“That was thinking in Spanish”: Translated Style and Interlingual Strangeness in Hemingway

Nathaniel Davis

This paper looks at translation strategies used by Hemingway for representing foreign speech in his fiction. In For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway renders Spanish and Italian dialogue in a kind of pidgin English, exposing the syntax and character of the foreign language through literal translation and techniques of “verbal transposition.” The choice to accentuate these interlingual traces through lexical and syntactical strangeness is obviously intended to mark the alterity of the dialogue, but it also serves a stylistic function, allowing Hemingway to introduce strange and ungrammatical language into the otherwise sober English narration. Hemingway’s use of this effect is expanded in For Whom the Bell Tolls, where this odd, almost creolized style is also apparent in the protagonist Robert Jordan’s interior monologue. This transgression of linguistic norms is justified here as representing Jordan’s personal experience of language attrition—the distortion or loss of one’s native language due to extended immersion in a second language; but when Hemingway allows this translated style to stray into the third-person narration, the device becomes a pure stylistic exercise. These sections reveal how Hemingway exploits the international and interlingual alterity of foreign languages and foreign characters in order to extend the experimental core of his project of developing a unique modern English prose voice—following in part from the early influence of Gertrude Stein’s linguistic estrangements—without sacrificing the larger realist frame that grounds his novels in tradition.

Cet article examine les stratégies de traduction utilisées par Hemingway pour représenter le langage étranger dans ses œuvres de fiction. Dans Pour qui sonne le glas et L’Adieu aux armes, Hemingway rend les dialogues espagnols et italiens dans une sorte d’anglais pidgin, exposant la syntaxe et le caractère de la langue étrangère par le biais de la traduction littérale et de techniques de « transposition verbale ». Le choix d’accentuer ces traces interlinguistiques par des étrangetés lexicales et syntaxiques vise évidemment à marquer l’altérité du dialogue, mais il remplit également une fonction stylistique, permettant à Hemingway d’introduire un langage étrange et non grammatical dans la narration anglaise, par ailleurs sobre. Hemingway utilise davantage cet effet dans Pour qui sonne le glas, où ce style étrange, presque créolisé, apparaît également dans le monologue intérieur du protagoniste Robert Jordan. Cette transgression des normes linguistiques est justifiée ici comme représentant l’expérience personnelle de Jordan de l’attrition linguistique—la déformation ou la perte de la langue maternelle due à une immersion prolongée dans une seconde langue ; mais lorsque Hemingway permet à ce style traduit de s’égarer dans la narration à la troisième personne, l’artifice devient un pur exercice de style. Ces sections révèlent comment Hemingway exploite l’altérité internationale et interlinguistique des langues et des personnages étrangers afin d’étendre le noyau expérimental de son projet de développement d’une voix de prose anglaise moderne unique—suivant en partie l’influence précoce des éloignements linguistiques de Gertrude Stein—sans sacrifier le cadre réaliste plus large qui enracine ses romans dans la tradition.

Ernest Hemingway, Interlingualism, Polylingualism, Translation, Transposition, Language attrition, Polyglossia, Dialogue, Style, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, The Sun Also Rises.



Hemingway’s fiction often features anglophone characters in polylingual situations. In France, Spain, Italy, Cuba, and Tanzania, they meet, observe, and interact with non-English speakers—sometimes using English, sometimes using French, Spanish, Italian, and other foreign languages. When the dialogue takes place in a foreign language, Hemingway employs several different methods to render it in English. At times it is translated into clear and fluent English; elsewhere the translation is literal or sounds slightly unnatural; sometimes the dialogue is rendered in a strange sort of pidgin English. The techniques Hemingway uses to represent foreign dialogue correspond to the cultural, formal, and stylistic dynamics of his fiction. In this paper, I’ll be looking at the translated dialogue in his war novels: A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Figure: Meir Sternberg’s spectrum of literary representations of polylingualism (232)

In an article from 1981, Meir Sternberg introduced a useful taxonomy for literary representations of polylingualism. He presents a scale of techniques, ranging from the direct inclusion of multiple languages within a text—“vehicular matching”—to the flattening representation of a polylingual situation in a monolingual text—“homogenizing convention” (232). Sternberg’s spectrum of the integration or effacement of foreign languages in literary texts resembles somewhat Lawrence Venuti’s schematic model of translation, which, following Friedrich Schleiermacher and Antoine Berman, he organizes between the opposed poles of domestication and foreignization (see, e.g., Venuti 20 ff.). Sternberg is addressing the extent to which authors, not translators, allow foreign languages to exert their presence in a literary text.

Hemingway often utilizes two of Sternberg’s techniques: “selective reproduction” and “explicit attribution.” The former is represented by Hemingway’s tendency to include certain foreign words in the translated foreign dialogue:

“Anything happen at the encierro?”
“I didn’t see it all. One man was badly cogido.” (The Sun Also Rises 197)

“You should not let us talk this way, Tenente. Evviva l’esercito,” Passini said sarcastically. (A Farewell to Arms 43)

“You are a man of intelligence.”
“Intelligent, yes,” Agustín said. “But sin picardía. Pablo for that.” (For Whom the Bell Tolls 95)

“Good shot, B’wana,” he said in Swahili.  »Piga m’uzuri. » (The Green Hills of Africa 41)

This approach exploits the exoticism of foreign words for stylistic effect. What is interesting, however, is that Hemingway sometimes chooses to include more obscure terms that will likely not be familiar to anglophone readers (i.e., he is not just inserting a “gracias” or “buona sera” here and there).

In “explicit attribution,” an author translates the foreign language into English, but diegetically marks it as foreign. This is also used extensively by Hemingway:

“Where the hell is Cohn?”
“I don’t know,” Mike said. “I’ll ask. Where is the drunken comrade?” he asked in Spanish. (The Sun Also Rises 127)

“Come, come,” he said. “Don’t be a bloody hero.” Then in Italian: “Lift him very carefully about the legs. His legs are very painful. He is the legitimate son of President Wilson.” (A Farewell to Arms 50)

“Maria,” Pilar said. “I will not touch thee. Tell me now of thy own volition.”
“De tu propia voluntad,” the words were in Spanish. (For Whom the Bell Tolls 174)

While Hemingway’s use of these two methods is interesting in itself, I want to focus on a liminal category between the two: that of “verbal transposition,” which Sternberg defines as “the poetic or communicative twist given to what sociolinguists call bilingual interference” (227). Instead of directly borrowing foreign words (selective reproduction) or marking translated passages as having foreign origin (explicit attribution), transposition mimetically reflects polylingual speech within a monolingual text. The dominant language of the text becomes a translated target language, undergoing “foreignizing,” to use Venuti’s term, in order to reflect the linguistic alterity of the source language. So, in Hemingway’s case, foreign dialogue taking place between his characters is translated into English in a manner that marks it as foreign.

Transposition represents a more intricate polyglossic distortion than selective reproduction and explicit attribution, and is used by Hemingway to reflect deeper levels of immersion in a foreign culture. It is most prevalent in his war novels, and especially in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The pseudo-colonial adventurism of The Green Hills of Africa and the bourgeois-bohemian expat tourism of The Sun Also Rises both represent leisure-time experiences of the foreign. The war novels, on the other hand, describe the voluntary engagement of an American protagonist in European military conflict—a deeper, more committed experience of cultural and linguistic immersion, which perhaps led Hemingway to explore more advanced techniques of polylingual representation.

Sternberg details the various types of interlingual interference that create the transposed effect: “phonic or orthographic idiosyncrasy”; “grammatical irregularity and ill-formedness”; “lexical deviance”; as well as “stylistic features that are contrary to the ‘spirit of the [target] language’” (227–28). What unifies these various traits is their mimetic nature: they do not directly transfer foreign language, but are rather a “stylized mimesis of form” (228).

While Hemingway’s use of transposition is most noticeable in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), it is already present in A Farewell to Arms (1929). The most common effect here is a slightly unnatural phrasing in Italian dialogue, as in the following conversation between the protagonist Frederic Henry and an Italian barman. The slight awkwardness here is due to a literal translation that retains the lexical and syntactical form of the original without exchanging it for a more natural-sounding English equivalent:

“Tell me,” he said, “what is happening at the front?”
“I would not know about the front.”
“I saw you come down the wall. You came off the train.”
“There is a big retreat.”
“I read the papers. What happens? Is it over?”
“I don’t think so.”
He filled the glass with grappa from a short bottle. “If you are in trouble,” he said, “I can keep you.”
“I am not in trouble.”
“If you are in trouble stay here with me.”
“Where does one stay?” (205–6)

Hemingway chooses to render the Italian dialogue with slightly strange forms, like “What happens?” instead of the obvious, more natural choice of “What’s happening?” Likewise, he goes with “I can keep you” instead of the more fluent translation “You can stay here.” This refusal of fluency and naturalism represents Hemingway’s attempt at foreignizing the dialogue, employed here as a stylistic effect that simulates the perspective of a second-language speaker. A more pronounced example is the translation of the “pidgin Italian” spoken to Henry by an Italian captain:

The captain spoke pidgin Italian for my doubtful benefit, in order that I might understand perfectly, that nothing should be lost.
“Priest to-day with girls,” the captain said looking at the priest and at me. The priest smiled and blushed and shook his head. This captain baited him often.
“Not true?” asked the captain. “To-day I see priest with girls.”
“No,” said the priest. The other officers were amused at the baiting.
“Priest not with girls,” went on the captain. “Priest never with girls,” he explained to me. He took my glass and filled it, looking at my eyes all the time, but not losing sight of the priest.
“Priest every night five against one.” Every one at the table laughed. (6–7)

Here, Hemingway renders the dialogue with literal translation not only in order to reflect the foreignness of the speech, but also to highlight its original non-fluency.

A passing diegetic remark towards the end of A Farewell to Arms shows, I believe, that Hemingway was aware of the distorting effects of translation in his dialogue. When Henry and Catherine Barkley are fleeing the hotel, they run into the second porter, who brings them an umbrella, and then, speaking English, makes the awkward remark: “Don’t stay out in the storm. You will get wet, sir and lady.” Henry, the first-person narrator, then remarks: “He was only the second porter, and his English was still literally translated” (231). Presumably, the idea here is that he has translated the Italian “signore e signora” and applied it in a manner that does not work in English.

It’s hard to know how to read this. Literal translation is presented here as a mark of immaturity, because the young man is “only the second porter,” and because “still” implies that he will stop doing this as his English improves. However, the remark comes after more than two hundred pages during which Hemingway has used literal translation or mistranslation as a stylistic effect. This can perhaps be read as an intradiegetic joke on Hemingway’s part, acknowledging either his stylistic technique or his own insecurity about his knowledge of Italian (which was limited).

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, the verbal transposition is much more apparent, partly due to Hemingway’s decision to render the Spanish second-person familiar with the archaic “thou” form. The technique is introduced in the first pages of the novel: when Anselmo insults Pablo, the protagonist Robert Jordan notices the old man’s speech slipping into a dialect of “old Castilian” that Hemingway renders throughout the novel with an array of inconsistently employed archaisms:

The old man turned toward him suddenly and spoke rapidly and furiously in a dialect that Robert Jordan could just follow. It was like reading Quevedo. Anselmo was speaking old Castilian and it went something like this, “Art thou a brute? Yes. Art thou a beast? Yes, many times. Hast thou a brain? Nay. None. Now we come for something of consummate importance and thee, with thy dwelling place to be undisturbed, puts thy fox-hole before the interests of humanity. Before the interests of thy people. I this and that in the this and that of thy father. I this and that and that in thy this. Pick up that bag.” (11)

While the use of the “thou” form is the primary trace of the verbal transposition employed here, this is only one aspect of the strange archaic style that Hemingway develops, which is augmented by words like “nay” and ungrammatical phrases like “many times.” Hemingway also makes the odd choice to represent Spanish curses with generic placeholders (“this and that in the this and that . . .”) instead of translating the literal meaning or swapping for a colloquial equivalent in English. Later in the novel he also adds “selective reproduction” to the mix, retaining certain curses in the original Spanish instead of translating them.

In an even more bizarre translation decision, Hemingway often translates certain Spanish words for their English phonetic equivalent, even when this phonetically similar word has a different meaning or function. For example, the Spanish “raro” is translated as the English “rare” when the original meaning is closer to “weird” or “strange”; and “mucho” is translated as “much” even when the English syntax would call for a different word:

“Thou art a bicho raro,” Robert Jordan said . . .
“Very rare, yes,” Pablo said. “Very rare and very drunk. To your health, Inglés.” . . .
He’s rare, all right, Robert Jordan thought, and smart, and very complicated. (212)

“How do they look to you?” he asked.
“That,” said Robert Jordan, pointing to one of the bays, a big stallion . . . “is much horse.” (13)

Edward Fenimore has called this “phonetico-semantic translation,” (75) since it is based on phonetic resemblance rather than literal meaning. As Fenimore explains, this usage reflects “the view from without [of] the non-Spanish looking in upon the Spanish world; . . . the value of phrase and idiom is in the effect produced on a consistently assumed English ear” (73).

While the stylistic effect is certainly strange, it is important to note that, as translation, this technique manages to capture subtleties that would otherwise be lost. For example, translating “raro” as “rare” reflects the cognitive frame of an anglophone listener who understands “rare” and “weird” simultaneously and eventually substitutes the former for the latter in a process of private creolization that will be familiar to any speaker of a second language. And in translating “mucho” as “much” in the second example here, Hemingway captures the original’s colloquial conflation of quantitative and qualitative, which would be lost if it were translated with an English colloquialism like “That’s a hell of a horse.” By permitting stylistic strangeness, Hemingway allows for innovative, “foreignizing” translation solutions that retain important semiotic elements of the polylingual speech.

The pseudo-creolization of English that results from Hemingway’s use of interlingual transposition in For Whom the Bell Tolls serves several aesthetic functions, three of which I would like to address briefly here: 1) a reflection of Robert Jordan’s psychological state and personal experience of language attrition; 2) a stylistic device that estranges English within a conventionally realist frame; 3) a formal expression of war.

Firstly, although the book is narrated in the third person, the narrative perspective essentially corresponds to Jordan’s subjectivity. In the first draft of the novel, Hemingway began writing in the first person, but changed his mind after a few pages, crossing out the “I”s and replacing them with “he”s (Reynolds 300). The events are described from an external perspective, but the narration often blends with Robert Jordan’s inner thoughts. The creolized English of the translated dialogue thus can be seen as a reflection of Jordan’s personal experience of “language attrition”—the distortion or loss of one’s native language due to immersion within a second language. In his mental processing of Spanish, Jordan no longer translates to fluent English: the words linger in a limbo state of semi-translation. This linguistic interference also reflects Jordan’s psychic state. In conversation with the Soviet journalist Karkov, Jordan says, “My mind is in suspension until we win the war” (245). He occasionally reflects on his civilian life in America as though it were a distant dream. The English language, which connects him to home, has become clouded and confused.

Beyond the translated dialogue, Jordan’s language attrition sometimes passes over into the narrative voice. In the following passage, a free indirect record of Jordan’s inner thoughts is distorted by transposed Spanish—a distortion that is acknowledged by the narration, presumably giving voice to Jordan’s self-reflective thinking:

It probably had been good for them to have been together last night. Yes, unless it stopped. It certainly had been good for him. He felt fine today; sound and good and unworried and happy. The show looked bad enough but he was awfully lucky, too. He had been in others that announced themselves badly. Announced themselves; that was thinking in Spanish. (137)

As in the earlier examples from A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway purposefully chooses unnatural English phrasing to foreignize the language. Here, however, the intention is not to mark the language’s foreign origin, but rather to represent the state of interlingual confusion that disturbs Jordan’s thought processes. It is also altogether possible that the language attrition, presented here as Jordan’s, was actually happening in Hemingway’s head: that, after hours of writing stylized archaic dialogue and clumsy “translatese,” Hemingway slipped involuntarily into transposed Spanish, checked himself, and decided to leave it as an expression of Jordan’s interlingual conflict.

While the involuntary interlingual transposition is acknowledged here and marked as such, elsewhere in the book it is not, and simply becomes a feature of the book’s overall stylistic idiosyncrasy. In the following passage, the narration again fuses with a free indirect record of Jordan’s thinking, but the transposition that features throughout is left unacknowledged:

Pilar did not even speak to him. It was not like a snake charming a bird, nor a cat with a bird. There was nothing predatory. Nor was there anything perverted about it. There was a spreading, though, as a cobra’s hood spreads. He could feel this. He could feel the menace of the spreading. But the spreading was a domination, not of evil, but of searching. I wish I did not see this, Robert Jordan thought. But it is not a business for slapping. (173)

Here we have a generally confusing stylistic strangeness (the spreading was a domination of searching?) with clear traces of Spanish transposition, again serving to highlight Jordan’s experience of language attrition and the cognitive difficulty it creates for him.

In other passages the transposition begins in the dialogue and transfers over into the narration, which no longer bear a clear connection to Jordan’s inner thoughts. The passage below follows from a longer passage of transposed dialogue between Jordan and Maria. It is less clear here that the linguistic strangeness represents a transposition from Spanish: it reflects the archaic style of the dialogue as well as a broader process of pseudo-creolization, which appears to now be liberated from Spanish, inventing its own hybrid English:

Now as they lay all that before had been shielded was unshielded. Where there had been roughness of fabric all was smooth with a smoothness and firm rounded pressing and a long warm coolness, cool outside and warm within, long and light and closely holding, closely held, lonely, hollow-making with contours, happymaking, young and loving and now all warmly smooth with a hollowing, chest-aching, tight-held loneliness that was such that Robert Jordan felt he could not stand it and he said, “Hast thou loved others?” (70-71)

In passages like this one, it becomes clear that Hemingway is not only concerned with representing the linguistic alterity of Spanish; rather, transposition and the translation process it entails are simply starting points for his own explorations of the stylistic effects of non-standard linguistic usage.

This experimental strain can be traced back to Hemingway’s earliest writings, including early stories that show the influence of Gertrude Stein with their use of repetition, parataxis, and short, declarative statements. There is something in the above passage of what Wyndham Lewis called the “infantile, dull-witted dreamy stutter” that Hemingway stole from Stein (24)—and we can also see some of Hemingway’s trademark non-standard usage techniques, such as showing affect with long polysyndetic sentences. But the interlingual experimentation of the novel has led him towards newer, less familiar kinds of lexical and syntactical strangeness.

In her article “Ninety Percent Rotarian: Gertrude Stein’s Hemingway,” Marjorie Perloff has shown how, in his early work, Hemingway adopted experimental stylistic elements from Stein but fitted them to a more accessible, more classical, and more conservative model of modernist writing (Perloff 680 ff.). In his use of verbal transposition here, we find something similar: by smuggling in non-standard linguistic forms under the guise of transposed foreign dialogue or interlingual distortion, he develops another method of inserting strange and experimental stylistic elements into his work in a manner that does not upset the fundamental realist universe of his fiction.

Beyond style, the interlingual tension of For Whom the Bell Tolls can be seen as a formal reflection of war. There is both polyglossic and heteroglossic diversity in the novel: in the cohabitation and interanimation of Spanish and English, and in the simultaneity of different English styles and voices. In the transposed dialogue, the Spanish resists effacement, distorting the syntax of the English that has vanquished it through translation. Recalling Max Weinreich’s famous comment that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” the shifting heteroglossic surfaces of Hemingway’s war novels also offer symbolic enactments of the hegemonic struggles at the heart of the conflicts they recount.

Works cited

Fenimore, Edward. “English and Spanish in For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Journal of English Literary History, vol. 10, no. 1, 1943, pp. 73–86.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition. Scribner’s, 2012.

———. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Scribner’s, 1940.

———. The Green Hills of Africa. Scribner’s, 1935.

———. The Sun Also Rises. Scribner’s, 1926.

Lewis, Wyndham. “Ernest Hemingway: The ‘Dumb Ox.’” Men without Art, edited by Seamus Cooney, Black Sparrow, 1987, pp. 17–40.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Ninety-Percent Rotarian: Gertrude Stein’s Hemingway.” American Literature, vol. 62, no. 4, 1990, pp. 668–83.

Sternberg, Meir. “Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis.” Poetics Today, vol. 2, no. 4, 1981, pp. 221–39.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Routledge, 1995.

Weinreich, Max. “YIVO and the Problems of Our Time.” Yivo-bleter, vol. 25, no. 1, 1945, p. 13.


Nathaniel Davis is Lecturer in the English Department of the University of Fribourg and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a research associate of the ILCEA4 laboratory (Université Grenoble Alpes) and has had articles on modernism, the avant-garde, and translation appear in the Journal of Modern Literature, French Forum, and Paideuma. He edited the 2016 and 2017 editions of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction anthology.

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