Clean, Well-Spoken: Hemingway’s Cuban Spanish

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A report by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“I write suspicious books that take place in foreign countries: France and Italy, Communist Cuba and fascist Spain. I lived among the Cuban Communists all those years. I speak languages J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t understand.”  —Ernest Hemingway

The first time I heard this recording of Hemingway speaking Spanish, I thought he must have been smashed. The interview took place on October 28, 1954, just after the announcement that he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, and he was in the grip of alcoholism.

But it’s unlikely the interview would have taken place if Hemingway were so inebriated that he could not control his speech.

Talking this over with Raúl Villarreal, a native of Hemingway’s village in Cuba and son of the novelist’s major-domo, he advised me to reconsider that alcohol was the culprit. His father, René Villarreal, was standing nearby as Hemingway spoke that night. There was nothing out of the ordinary about what Hemingway said or had consumed.

Hemingway had a distinctive interview style. “Whether it be in Spanish or English,” Villarreal explained, “Hemingway would speak in slow, halting tones so that what he was saying could be transcribed.”

In this interview, a few days later, Hemingway’s English is equally strange. There are awkward pauses and stutters; he even includes the word “period” for full stops. The interviewer is so taken aback that he says “God damn it!” under his breath.

Hemingway may have been drinking before both conversations, but his speech should be understood as a method of dictation.

He makes several grammatical errors in Spanish: he uses “ha” for “he”, confuses ser and estar, and mixes up the gender of articles and nouns. He’d had no formal training in Spanish, and such miscues are common for speakers of English. Also, while he had spent just five days in Spain during the previous 18 months, he retains some peninsular Spanish pronunciation (marked “[th]” in the transcript below). He had learned Spanish in the 1920s largely among Spaniards; he also had friendships with Spanish exiles in Cuba.

But Hemingway demonstrates remarkable facility with Cuban Spanish.

In addition to some pronunciation common in Cuba (marked “[d]” below), he describes himself as “cubano sato” and distinguishes Cojímar — the town just east of Havana where he kept his boat, Pilar — as “mi pueblo,” meaning my people or community.

Sato is an adjective with enormous significance in Cuba. Héctor Huyke, a professor of the humanities at the University of Puerto Rico, reviewed the subtitles in this video of Hemingway:

“I would say he meant ‘Cuban sato’ [not ‘sato Cuban” as appears in the subtitles] for he is not saying he is a sato who happens to be Cuban, but a Cuban who is sato. A Cuban without pedigree, without class. The word is most commonly used with dogs. There are ‘perros de raza’ [purebred dogs] and ‘perros satos’ [mutts]. ‘Perros satos’ are also the most native of all dogs, for their blood is so mixed and hybrid that it is the most pure in the sense of native. In a sense, he is saying: pure Cuban.

And as the scholar Guiomar Venegas Delgado points out:

“The use of sato by Ernest Hemingway shows that he had a profound connection to the ordinary Cuban, and that as an artist he knew how to listen and assimilate popular jargon into his own idioms, so that he could use them correctly at the precise moment. It is very likely that no foreigner residing in Cuba, not even a native Spanish-speaker, regardless of how ‘integrated’ they may be, in the midst of an improvised response would spontaneously invoke such a lapidary and synthesizing word to show that they felt so deeply a part of our people, as this famous novelist did.”

Not long after Fidel Castro took power, Hemingway said in Spanish to reporters: “I am very glad to be here … because I consider myself Cuban. … I sympathize with the [Castro] government and all our difficulties” (Hemingway’s emphasis).

He kissed the Cuban flag and said, “I kissed it with all my heart, not as an actor.” Kissing the flag is an Afro-Cuban act of veneration and a rite of passage in Latin America, similar to turning the tassel at college graduation in the U.S.; in Spain, it culminates the military enlistment ceremony.

When asked about the Cuban Revolution, Hemingway answered“Nosotros los cubanos vamos a ganar. I’m not a gringo, you know?” (“We the Cubans are going to win.”)

The FBI called this “subversive” activity. Hemingway’s file reads: “His opinion of the Revolutionary Government was unchanged since January — he supported it and all its acts completely, and thought it was the best thing that ever happened to Cuba.” It continued: “He sympathized with the Cuban Government, and all our difficulties.” The agent filing the report added: “Hemingway emphasized the our, and was asked about it. He said that he hoped Cubans would regard him not as a Yanqui (his word), but as another Cuban” (FBI’s parenthetical addition).

Ernest Hemingway planned to die in Cuba. He wanted to be buried beneath one of Cuba’s sacred ceiba trees at his home in San Francisco de Paula.

Despite such gestures, there is general reluctance to label Hemingway as Cuban, American-Cuban or Cuban-American, or as a cultural (im)migrant to the island. But the declarations he made in Spanish or Spanglish — like the one in the Nobel interview — demonstrate that the myth of an unhyphenated-American Ernest Hemingway, may require some new attention.

Transcript of the Nobel Prize interview:

Reporter:

La audiencia sabe que el escritor norteamericano Ernest Hemingway, ha ganado el Premio Nobel de literatura. Por tratarse de una noticia importantísima para Cuba, puesto que Hemingway vive y trabaja en Cuba; nos encontramos en este momento en su finca, Villa Vigía,* en San Francisco de Paula, dispuestos a interrogar al escritor Ernest Hemingway, que acaba de ganar el premio más importante que se les otorga a los escritores en el mundo.

Mr. Hemingway, nosotros quisiéramos saber, ¿qué ha experimentado usted? ¿Qué sensación, qué emoción—ha tenido usted al ganar el Premio Nobel de literatura?

Hemingway:

Primero experimenta[d]o — experiencia[d]o un sensa[th]ión de alegría. Pues, un poco más alegría. Y pues, puede ser un poco más. Soy muy contento de ser el primero cubano sato a ganar este premio, y alegre que han dicho los autoridades que era basado sobre un paisaje cubano—que es Cojímar—más o menos mi pueblo.

Reporter:

Ud. ha sido un viajero incansable a lo largo de toda su vida. Que Ud. ha recorrido todas las partes del mundo. Sin embargo, Ud. siempre ha acabado por venir a elaborar en Cuba. Incluso esta novela que le acaban a Ud. de premiar, tiene como fondo el paisaje cubano. Nosotros queremos saber hasta qué punto Cuba [y] el paisaje cubano ha influido su creación literaria.

Hemingway:

Creo que me han influido en el sentido de tratar de comprender la mar. Nosotros que que-quierela, llama la mar. Pero [no] es el mismo. Pero cuando hay nortes se llama de la manera femenina a ve[th]es. Pero la mar es la gran influen[th]ia en mi vida y en lo que ha tratado de ha[th]er en la literatura. Y sobre todo, la mar de la costa norte del Cuba, donde hay gente tan noble y más noble que él que yo ha tratado de describir en El viejo y la mar. El estado [de] Cojímar y Cojímar es una cosa seria.

Reporter:

Una última pregunta, Mr. Hemingway, estamos seguros que la nueva generación de escritores cubanos están muy ansiosos por que usted se les envíe un mensaje.

Hemingway:

Pues, en esta mensaje para [la] joven genera[th]ión, no soy muy capacitado porque tengo tres hijos, y cada vez que la manda un mensaje, uh, no se sabe cómo resulta el asunto. Pero, pensando en este la poco que cono[th]e—conozco—conozco—que conozco de la literatura, creo que si toma el ejemplar de los pescadores de Cojímar, no puede fracasar.

Reporter:

Muchísimas gracias, Mr. Hemingway, y como sabemos que usted se encuentra sumamente ocupado, y a la vez sumamente fatigado con estas conferencias y entrevistas de prensa, nos despedimos a usted, deseándolo por supuesto muchos éxitos que prosigan y que continúen este Premio Nobel de literatura.

Adelante.

Hemingway:

¡Muchas gracias!

English translation:

Reporter:

The audience knows that North American writer Ernest Hemingway has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is of supreme importance to Cuba, as Hemingway lives and works in Cuba; we are in this moment at his farm, the Villa Vigía,* in San Francisco de Paula, ready to interview Mr. Hemingway who has just won the most important prize in the world for writers.

Mr. Hemingway, we would like to know what have you experienced — what sensation, what emotion did you have upon winning the Nobel Prize for literature?

Hemingway:

First experienced — experienced a sense of happiness. Then, a little more happiness. And then maybe a bit more. I am very content to be the first Cuban “sato” to win this prize, and glad that the authorities have said it was based on a Cuban landscape — Cojímar, that is — more or less my people.

Reporter:

You have been a tireless traveler throughout your life. You have traveled all parts of the world. However, you have always ended up back in Cuba to write. Even this novel that was important for this award, has as its backdrop the Cuban landscape. We want to know to what extent Cuba and the Cuban landscape have influenced your literary creation.

Hemingway:

I think it has influenced me in the sense of understanding the sea. We who love her, call her “the sea” (feminine). But it is [not] the same. But when there are storms from the north, she is called by the feminine form sometimes. But the sea is the great influence in my life and in what I have tried to do in literature. And above all, the sea off the north coast of Cuba, where there are people as noble and more noble than he whom I have tried to describe in The Old Man and the Sea. The province of Cojímar, and Cojímar, is a serious thing.

Reporter:

One last question, Mr. Hemingway: We are sure that the new generation of Cuban writers are very anxious for you to give them a message.

Hemingway:

Well, in this message for the young generation, I am not very capable ,because I have three sons. And every time I send them a message, uh, one does not know how the thing will end up. But, thinking in the little that I know — that I know — that I know about literature, I believe that if you take the example from the fishermen of Cojímar, you cannot fail.

Reporter:

Thank you so much, Mr. Hemingway. As we know that you find yourself very busy and fatigued with these consultations and press interviews, we say goodbye to you, wishing you of course that many successes follow this Nobel Prize in Literature.

Go ahead.

Hemingway:

Many thanks!

*The reporter misspoke. Hemingway lived at Finca Vigía.

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