Notes on translation

An essay on For Whom the Bell Tolls by David Gagne

I wrote this response paper on November 5, 1995 for a class with Dr. Bredahl…

On Monday nights I have a class on American Literature from 1900-WWII. In that class we have recently read a book called Yekl. I can’t quite remember the author’s name, Abraham? Cahn?, but in the book are some styles similar to ones Hemingway is using in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Yekl is a book about Lithuanian immigrants in turn-of-the-century America and the entire book is a translation of Yiddish, and dialects, into English. But at some points there are Yiddish words printed because this is how the author shows words which have no direct translation into Yiddish from English. Throughout FWTBT there are sprinkled italicized words and phrases. What is an interesting twist is that the entire book — well, and I’ll be honest again, I’ve only read the first 200+ pages — is a translation into English of another language.

When I come across foreign words (Spanish, mostly) there is a difficulty because of the possibilities for interpreting italicizing in the book. Are these words being spoken in Spanish and therefore appear in the book as italicized Spanish words? Are they being spoken in English and therefore should not be translated into English? Are they words that sound to the ear particularly, aesthetically “different” than a literal translation would convey? Are they words that the narrator (and I have yet to decide if the author and the narrator are one) cannot translate and so the author has done so instead? I don’t have an answer to these questions and I don’t know if there is one.

What is notable is that the author (or narrator), like Shakespeare, more often than not follows these italicized intrusions of a foreign language with a translation in the form of a repeated phrase or a defining phrase (e.g. “Dentro de la gravedad,” he said in Spanish. “Within the limits of danger.”). This makes it possible for someone with absolutely no knowledge of Spanish to follow threads of conversations which are apparently unable to be translated. Again the question of “reality” is posed: Are the conversations actually occurring in Spanish and being translated into English? This is one of the factors contributing to how slowly this book reads and it is strange that Hemingway, who I previously found very easy to read, would force a story to be halting.

2024-03-11: Broken links in this post have been removed and/or updated.
For Whom the Bell Tolls

This post is part of The Hemingway Collection, an archive of essays, images, and hyperlinks to interesting articles about the great American author.

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There is one comment on this post

  1. That’s kind of the point, all that stuff about translation. I found the book a little odd at first — even though as a sometime Spanish speaker I understood both languages. But what Hemingway is doing is not translating Spanish into English for his readers. He is more rendering the thought process behind the conversations, which are taking place in Spanish, into English words his readers will understand. This, to his way of thinking (and mine, once I got used to it), is more authentic than having his hero and the people he is living and fighting with conversing in the King’s English.

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