The Promise of the Foreign

Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines

The Promise of the Foreign

Book Pages: 256 Illustrations: 2 b&w photos Published: December 2005

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In The Promise of the Foreign, Vicente L. Rafael argues that translation was key to the emergence of Filipino nationalism in the nineteenth century. Acts of translation entailed technics from which issued the promise of nationhood. Such a promise consisted of revising the heterogeneous and violent origins of the nation by mediating one’s encounter with things foreign while preserving their strangeness. Rafael examines the workings of the foreign in the Filipinos’ fascination with Castilian, the language of the Spanish colonizers. In Castilian, Filipino nationalists saw the possibility of arriving at a lingua franca with which to overcome linguistic, regional, and class differences. Yet they were also keenly aware of the social limits and political hazards of this linguistic fantasy.

Through close readings of nationalist newspapers and novels, the vernacular theater, and accounts of the 1896 anticolonial revolution, Rafael traces the deep ambivalence with which elite nationalists and lower-class Filipinos alike regarded Castilian. The widespread belief in the potency of Castilian meant that colonial subjects came in contact with a recurring foreignness within their own language and society. Rafael shows how they sought to tap into this uncanny power, seeing in it both the promise of nationhood and a menace to its realization. Tracing the genesis of this promise and the ramifications of its betrayal, Rafael sheds light on the paradox of nationhood arising from the possibilities and risks of translation. By repeatedly opening borders to the arrival of something other and new, translation compels the nation to host foreign presences to which it invariably finds itself held hostage. While this condition is perhaps common to other nations, Rafael shows how its unfolding in the Philippine colony would come to be claimed by Filipinos, as would the names of the dead and their ghostly emanations.


“[A] powerful and beautifully written study of nationalist literature, theater, and the effects of Castilian translations on Filipinos. . .” — Andrew Willford, American Ethnologist

“[A]n argument that is as intriguing and challenging as the writing is playful and poetic . . . . Through detailed and insightful analysis of texts set against a brief description of the socioeconomic background, Rafael makes a strong case for the importance of the foreign in the emergence of Filipino nationalism and his choice to focus on Castilian works well.” — Matthew James Crawford, Itinerario

“[C]ontributes to our understanding of the fundamental assumptions informing nationalist discourse, as well as the contradictions and complex realities at work in Philippine society. — Gary C. Devilles, Philippine Daily Inquirer

“As we move through the book, we can draw the conclusion, and it is the highest praise possible, that Rafael, a brilliant Filipino historian living in the U.S. and writing in English, may be the next in that line of illustrious figures.” — Rudolf Mrázek, Pacific Affairs

“Rafael has given us an exceptionally written evocation of Philippine creativity, which is also a powerful refutation of all attempts to define identity through purity.” — Fennella Cannel, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Rafael’s book certainly contains much of interest for those working on the topic of language politics in colonial contexts, and for those studying the role of literature in proto-nationalist and independence movements.” — Thomas O. Beebee, Comparative Literature Studies

“Rafael’s book, diversified as it is in its approach, is a tour-de-force that combines historiographic and cultural analysis to yield an intriguing portrayal not only of Philippine nationalism but also of the origins of postcolonial nationalism (and its conflicting sources), caught between the opposing discursive fields of autochthonous and colonial cultures.” — Leila Lehnen, Journal of Anthropological Research

“This latest work is one of erudition and unique insight. What is characteristic of Rafael’s prose is not only its eloquence but the meticulous unpacking of every snippet of source material, which is mined for its heuristic value, propelling the argument towards often unique lateral understandings. This is a work that would be of great value to Philippinists in particular and to those who are interested in the development of nationalist thought in Southeast Asia more broadly.”
— Julius J. Bautista, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

“Following up on Contracting Colonialism, Vicente L. Rafael studies the Philippine nationalists’ failed attempts to lay claim to Spanish, and the emergence of a hungry Tagalog meaning-machine eager to ‘host the foreign in the familiar.’ Rafael takes his readers on an astonishing trip through the Philippine cultural archive, from vernacular comedia, epic and novel, to underground newspapers, speeches, and the captured documents of secret societies, examining language as an unstoppable producer of social and political possibilities, including the possibility of the national. No one grasps better than Rafael the ambiguous agency of language in colonialism and decolonization.” — Mary Louise Pratt, New York University

“In the tradition of James Siegel and Benedict Anderson, Vicente L. Rafael has given us a daring book about the ambivalent origins of the nation in the Philippines. It will be loved and emulated by students of nationalism, Southeast Asia, and comparative literary studies everywhere. There is good reason for this, for it is a beautiful book, a book of readings for lovers of literature, a book about literature for the media age. Mostly, however, it is a book about the foreignness in us all: an unassailable refutation of nationalist ideologies of purity.” — Rosalind C. Morris, author of In the Place of Origins: Modernity and Its Mediums in Northern Thailand


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Vicente L. Rafael is Professor of History at the University of Washington. He is the author of White Love and Other Events in Filipino History and Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule, both also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Preface xv

Introduction: Forgiving the Foreign 1

1. Translation and Telecommunication: Castilian as Lingua Franca 17

2. The Phantasm of Revenge: On Rizal's Fili 36

3. The Call of Death: On Rizal's Noli

4. The Colonial Uncanny: The Foreign Lodged in the Vernacular 96

5. Making the Vernacular Foreign: Tagalog as Castilian 119

6. Pity, Recognition, and the Risks of Literature in Balagtas 132

7. "Freedom = Death": Conjurings, Secrecy, Revolution 159

Afterword: Ghostly Voices: Kalayaan's Address 183

Notes 191

Works Cited 213

Index 223
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, Grant Goodman Prize, Philippine Studies Group of the Association for Asian Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3664-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3651-8
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