For Whom the Bell Tolls

by Ernest Hemingway


A working knowledge of Spanish is almost indispensable when coming to this book.  Hemingway’s choice to translate dialogue word-for-word from the Spanish gives the book an epic, sort of fairy-tale feel, especially with his use of the old intimate “Thou” for the informal Spanish “Tú”.  But at times it is cumbersome or even downright misleading.  For example, English-only speakers should know that: illusioned=hopeful, molested=bothered, rare=weird/strange, and many other minor and major confusions.  A big one is that when they say “That” to start a phrase (such as on page 366 of my edition, where he says, “That tomorrow should come and that I should be there.”), the word “May” would be a better translation for meaning (i.e. “May tomorrow come and I be there.”).  I can imagine myself scratching my head if I weren’t fluent in Spanish.

There are other mystifying translation choices that seem less forgivable, such as when Fernando is begging the group to leave him and he says “for a favor.”  Hemingway is the only person I’ve ever come across who didn’t translate “por favor” as “please.”  I think I see what he was trying to do, and he mainly succeeded at setting an antiquated, serious tone for his book, but I think at times he was doing a disservice to his English-speaking audience by making the dialogue more difficult than it needed to be.  Either that, or his dominion over Spanish wasn’t as good as he thought.  I’m guessing that the former was the case.

As for the book itself, my main criticism is the same as with most long books: it was too long.  My first choice to cut would be the 10-plus pages of lovey-dovey dialogue between Robert and Maria, which was annoying on top of unnecessary.  Then there was the entire build-up to Andres delivering the message, which could have been drastically shortened and still have retained its narrative relevance.  The commentary included in these chapters on the inanity of bureaucracy was appropriate, but Hemingway veered too close to failed satire with his characterization of the crazed French Official Marty.

From a stylistic perspective, Hemingway’s choice to start shifting the narrative from Robert Jordan’s perspective in Chapter 27 — almost 2/3 through the book — was jarring at best.  It totally disrupted my reading flow, regardless of how interesting the chapter itself was (and it was).  I would have much preferred either that a) the narrative stay with Pablo’s band throughout the end of the book, or that b) the perspective-shifting start much earlier in the book, to provide consistency.

That said, I really liked this book, and it was by far the best Hemingway I’ve read.  It almost makes me want to go back and see how much I missed the first time through A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, but not quite.  Hemingway tackled some powerful themes, and he wrestles with the questions honestly and bravely, maybe without totally answering them.  But the title and the epigraph at the front of the book are enough to show you where he sided.

His descriptions of setting continually impressed me, especially with his attention to smells, sounds, and the light of day.  The battle scenes are masterful with their tension.  The ambush scene with the cavalrymen was one of the most suspenseful passages I’ve ever read.  Pilar’s description of the massacre in her town was chilling, but totally gripping.  Additionally, the characters — specifically Pilar, Anselmo, and Agustín — are unforgettable.  Everything Hemingway writes feels true, which is perhaps the highest compliment you can receive as a writer.  My other quibbles with his stylistic choices are minor in comparison.

Original Review


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