Monday, November 1, 2010

It Tolls for Thee

My fiction is in written English, but most of the characters speak another language (Hebrew, Yiddish, and Italian, in that order). The narratives too, are supposed to be in another language. There really are two tracks you can take in this kind of narrative sleight of hand. Either you act as if the characters expressing themselves in this language they would never speak is perfectly normal (as in many Hebrew novels and stories before Hebrew was a widely spoken language), or you in some way express that other language in English through a type of re-rendering.

I have been reading Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he takes that latter course. The novel is in English, but everyone speaks Spanish. So Hemingway tries to create Spanish sounding English by stretching the syntax of English nearly to its breaking point, by rendering Spanish-ism into odd English phrases, like “what passes with thee?” for que pasa, a common Spanish greeting.

He also uses archaic English usages to present forms that exist in Spanish, but are gone from English, like thee and thou for the second person pronoun. It makes for strange but captivating reading. Here is a writer rendering English into Spanish forms. The results are startling and not always enjoyable; but it always gives you the impression that you have entered another world.

If the novel was written in more fluid English, the result would not have been so unusual. The very clumsiness of the language reminds the reader that this is a novel that is taking place in another, somewhat more formal language. And the English bears that imprint.

When we read For Whom the Bell Tolls we can see English both reaching into its past to create diction of current usage, as well as using an odd and foreign syntax to give the illusion of another language.  Often, this effect was criticized.  But an open reading of this novel shows what an effective technique this is and how well it does the heavy lifting of expressing another culture's values on the level of language from one tongue to another.


  1. I wonder how it resonated with readers at the time who were reading Lawrence, say, who used Thees and Thous and other archaisms common among coal miners.
    I often forget that Hemmingway really was a modernist. His use of language was startling and inventive. It has become so normal it takes an effort to see. The Sun Also Rises is fragmented.

  2. I would think Lawrence's thees and thous were more accepted. After all, he was rendering a living dialect of English, not trying to do an act of literary translation. Lawrence was writing the way real people spoke in their language. Some crtiics did not like the renderings of Spanish into English in For Whom, like Edmund Wilson, who said it gave the story a "a strange atmosphere of literary medievalism." I would think that is a good thing to have in a book...

  3. he was in good company, historically. In The Shepheard's Calendar, Spenser invented an archaic English, and was dismissed by Ben Jonson for his pains who said, 'He writ no English.'