Inspiration from Kristine Ong Muslim

We adore Kristine Ong Muslim’s translations of Marlon Hacla’s poems in Volume 40.1. Sample one of her translations here, and for a glimpse into her inspiration, read her translator’s note for the bilingual volume of Marlon Hacla’s book-length poem Melismas, forthcoming from Oomph Press.


My first encounter with Marlon Hacla’s distinctively dreamy and melancholic voice was many years ago in “Rangirang,” a little-known twelve-page poetry comic collaboration he did with the Filipino artist Apol Sta. Maria. The author Eliza Victoria tweeted about it, which was how I was able to find it. That first encounter I had with Hacla’s work was so singularly affecting that there was a time I could not shake off the weird notion that the enigmatic “Rangirang” was my song. That I had written it, forgotten about it for some reason until somebody else picked up where I left off and then transcribed it in Filipino. It was more like a strange sense of familiarity, unsettling in a way a déjà vu would strike. “Rangirang” asked the very same questions that bothered me at that point in my life. It also forwarded those questions in the exact same tone, the same passive-aggressive phraseology I would have adopted had I been the one to write the text of that poetry comic in English, which is the language I’m more comfortable with when I write. My obsession with “Rangirang” culminated in an exegesis, my version of an exegesis: I addressed the irresistible impulses of “Rangirang” in my book Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2017) through poems called “Bright Noise” and its preachy pair “Wildflower.” Interestingly, I did not even find it necessary to refer to “Rangirang” in Black Arcadia. I was working under the false impression of simply following the poetry comic’s winding thought process, which eerily mirrored mine, and then joining it in its unanswerable stream of rhetorical inquiries—my reconciliation with it.

The above-mentioned personal anecdote on my “prior relationship” with Hacla’s work is important to detail here, because it makes visible the strings that hold up—or down—my translation. Some of Hacla’s concerns in “Rangirang,” throbbing with existential anguish, psychosocial conflict, and the notion of eternity to be caught in a state of stasis much like a still-life, are carried over—and often with manic glee—into Melismas, an epic in every sense of the word. Which means: my translation did not proceed from a business-as-usual standpoint.

For my many other translations of works by Filipino writers, I read and reread the source text, make an effort to ease myself into it and let it percolate for a while, and then I go about translating it while being sensitive to the historical context from which the source text is drawn. Each time, I have to rationalize my decision to privilege one meaning over another and to apply the chosen rationale consistently throughout the piece.

With Melismas, it was different. I did not just feel at home translating it, it was home. The liberties I’ve taken while translating the text into English all felt natural. There was very little agonizing over things that tend to crop up in translation, including issues on equivalence and preservation of tone. Mostly, it was done by feel, by intuition.

Take, for instance, these opening lines to a stanza that can be taken as double-speak for atonement rituals before the pomp and pageantry of heavenly bliss in monotheistic theology:

Awit na nangunguna sa lahat

ng mga awit, nagmumulto ng mga alinsunurang

pagsamba sa mga kampana…

It more accurately translates to:

The song, at the forefront of all

songs, is the ghost that accompanies the serial

worship of bells…

But I opted to translate the passage this way:

Song that begets all

songs, haunts the ensuing

cult of the carillon…

I wanted my translation to reflect the roaring fever pitch of Melismas and how unshakeable it is in its near-cinematographic chronicling of decline and restoration, drowning and resurfacing. The original-language version of Melismas is moody, rich in ambiguities, unabashed even when it clumsily overreaches at times into unsustainable worldbuilding. It would take too well to a wild, impertinent, or flighty translation, as in the case with these lines:

Sa lahat ng dako, mga pinukaw na lilim,

mga batong nasasalita ng mga bato.

A literal translation would have produced something like this:

All over, the interruption of shaded areas,

the stones that speak of stones.

But I decided on this translation that heightened the personification, which I think is truer to the spirit, as well as the dramatic flair, of Melismas.

Everywhere, shaded areas are agitated,

stones are fluent in the language of stones.

Melismas is many things, among them an apologist for the brokenness of light and dark, as well as an attempt at a shorthand iconography of nightmares. It talks of “[c]loud-borne bodies” and “[f]aces on fire.” It talks of “waves concealing their lure” and the “wind’s unseen machinery.” It also talks of obsolescence so authoritatively that the translation better carry the despairing note of finality: “As our voices wane / in the wilderness, time is already / mocking us.”

In translating Melismas, I took the cue largely from the imperative of the title. That the entire epic is supposedly sung in one syllable. That I am expected to simply work on the variations of that monosyllable’s textures and modulation patterns. That the narrative remains suspended in time and space, having no true beginning and no true ending, just a fitful shifting across different notes in a vocal run. And so I did.

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