Wherever he went, Segundo “Jun” Matias Jr. couldn’t help but notice how he could easily find local translations of international bestsellers.
Matias isn’t an idle observer. The moving force behind Precious Pages Corporation that dominates the Filipino romance market through its Precious Hearts Romances (PHR) line, is always looking for the next big thing in publishing.
It was a phenomenon he saw in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. “Their people speak and read English too but they have international titles available in their native tongue. I don’t want Filipino readers to be deprived of the same option and not be able to read novels from other countries simply because the books available here are all in English,” he explains.
He also noted that internationally read writers like Brazilian author Paulo Coelho (whose work was originally in Portuguese) and Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who wrote in Spanish and is the author of Matias’ favorite book, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”) are read mostly through translation.
Why not try something similar here, he thought. “There’s a market that wants to enjoy the same books in Filipino. It’s that simple,” he says. “I saw a readership survey in 2007 that says readers prefer reading in Filipino. Maybe there are those who won’t admit it, but there are others who’d openly acknowledge that they want to read books in Filipino.” It’s an untapped market, he adds.
Even as Precious Pages, which Matias founded with friend Richard Reynante in 1992, continues to churn out light romances—usually just a little over 100 pages and costing less than P50—Matias has found that translating Harlequin Romances pays just as well. So why not try translating the big books into Filipino too? His first target: Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.”
After meetings with “Twilight” publisher Little, Brown and Company, Matias secured the rights and released “Twilight (Takipsilim)” in late 2012. The title sold briskly. In quick succession, he wrangled the licenses to translate a diverse array of popular authors such as Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, Sophie Kinsella, Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks, and assigned his company’s best authors to do the job. To make the mainstream translations stand out, Matias established the company’s World Bestsellers imprint for these books.
Matias also decided to work on what he calls “the literary books.” He repurposed the company’s Lampara Books imprint, previously used to exclusively publish children’s books, for the next wave of books. He set his sights on a Hogwarts-sized acquisition: J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and signed a contract with Scholastic to do a Filipino version in March, 2013.
For this, he chose award-winning children’s author Becky Bravo as translator. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Filipino Edition” first made an appearance at last year’s Manila International Book Fair.
To continue feeding the Lampara Books line, Matias then recruited prolific writer Edgardo B. Maranan to translate Coelho’s 1988 masterpiece, “The Alchemist.” Maranan’s translation, “The Alchemist (Ang Alkemista) The Filipino Edition” came out earlier this year. It was actually Maranan’s first time to read the book and he savored the opportunity. “There is no writer alive who does not dream of writing a bestseller,” Maranan says. “The translation should try to approximate as closely as possible, or be the equivalent of, the work being translated in all its literary attributes.” His fluid translation of “The Alchemist” does just that.
Years after dreaming of being able to translate Garcia Marguez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” into Filipino, Matias is on the cusp of doing just that. After having acquired the license to the book, he asked Maranan to translate the masterpiece. The Filipino translation is slated for release in early 2015, a lifetime achievement, Matias describes it.
Maranan acknowledges this to be a “big challenge,” because of the novel’s length as well as keeping the original’s structure. “I have always wanted to read this novel again, decades after I spent several days reading it and at the end having mixed feelings of elation and envy.”
Matias makes no bones about giving the best works to outside translators with a true literary pedigree. “I couldn’t imagine giving ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ to people who hadn’t proven themselves yet in Filipino literature, like Ed Maranan,” he says. “I respect the book as it was written. I want to present this kind of writing at a premium.”
Aside from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Lampara is set to release a translation of Chilean author Isabel Allende’s “The House of Spirits” by another prize-winning writer, Rosario Torres-Yu, and the classic 1952 children’s book “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, as translated by the Palanca Hall of Fame-winning children’s writer Eugene Evasco.
Meanwhile, Matias has also grown the World’s Bestsellers line, which carries the translations of what he considers the more commercial, popular titles such as Suzanne Collins’ 2008 “The Hunger Games” and the risqué 2011 EL James book “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
“For me to consider translating a book, it must have sold well and made money. Otherwise, why do it,” he muses. He admits it is a thoroughly commercial concern.
That brings us to the predictably successful story of “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Filipino Edition.” Released in 2013, the book has become Precious Pages’ biggest seller, with estimates of up to 20,000 copies sold after multiple printings. Matias ventures an idea on why it has sold so well: “I think it’s sexy,” he says, adding that some people were curious as to how such a risque book could be translated into one’s native language where words were bound to hit one’s guts even harder. Just how does one translate an erotic book without making the steamy sound almost pornographic in Filipino?
With such a concern about public perception and acceptance, is it any wonder that the translator was not named in a break with standard Precious Pages protocol?
Well, wonder no more. The book was translated by Edith Garcia, Precious Pages’ editor in chief, who had worked with Matias for 16 years after stints in publishing and selling local movies for export.
She wasn’t the original choice however.
Matias recalls that he had originally chosen another translator, a talented young writer to do the job. But when that writer’s mother found out about the assignment, she forbade her daughter from doing it.
Convenience led to Garcia taking over the translation—even if she had never translated a book before. “I ordered her to do it,” Matias adds. “I wanted to publish it while it was hot.”
So Garcia embarked on an unexpected adventure. “I had to change everything,” she says in Filipino. “The idiomatic expressions and the sexual references were tricky to translate. Do I not include that? I would be a hypocrite if I did that. The whole point is so stimulate the readers. So I just did it in a straightforward way. I asked other people about it and they said they also preferred it done in a straightforward manner.” She spent two months working 16 hours a day to finish it. The result is markedly different from Maranan’s more ornate, almost ethereal work on “The Alchemist.”
Garcia’s “Fifty Shades” translation is indeed very simple to the point of being literal. “I think simplicity is what readers want,” she says.
As to the decision not to put her name on the finished work, Garcia says it wasn’t that she was embarrassed. “It was just because I’m active in the music ministry of a charismatic renewal group and I was worried they wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I didn’t mind other people knowing I did it because I didn’t write the book; I only translated it. It’s just work.”
But she enjoyed the experience, she admits, and considers it good practice for what she eventually wants to do: write her own books. She is quite happy with her upcoming translation project: the Filipino version of her all-time favorite book, the 1985 novel “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” by Patrick Süskind.
Translations have always been present in Philippine publishing, but it was usually reserved for classical works such as Rolando Tinio’s translations of Shakespeare. Retail giant National Book Store has a best-selling Filipino translation of John Green’s young adult novel “The Fault in Our Stars” translated by poet and fictionist Danton Remoto.
Matias believes these translations have a place in our publishing landscape. He doesn’t feel, for example, that these pop and literary translations are preventing the publication of more original Filipino creative writing. “I don’t feel guilty about that because PHR alone has 10,000 books,” he notes. “There are very few translations compared to the original work we publish. I consider us a publisher who publishes Filipino books and at the same time translates (them). Given a choice, I would still choose the original works. But there is a budget, so why don’t we use it for something different?”
“Translations widen our reading horizon, expand our knowledge of the literature and literary history of other cultures, at the same time making us aware of the capabilities of our own language,” Maranan says. “Publishers ought to focus on having only classic works by foreign authors translated, and not just any foreign literary work just because it’s popular, and they should publish more books with original Filipino content, in whatever language the Filipino writer is writing in.”
As for Precious Pages not publishing literary work by local authors, Matias explains that nobody has approached them so far with a proposal. “They usually go to publishers like Anvil (but) we’d be open to that.”
They certainly would, because Matias is known for leading Precious Pages into some uncharted territory, including a line of graphic novels called Black Ink Comics. He’s always ready to try something new, as evidenced by Booklat (Booklat.com.ph).
Essentially a Filipino version of Wattpad, it was created in September 2013 as a platform where people can post their work and allow others to comment on them. Matias chooses what he considers the best stories and publishes them in print form (20 titles so far). He likes the immediacy of the engagement as well as the business potential of finding crossover sales hits like “She’s Dating The Gangster” and “Diary ng Panget.”
Then there’s the line of original Filipino erotica, which can be found in Precious Pages’ retail outlets bound by a plastic chain and a lock. The lock can only be opened after potential buyers produce an I.D. confirming that they’re 18 years or older. Only then would the salesperson provide a key.
These days, Matias is kept busy by Precious Pages’ 50 translators and the regular job of putting out 50 books a month. Precious Pages has translated more than 130 books, adds Garcia.
It’s all part of a diverse publishing strategy that ties in nicely with the predictable success story of “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Filipino Edition,” one that began when Matias was talking to a teacher at the printing press. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “There was a time I discriminated against certain books because I wanted them to be clean and decent. I worried that the books (we translate) might be too salacious. But that teacher told me that it should always be a good thing when people—drivers, domestic helpers, anybody—read books—any book. At least they are reading. As a publisher, that has to be my attitude.
“Why should I discriminate against books just because of its sexual content? It doesn’t make me a dirty person because I read them.”