Hemingway’s Cuban English.

I didn’t think I could be surprised by news about Hemingway, but Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera managed to do it with this piece at Lingua Franca:

In Cuba, Hemingway gave public speeches and interviews in Spanish, and spoke it around the house. It was also his routine language while vacationing off the island. In Africa in 1954, Spanish was regarded as his “tribal language” and he recalls a conversation with a lion: “All the time I was stroking him and talking to him in Spanish.” […]

Hemingway’s wife Mary Welsh said he talked in his sleep in Spanish – and the photographer Raúl Corrales noted, “He used to speak to himself out loud when he was alone. I heard him a few times and it drew my attention that he spoke to himself in Spanish and not in English.” […]

[Discussing The Old Man and the Sea:] As Santiago contemplates the sky, Hemingway unpacks a translingual pun: He “saw the white cumulus built like friendly piles of ice cream” and says “Light brisa.” Brisa translates as “breeze” but in Cuba it also means hunger.

The Old Man and the Sea is written in an English-ized Cuban Spanish. Gayle Rogers, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, says the language interplay can appear “illogical,” making the crosslingual depths “apparent only to readers who know both English and Spanish … and can see the colliding linguistic planes.”

In this sense, the way we read Hemingway’s Cuban writings should be less English-centric, taking his Cuban linguistic environment more closely into account.

“Spanish [is] the only language I really know,” wrote Hemingway in 1954, playing with Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Kamba: ”As it is I must write in English, a bastard tongue but fairly manoeverable. Spanish is a language Tu.”

It stands to reason that he’d learn Spanish living in Cuba for twenty years, but apparently it went pretty deep (even making allowances for Hem’s inevitable quota of self-aggrandizing bullshit).


  1. I really enjoyed this article, thanks! Given as you say the self-aggrandizing bullshit factor I wonder how much of the leakage of Spanish features into Hemingway’s English was intentional (or, less charitably, affected) and how much was unconscious/unwilled.

  2. minus273 says

    Well, that degree of foreign features in any language cannot be unconscious. On the other hand, you don’t need to be a self-aggrandizing bullshitter to want to write your English in such a Spanish way.

  3. I had to laugh, as I cannot reconcile this account with the video I discovered a couple of years ago, in which Hemingway is interviewed in Spanish after being awarded the Nobel price


    Notice how the interviewer talks slowly as you’d do to someone with which communication is not easy. Hemingway may look older here, but he was just 55, and it is not only the multiple grammar mistakes, I wouldn’t even say he is fluent, but you can judge yourselves.

  4. Ouch! OK, I’ve just upped the self-aggrandizing bullshit level a few notches, and I’m surprised Herlihy-Mera was so willing to take it at face value. He may have spoken it around the house and to himself, but he certainly did it badly.

  5. When dealing with authors of fiction, I think that’s an absolutely false distinction. Are the French features in Hercule Poirot’s dialogue an indication that Agatha Christie (who surely had no such features herself) was a self-aggrandizing bullshitter, or even affected? I don’t think so. Are the “backwoods” features in Huck Finn’s narration indications that Twain, who is very unlikely to have talked that way, was affected? Again, no.

    Hemingway’s narrators of the “Cuban” stories are thinking in Spanish and translating to English on the fly: that’s what Hemingway wanted them to do. The narrator of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” shows no Spanish features that I can see.

  6. JC, you evidently didn’t click on alfanje’s link. I wasn’t going by Hemingway’s narrators, I was going by his own speech. Which is awful; to live in Cuba for a couple of decades and speak Spanish that badly, you have to be really terrible at languages.

  7. Bill Boyd says

    His Spanish language ability reminds me of my mother’s. Born in San Juan, but reared in the factory town of Central Aguirre, Mom spoke Spanish only rarely and likely heard it somewhat more often. Hers was an upper-middle class life and quite isolated from the mills hands, townspeople, and other native-born.

    Dad’s situation, by contrast, was distinct. Born in Connecticut and moved to the island at age 3 or 4 (his father attempted without much success to improve the viability of a citrus plantation on the north side of the island). Pops failed but the family got by well only due to the wiles of our grandmother. Grade school, Boy Scouts, and just hanging out in their Santurce-Condado neighborhood had Dad by a young age speaking Spanish quite fluently. That he matriculated at the University of Puerto Rico surely demonstrated his language skill.

    So, knowing virtually nothing of EH’s daily life in Cuba, I’d venture that he palled around with Cubans whose English was a notch or ten better than his Spanish. Mom still plays at Spanish; EH may have done the same.

  8. Sure, for Hem to say that Spanish is the only language he knows is s.a.b.s., but it would be anyway even if his Spanish was perfect. But artists and bullshit artists are much the same thing at one level. I’m reminded of Tolkien saying “I took to early west-midland Middle English as a known tongue as soon as I set eyes on it.” That doesn’t mean he could read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at sight, it’s a way of expressing a kind of personal relationship with another language. In any case, critics should never listen to what writers say about themselves and their work.

  9. Sounds about right. (My own mother adapted quickly to the linguistic environments she found herself in as the wife of a foreign service officer; she picked up “kitchen” varieties of Japanese, Thai, and Spanish, and spoke them confidently if not grammatically.)

  10. Hemingway first went to Pamplona in 1923, and returned in 1924 and 1925, the last with a group of English-speaking friends, as described in The Sun Also Rises. He was back in Spain again in 1929 to research Death in the Afternoon. In the 1930s he began to visit Cuba. In 1937-38 he was back in Spain writing about the Civil War. He began living in Cuba on a semi-permanent basis in 1939.

    It’s hard to tell how much Spanish he learned on these trips to Spain, but writing a book about bullfighting must have involved at least some, since all the technical terms are in Spanish.

    After 1939 most of the Spanish he encountered was Cuban Spanish.

    As far as Spanish influence on his prose style, Hemingway said that one of his greatest influences was Pío Baroja.

  11. For all of Hemingway’s self-puffery, there is in Europe, and there was also in the US, a stigma against educated people not being multilingual. I have met Europeans, class-conscious but not habitual bullshitters, who would profess to “know” some languages which they actually spoke, read, and understood very poorly.

  12. Oh, sure, but for him to say “Spanish is the only language I really know” is taking it to another level.

  13. marie-lucie says

    I was surprised to see the sea translated as a Spanish feminine noun, thus la mar, as I had only ever run into the masculine el mar (with a caveat to French speakers not to be influenced by la mer). But googling a Spanish dictionary brings up : “Mar” is sometimes treated as a feminine noun, particularly in poetic or literary contexts, as well as in set phrases such as “alta mar” (“high seas”). I confess that I have never read The Old Man and the Sea (although I have read about it), but would a Spanish-speaking fisherman normally use la mar?

  14. David Marjanović says

    Another such set phrase once came up here, hacerse a la mar “to set sail”. But that doesn’t answer your question.

  15. marie-lucie says

    It occurred to me to look up the work in Spanish translation. The title is El viejo y el mar.

  16. Says the DPD:

    mar. 1. ‘Masa de agua salada’. Este sustantivo, neutro en latín, se ha usado en español en ambos géneros. En el español general actual es masculino: «Estar cerca del mar, sobre el mar, por el mar. Siento ante él una sensación de libertad» (VMatas Suicidios [Esp. 1991]); pero entre las gentes de mar (marineros, pescadores, etc.) es frecuente su empleo en femenino, que también abunda en poesía: «¿Y en días de temporal, cuando las olas embisten, cuando la mar se pone brava?» (Gironella Hombres [Esp. 1986]). De ahí que se emplee en femenino en las expresiones que describen su estado (mar arbolada, mar calma, mar gruesa, mar picada, mar rizada, mar tendida, etc.) o en locuciones propias del lenguaje marinero, como alta mar o hacerse a la mar. También es femenino en algunas otras frases o locuciones, como cagarse en la mar (para expresar enfado), pelillos a la mar (para expresar reconciliación) o la mar de (‘mucho o muy’). Sin embargo, es masculino en un mar de (‘abundancia o gran cantidad de’), que forma parte de las locuciones estar hecho un mar de dudas (‘dudar mucho’) o estar hecho un mar de lágrimas (‘llorar mucho’).

    2. Cuando antecede al nombre propio de cada una de estas masas de agua delimitadas geográficamente, es siempre masculino y debe escribirse con minúscula inicial: el mar Caribe, el mar Mediterráneo, el mar Rojo, el mar del Norte; solo se escribirá con mayúscula inicial si forma parte de un nombre propio («Unos días en Mar del Plata le harán bien» (Guido Invitación [Arg. 1979]).

  17. marie-lucie says

    Gracias Y!

    So mar is masculine in most of its everyday uses, feminine in special locutions or literary styles. The title translation El viejo y el mar shows the common, everyday use of the word, without the specially ‘feminine’ connotations which the original article attributes to the sea, contrasting it with the male fisherman.

    Even in French, Le vieil homme et la mer (the word mer is always feminine) does not cause me to see in the coordinate phrase a hint of a genuine masculine/feminine opposition, any more than in la fourchette et le couteau (the fork and the knife).

  18. The feminine is also “frequently used by sea folk: sailors, fishermen, etc.” I wonder if that’s regional: do people in fishing/port towns who don’t directly do that work themselves use the feminine as well?

  19. marie-lucie says

    Oh, I don’t know how I missed that sentence. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the entire work alternates between el mar and la mar ?

  20. marie-lucie says

    Y, your quotation does not indicate whether there are regional or national differences in the use of different genders.

  21. Macias’ Diccionario cubano of 1885 says “Sust[antivo] amb[ivalente]” and mentions Mar Fea, a group of islets by the coast in Remédios province. Because there are always exceptions to the exceptions.

    I haven’t discovered any indication of regional uses of la mar.

  22. marie-lucie says


  23. It’s el mar in the title of the book, and on the postage stamp at the top of the article. La mar is explained in the book

    “He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

    Google ngrams lists el mar ~3:1 over la mar. I think Spanish is the most liberal of the Romance languages with regard to article genders.

  24. David Marjanović says

    The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

    A good way to set off a biologist. 🙂 The menstrual cycle isn’t connected to the moon at all. Individual and other variation amounts to several days, and once you look at other species, all bets are off – the menstrual cycle of rats is 11 days.

  25. Ooh, let’s argue about this again!

  26. marie-lucie says

    David (not M): Thanks for the quotation.

    I think that this is Hemingway thinking, not an old fisherman. English speakers put a lot more meaning into gender differences in the words of grammatically gendered languages than do people speaking those languages.

    English seafarers use “she” for boats, not for the sea.

  27. Would you go so far as to say that elle really ought to be translated it somewhere like this?

  28. marie-lucie says

    MMcM: In that paragraph, the sea seems to be personalized, treated as a living being, so English she is appropriate.

    Non-living beings when personalized may assume sexualized personalities appropriate to their grammatical gender, but in ordinary contexts they are not thought of as personalities and therefore their grammatical gender does not need to be emphasized when translated into a language such as English where non-living beings are “gender-neutral”.

  29. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps in The Craft and Context of Translation) about the difficulties of translating the Pasternak’s poem “My Sister, Life” into a language in which the word for life is masculine.

  30. marie-lucie says

    Yes, the same concepts often have different genders even in languages of the same family, as in Spanish el mar, French la mer, and a number of similar others.

  31. I remember reading somewhere (perhaps in The Craft and Context of Translation) about the difficulties of translating the Pasternak’s poem “My Sister, Life” into a language in which the word for life is masculine.

    You could have seen it here way back in 2002.

  32. Could have but did not. I note that that posting had one of only three LH comments from Ehud Lamm, the Man with the Mop at the programming-language site lambda-the-ultimate.com.

  33. David Marjanović says

    “My Sister, Life”

    Google confirms the German translators went with the “deal with it, readers” option: Meine Schwester, das Leben (neuter).

  34. There’s a sort-of-similar problem with translating Montale’s L’anguilla. Not only is the subject grammatically feminine but all the poem’s metaphors for the eel are feminine (sirena, freccia, etc) through to the climactic question “puoi tu / non crederla sorella?” In the English, up to that point the eel and its metaphors have been genderless, which makes “sister” particularly unexpected. Not that “brother” would work any better.

  35. marie-lucie says

    English siren (the half-fish woman) has a feminine connotation even if the other words might not (not knowing the poem, I can’t cite the specifics).

  36. marie-lucie says

    Google confirms the German translators went with the “deal with it, readers” option: Meine Schwester, das Leben (neuter).

    This shows that a grammatically neuter noun can still refer metaphorically to a living person.

    In French this specific example would not cause a problem as both nouns would be feminine (ma soeur, la vie), but for instance there is nothing wrong with ma soeur, le médecin ‘my sister, the doctor’ as the word for the profession is masculine.

  37. marie-lucie, the poem is here. You’re right about “sirena”, which appears in the poem’s first line. But from that point until the final “sorella” an English translation has no means to hint at the eel’s femaleness, whereas the Italian original several times reinforces the femaleness subliminally.

  38. marie-lucie says

    Thanks Ian. Indeed there is nothing in the English version between siren and sister that could suggest femaleness, but the careful English reader could still pay attention to these two words.

  39. This shows that a grammatically neuter noun can still refer metaphorically to a living person.
    Not only metaphorically. There are several neuter nouns signifying persons – all diminutives in -chen / -lein are neuter, e.g Männchen “little man”, Mädchen “girl” (this is a diminutive historically, but probably not seen as by most speakers). Another neuter signifying a person is Weib “woman, wife”. There are even German dialects in the Rhine area where the neuter is used for females throughout de Jupp (“Joseph”, with male article) and et Marie (“Mary”, with neuter article).)

  40. marie-lucie says

    On a German train when I was 17, as I was very awkwardly trying to explain something to two train employees, I heard the female one refer to me as das kleine Fräulein, which I later understood as the equivalent of French la petite demoiselle (‘the little young lady’) – now a very old-fashioned phrase! That’s all I ever remembered from this conversation, but it stuck in my mind.

  41. @Hans: I have often wondered whether the fact that it was grammatically neutral contributed to Weib being considered somewhat rude in standard German. (As I was typing this, it occurred to me that in English, the Germanism “his Frau” would have much the same impact as “sein Weib” would in German.)

  42. ma soeur, le médecin

    This seems to be the only example anyone has given of a direct conflict between a masculine and a feminine noun, but both descriptions are animate. The problem with My sister, life is that it effectively assigns a natural gender to something inanimate, which means that when translated into a language in which ‘life’ is masculine (e.g. Bulgarian живо́т živót) it assigns the wrong natural gender.

    I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that the figure of the Man in the Moon (German Mann im Mond) owes his masculinity to the masculine gender of mōna, Mond. Do people for whom ‘moon’ is feminine also use this expression?

  43. marie-lucie says

    the Man in the Moon

    Different people(s) interpret the moon ‘markings’ differently. I don’t think there is a Man in the Moon in French culture. Personally, I see a face in the moon, especially eyes, therefore the face of a person, especially a woman, who is not in the moon but is the moon (la lune). I can just about will myself to see a man carrying a bundle of sticks (something I have heard of), but not a rabbit as do some cultures (Asian I think), or whatever else struck people’s imaginations.

  44. Personally, I see a face in the moon, especially eyes

    So do I, the sad eyes of an older woman who has seen more than enough. The man with a bundle of sticks (whom I cannot see at all) is said to be Cain hiding behind the thorns he carries, because “every one that findeth me shall slay me” (Gen. 4:14).

    In Tolkien’s legendarium, the Sun and the Moon were once chariots (or in fact fruits of the Two Trees) driven by a female and male angel respectively (angels in Tolkien have natural genders) until the world was changed and the Earth was made round. But the people of Middle-Earth still speak of the Moon as male and the Sun as female. The last verse of Tolkien’s poem “The Man in the moon stayed up too late” reads:

    The round Moon rolled behind the hill
    as the Sun raised up her head.
    She hardly believed her fiery eyes;
    For though it was day, to her surprise
    they all went back to bed!

    The reason, by the way, that the cow was able to jump over the Moon is that it was parked, or grounded, in front of an inn where the Man was getting drunk; the reason the cow did so is that she was startled when the fiddle-strings broke from over-vigorous playing by the cat.

  45. Trond Engen says

    I speak a gendered language, but maybe less thoroughly gendered than French and Italian. Anyway, I have no problem with metaphorical gender mismatch. In fact, it’s well established, and there are very common epithets that are almost exclusively used with the wrong gender, without gender stereotypes being part of the semantics at all:

    Han er bare ei bølle med dyr dress “He is just a bully (f.) in a fancy suit”
    Kona di er et skikkelig hespetre, “Your wife is a real hag (n.)”

  46. Again, this isn’t the right kind of gender conflict.

    What we need here is an inanimate object gendered female that is being described by an epithet whose gender is male, or vice versa. So first we need a metaphor like ‘my father, the stone’ or ‘the stone, my father’, equating the animate and the inanimate, and then the word for ‘stone’ (or whatever) has to be grammatically female. (I am assuming that the word for ‘father’ is always grammatically male.) Presumably it’s possible in any grammatically gendered language to construct such metaphors: the question is whether they feel unnatural, particularly if all the nearby references to my father or the stone are normally gendered.

    Trond: In the next sentence after your examples, will the pronoun agree in natural or grammatical gender? And are there any Norwegian inanimate nouns that are always feminine in gender?

  47. How about mi padre, una buena persona?

  48. Again, persona is animate. How does mi hermano, la luna or mon frère, la lune sound to native speakers?

  49. Trond Engen says

    John C.: Again, this isn’t the right kind of gender conflict.

    Of course. I wasn’t paying attention.

    What we need here is an inanimate object gendered female that is being described by an epithet whose gender is male, or vice versa.

    I can’t google up any examples, either with the correct gender or not. But I’ll make up an example. In Nynorsk, to avoid the gender confusion inherent in Bokmål.

    [Substantiv] er mi mor. Ho var der då eg tok mine første steg, og då eg skulle ut i verda på eiga hand, var det ho som ikkje ville sleppe meg, men som òg hjalp meg i gang. Og enno i dag er det ho eg søkjer til når noko er vondt eller vanskeleg.

    “[Noun] is my mother. She was there when I took my first steps, and when I was ready to meet the world on my own, she was the one who wouldn’t let me go, but also the one that helped me settle. And even today she is the one I turn to when things are tough.”

    …, keeping the female poetic metaphor throughout the paragraph.

    Here are some inaninmate or collective nouns that wouldn’t bother me, at least not grammatically:
    Fjellet (n.) “the mountain(s)”
    Skogen (m.) “the forest”
    Havet (n.) “the ocean”
    Månen (m.) “the moon”
    Staten (m.) “the government”
    Forsvaret (m.) “the military”
    Fotballen (m.) “football”
    Oslo “Oslo”

    It doesn’t work with an animate male. I could say Han far er mi mor. “Daddy is my mother” with the same passion and the same explanation, but I would have to use masculine pronouns.

  50. marie-lucie says

    A woman who was raised by Mahatma Gandhi as his daughter wrote a book titled Bapu, my mother.

  51. Trond Engen says

    Sorry, Forsvaret (n.). Bad place for a typo.

    Also, I was inconsistent with ‘who and ‘that’ in the English translation of the example.

  52. Zefirelli’s movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, in German Bruder Sonne, Schwester Mond, in Hebrew ַאָח שֶׁמֶשׁ אָחוֹת יָרֵח ax (m) šemeš (f) axot (f) yareax (m).

  53. And how does that sound to you, Y?

    I talked earlier this evening to a native Spanish speaker (not born in the U.S.), and he said Mi hermano es la luna was tolerable, if weird, because the moon is so often personified.

    Things like Mi padre es una roca [rock] and Mi coche [m.] es mi madre, where an animate is said to be an inanimate, are perfectly fine. He rejected Esa roca es mi padre as semantically meaningless (not metaphorical), and definitively rejected La tierra/patria de México es mi padre as wrong: it would have to be mi madre.

    When I explained the Pasternak context, he said that of course mi hermana, la vida is no problem in Spanish, but a title Mi hermano, la vida would grate badly on his sensibilities.

  54. Both halves sound a little clunky. ax šemeš is not as bad, because šemeš ends with a consonant, like many m. nouns, even though it has f. agreement. axot yareax is a bit funny sounding, which is perhaps why another version of the movie name uses the more literary f. noun לְבָנָה lǝvana (lit. ‘the white one’). On the other hand, אֲחוֹתִי הַיָּרֵחַ axoti hayareax ‘my sister the moon’ or הָאָחוֹת יָרֵחַ ha’axot yareax ‘the sister moon’ (or ‘nurse moon’) are perfectly fine.

  55. Also, I was inconsistent with ‘who and ‘that’ in the English translation of the example.

    There’s no reason to be consistent. Even the maniacs who try to reserve which for non-restrictive clauses only, don’t normally extend that to who, so either who or that works for restrictive clauses.

  56. Trond Engen says

    No, it’s not wrong. But I think the sentence would be better — stylistically, as imitated poetic register — with either who or that in both places.

  57. @Brett: It’s possible that the neuter gender contributed to the pejorative connotations, but I don’t know for sure. Other neuters signifying persons don’t have that connotation.

  58. David Marjanović says

    I agree that Weib, which is now remarkably hard to translate, simply went down the euphemism treadmill. In any case, Mädchen is going nowhere.

    in German Bruder Sonne, Schwester Mond

    Yes; that does sound a bit awkward, though.

  59. I wonder if the Spanish translation of the entire work alternates between el mar and la mar ?

    The 48 instances of mar in a Spanish translation I found on Amazon are all el mar (del mar, al mar, etc.) except for the ones in the passage quoted above (“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar'”) and three others, but Amazon doesn’t supply enough of a snippet to let me figure out where they are in the English original.

  60. Abut that video and his spanish – he had a serious brain injury and his english sounded almost the same way that year

    lets look for his grammatical errors and laugh “guys” ,altogether!


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