Anyone who has taken an interest in Philippine history knows the story of Jose Rizal’s death poem, known today as Mi Ultimo Adios. The original bears no title or date or even Rizal’s signature, which are minor mysteries in themselves, and was written sometime before the evening of December 29 when he gave it to his sister hidden inside an oil heater he’d used for his food with the whispered words in English or Visayan, depending on the source “There’s something inside”.
Within days of his execution, Rizal’s poem, his last words, had been copied and were being passed around a country in the throes of revolution. We do not know whether its words inspired the revolutionaries but his words can read as a mandate to fight.
But was such a subterfuge, the smuggling out of the poem, really necessary? After all, Rizal had spend his last days writing letters to friends like Ferdinand Blumentritt in which he protested his innocence so why smuggle out a poem that, on the surface, is merely an affectionate farewell to his country with a sideswipe at the friars? True, the friars might have wanted to suppress it, but if Rizal had thoroughly repudiated revolution then the Spanish authorities had little to fear. Or did they?
During discussions on the RP-Rizal Yahoo group about various translations of Mi Ultimo Adios I talked of a particularly horrible English version and was forced to go back to the Spanish original to check on a term I wanted to use as an example. As I re-read the poem, even though my Spanish is at best rudimentary, it seemed to me that at least some words in the original had layers of meaning that disappeared in translation.
Rizal was an extremely nuanced writer. He chose his words and their presentation with precision. Words are containers for a multiplicity of meanings, some of which may not necessarily transfer directly to another word in another language.
As I checked the Spanish against the English it seemed that there was another, almost silent song running underneath it. One that Rizal hoped would reach the right ears.
Is there a secret message in Mi Ultimo Adios? Is there ‘something inside’?
I shall not attempt to translate the poem into a poem but to explore the original Spanish text verse by verse.