Sex, Swearing and Other Transliterations in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

The book I just finished, For Whom the Bell Tolls, is a very R rated book.

It is violent. One of its longer chapters carefully paints a gripping and terrible picture, character by carefully depicted character, of a group of fascists beaten to death with flails and/or driven/thrown off a cliff by a group of vengeful, drunken villagers.

It is sexy. Three separate chapters take place entirely inside the sleeping bag of the American protagonist with for props only the naked bodies of he and a beautiful Spanish woman. Writing well about sex is difficult; so difficult that many writers have just given up trying. Hemingway does it well in this book. Not by turning away his all-seeing eye with an “Afterwords,…” but by watching and staring and seeing clear into the earth-moving lust and soul-clarifying satisfactions.

And above all else, For Whom The Bell Tolls is foul-mouthed.  Of a very Catholic, mother-obsessed, fecally-fixated foul-mouthedness. Not explicitly so, because the novel would have never been read in its day if Hemingway had not censored himself. But he substitutes the words “obscenity” or “unprintable” in ways that leaves the intended word clear. Or he uses a word that rhymes with the intended word. In a moment of frustration, a character rants beautifully for most of a page with a “Oh, muck my grandfather and muck this whole treacherous muck-faced mucking country and every mucking Spaniard in it on either side and to hell forever. Muck them to hell together…” and there is plenty more where that came from. A passage like this cries out for a second reading, substituting the intended words and read aloud this time for full effect.

A peculiar phrase referencing milk appears frequently in For Whom the Bell Tolls: if a character speaks of a subject and another character finds even the mere mention of the subject deeply objectionable, the second character may declare, “I obscenity in the milk of your (the subject).” These are all variants on Me cago en la leche de la puta que te date la luz, a phrase I nearly shudder to translate. But obscenity in the milk of my modesty; it means:

I shit in the milk of the whore that bore you

And so the milk phrase is another example of a literary device Hemingway used liberally in For Whom the Bell Tolls: metaphrase translations of Spanish idioms into English, or transliteration. Characters express themselves oddly and in a way distinctive to the book. And they say “thee” and “thou” throughout to denote use of the informal “you.”

I’ve read this manner of writing stirred controversy when the novel came out. Some critics thought it cheap and superficial. I guess I won’t agree with those critics because I’ve delved into some metaphrase translation fiction writing of my own. Nearly every word of the dialogue in this short story points to one Tongan idiom or another. I don’t think the story is particularly good, and I hadn’t seen what Hemingway has done with Spanish idioms or I might have picked up a few tips to improve the style of writing I was hardly aware I was employing. I simply loved the Tongan language, the peculiarity of its idioms, and what the language reflects of the culture. I loved that a banal, everyday phrase in Tongan like good morning could sound so poetic when transliterated as Thank you to the morning for its goodness rather than translated as good morning. I suspect Hemingway felt some of that same wonder with respect to Spanish at the time he worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls. Could one begin to fathom an expression more perfectly insulting than Me cago en la leche… or a phrase more startling than its English transliteration? Hemingway apparently decided he couldn’t.

One word in Tongan stands out as the most offensive, one they don’t laugh about or use lightly*(see the optional footnote on Tongan swearing below). That word ‘elo best translates as putrid or smell of death except that those English words – though unlovely – aren’t offensive. I can’t guess why this concept of the smell of death is the ultimate taboo above all others in Tonga, but coincidentally, For Whom the Bell Tolls offers a clue. It happens to contain a lengthy discussion on the smell of death. One character claims she had detected the smell of death on a man who later died. The American reasonably comments, “After the death, such things are invented.” Defensive, the woman lists at length (for most of the book’s Chapter 19) the terrible odors to which the American must subject himself before he can judge on these matters. He must collect them together in a gunny sack containing “the essence of it all, both the dead earth and the dead stalks of the flowers and their rotted blooms and the smell that is both the death and birth of man…Thou wilt wrap this sack around thy head and try to breath and then, if thou hast not lost any of the previous odors, when thou inhalest deeply, thou wilt smell the odor of death-to-come as we know it.” This sort of conversation reminds me of many I had with Tongans on the matter of their various superstitions. What they lacked in empirical evidence they made up for with mind-numbing detail and outlandish prescriptions. But clearly, this Spanish woman regarded this concept very seriously and very darkly – that same thing that the Tongans name ‘elo.

*An Optional Footnote on Swearing in Tongan

The Tongan language contains few stand-alone swear words. Among them are words that mean shit, masturbate and stink. Most of the others that occur to me combine words that might be otherwise acceptable, or single words that are completely acceptable in context. The word for fart combines the word for feces and the word for pillow: shit pillow. The word for cunt also means shellfish such that hilarity often ensues at talk of the deliciousness of shellfish. Tits also means fork. My wife caused an uproar when she apologized to a group of men she was serving for only having two forks.

The language is so full of built in sexual double entendres, it can even get ridiculous at times. Shucking a coconut (the word and the physical activity) reminds Tongans of masturbation. The Tongan word for delicious is the most common declarative used during sex. A common morning greeting can be lightly tweaked among men to render a query, “How many times did you jerk off last night?” The common verb for to do doubles as the Tongan f-word and can be combined with parts of anatomy or animals to create swear words. The phrase for getting a hair cut differs little from the phrase for fucking a goat. All of these little jokes bounce around constantly and create occasions of great hilarity. “Having a haircut, eh?” “How is the food? Is it delicious?” Do you like to eat shellfish?” My Tongan friends never tired of that stuff.

The Tongan people I knew laugh well and I miss them. But one of the reasons that everything is so funny to them is that their language just unavoidably works that way.

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4 Responses to Sex, Swearing and Other Transliterations in Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

  1. almightygod says:

    Nice article. Some of the Tongan phrases really made me laugh.

  2. Lance says:

    Enjoying your work. Keep it comin’.

  3. jpuddy says:

    Reading For Whom The Bell Tolls at present, and this really helped unlock a better understanding of why he wrote this way. Thank you!

  4. Ed says:

    Interesting treatment, thank you. I just finished this book and I found it had an antique quality. I suppose had he inserted the cuss words that he replaced it would have gotten pretty tedious. Perhaps the use of the replacements was the only way to keep it somewhat readable, 300 pages of fucks and shits would get pretty old, Hemingway or no.

    His use of “thee” and “thou” seems affected to my ear. I think I understand what he was getting at but it didn’t work for me. It had a jarring, self conscious quality.

    I read some Hemingway back in college but missed this one. I am now curious enough to reread and see if my old self is simply more critical than my young self.

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