed.

A translated work carries the personality of both the original author and the translator. When we read Rizal’s translations of Andersen’s tales, we see how the tale types (plot patterns in folk tales) are creatively preserved to avoid taking the narratives away from the intended context. But this does not mean Rizal failed to incorporate elements of his personality in his translations. For example, his mastery of the Spanish language is evident in the lexical choices he made (e.g. nenúfar for waterlilies). 

It is important to look at the goal of a translator in order to appreciate what is gained instead of what is lost in the translation. Ocampo noted the different ways to study Rizal’s translations, one of which is by treating them as a record on what the National Hero believed to be the best education for his nephews and nieces (62). What makes Rizal unique as a translator is his noble purpose of instructing the youth even if he is miles away from home. He sent copies of his translations to his nephews and nieces in the Philippines so they can read ‘what is made available to children in Europe’. His ideals guided him in finding a way to exercise his use of a foreign language and enrich the Filipino children’s literature at the same time. As a champion of literacy and social progress, a key part of Rizal’s cosmopolitan character is to always bring back home the wealth of knowledge he collected overseas.

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