I can speak and read French but cannot write it; nor Italian, nor German. But can write Spanish. English sometimes too, maybe. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950
Here, in the house, we talk Spanish always. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950
“I have often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway aboard a steamship, just after leaving Paris and divorcing his first wife. “Now I know — I shall try and reach Cuba.” The writer, born 118 years ago Friday, would go on to spend over two decades on the island, where Spanish became the dominant language in his everyday life.
While Hemingway is considered a smith of American English, his Cuban experience summons intriguing questions about multilingualism: Do linguistic habits — like thinking in genders — shape how we experience the world and write about it? Do semantic tendencies from one register drift into our thinking in another? Would such phenomena be recorded in writing?
After many bullfight vacations in Spain, and friendships with Latin Americans and Spaniards on the Left Bank, when considering where to live after Paris, Hemingway mentions México and Spain. Key West topped the list in part because “this is a grand place — all speak Spanish.” Hemingway described it “like Petoskey,” Mich., with “50% Cubans.” After several years on the Cuban-American island, in 1939 he moved to Finca Vigía outside Havana. This would be his home until a year before he died, in July 1961.
Hemingway’s knowledge of English evolved in this space between cultures, and so did his writing.
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.” Some critics believe Hemingway had an African lover, and in their affair, “I never spoke a word of English to her and we retained some Swahili words, but the rest was a new language made up of Spanish and Kamba.”
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.”
We can locate Spanish syntax that migrated into Hemingway’s English. Spanish genders nouns, articles and adjectives, and this has been shown to influence how objects are perceived in the mind. When asked to provide a voice for a fork, Spanish-speakers tend to choose a male narrator, as tenedor is masculine. While in English time is a length (“long” or “short”), Spanish commonly uses quantity (mucho/poco tiempo). And subject-pronouns can be redundant in Spanish, resulting in phrases like [I/she/we] “will go home later.”
Use of multiple languages influences our mind to the point that bilinguals have a “different knowledge of their first language” than monolinguals. Scholars maintain that navigating these linguistic maps, “the most used language becomes dominant.” That Spanish was dominant in Hemingway’s mind, irrespective of the language in which he was communicating, is apparent in some structures in his English.
He was interviewed by The New Yorker arriving in New York from Havana in 1950:
Want to go to the Bronx Zoo, Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, ditto of Natural History, and see a fight. Want to see the good Breughel at the Met, the one, no two, fine Goyas and Mr. El Greco’s Toledo. Don’t want to go to Toots Shor’s. Am going to try to get into town. … Time is the least thing we have of.
Hemingway also designates a novel “she” (la novela) and addresses Lillian Ross as “my daughter,” an Anglicization of mi hija or mija (“my dear”).
The same tendency appears in The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway endows “sea” with a cross-lingual femininity (“la mar”) that provides depth for the plot and symmetry in the title.
He also uses a Spanish meaning for “boy”; at one point Manolín (the “boy”) carries over 100 pounds of fishing line and a gaff and harpoon to Santiago’s shack. How could a boy manage that? Clarification is in the language: chico and muchacho can refer to males until marriage. (Manolín is in his twenties.)
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.”
Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, an associate professor of humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, is a fellow at New York University’s “Cuba Now and Next” seminar this summer.