If you’ve been meaning to take a serious crack at Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” after mostly breezing thru them in high school, David Guerrero has made it easier for you. The veteran advertising figure has turned the two important Filipino novels into audio books available now via the Audible app, using the English translations of his father, the diplomat, novelist, and author of “The First Filipino: A Biography of Jose Rizal,” León Maria Guerrero.
Reading the books on Audible is acclaimed British actor Richard E. Grant who is no stranger to the audio books game; his is the voice behind Penguin Classics’ “Dracula” and a few titles by Agatha Christie. Grant, nominated for Best Supporting Actor in the 2019 Oscars for his performance in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (opposite Melissa McCarthy) gives Rizal’s prose a commanding, cinematic delivery, and for those familiar with the books, the actor’s reading will surely make for news ways of imagining the author’s cast of characters.
Guerrero is aware some Filipino readers might be thrown off by a Brit reading to us about the Filipino experience, mouthing the words of 19th century kapitans, frailes, and cabezas—but he also says Grant is “a highly engaging narrator and one who can make lengthy period novels compelling to listen to.” Listening to the sample clip on Audible, we’re inclined to agree.
Below, Guerrero shares with ANCX some thoughts on making the project, a bit of history on his father’s translations, and talks about how the audio books are as much a nod to the storytelling traditions of the past as they are gifts to a new generation of audiences schooled in consuming information and entertainment with the swipe of a finger.
ANCX: What was the main motivation for producing these audio books of the “Noli” and “Fili”?
There is something that many people find daunting about trying to read a 135 year-old book. (Even if it's available as a 61 year old translation!) It is a comparatively large time commitment compared to a typical scroll through social media. So unless you are a student or a book-lover you may find it a challenge. On the other hand, an audiobook is a relatively easy and enjoyable way to access a novel. It falls into the great tradition of having someone read you a story. You can even listen with your eyes shut. Also, the accessibility that Audible provides through its app means that you can listen in the car, while walking, doing the housework or whatever.
So ultimately, the motivation to produce an audiobook of Rizal's novels was all about accessibility and sharing - especially to an overseas audience who may not be as familiar with the stories as we are here.
ANCX: These are your father’s translations of Rizal’s novels—what did you find to be most striking about them?
My father was commissioned to do these translations for an English publisher, Longman. They were aimed at a modern (1960s) reader of the book around the time of the Rizal centenary (Jose Rizal was born 19 June 1861). Importantly they were also aimed at a general (i.e. foreign) reader with no special knowledge of the Philippines and for whom many of the characters and circumstances would need some introduction to be understood. So these translations have been described as "the most readable" in an Inquirer review of some of the available ones.
They have also come under academic scrutiny in the years after my father's death with American academic Benedict Anderson in particular devoting an entire chapter of his book "The Spectre of Comparisons" to it. Frankly, I'm not sure that other translations are superior but each is very much a product of its age.
ANCX: Why Richard E. Grant as narrator and how did you convince him to do it?
Richard E. Grant is a highly engaging narrator and one who can make lengthy period novels compelling to listen to. He's done everything from Agatha Christie to George Orwell. During the recording sessions he told me that he related to the experience of colonialism, having grown up in Swaziland in Southern Africa. He was not familiar with the Philippines and that meant he did not attempt to speak the characters’ lines in accented Spanish, or Filipino, but instead transpose their voices to English equivalents. He loved the stories and much enjoyed the books - saying they had given him "a deep dive" into the culture. He also came to the Philippine Embassy in London and spoke to the community there about his experience of reading the books.
ANCX: Were there any particular challenges putting the audio books out?
The decision to make the recording happen was a leap of faith. I had to advance the money to pay [Grant’s] fee and for the recording studio in London, as well as for an audio engineer and producer. After that, the process of the recording itself was quite straightforward.
However, the hard part came later, in getting distribution for the books. At the time, Audible would only accept submissions from publishers of at least three books. And of course I only had two! Lately, however, they have introduced a program for independent publishers and this made it possible for me to share the books online with readers on the US and the UK Audible platforms. It's far from being a profitable enterprise in a financial sense but it's been worth it on an emotional level.
ANCX: What has been for you the most gratifying part of this project?
The most gratifying part of making this is getting it out there and having people able to listen to the books. Prior to this, there were no Rizal books on Audible. And while some people would have preferred a Spanish-speaking actor as narrator (my choice would be Gael Garcia Bernal) we will perhaps have to wait for one of them to be cast in an international “Noli” movie. Overall, however, our reviews are running at 4.4/5.0 and there are also more encouraging comments like: "A wonderful performance of a nation's classic." It's true you can't please all the people all of the time but at least with the audiobook we can get some of them to listen.