"Fronting for Franco"
This is an article about my principal youthful sin, working as a radio announcer for Radio Nacional de España in Madrid way back in 1956. It was published forty years after the sin itself took place in the June 1996 issue of Apuntes, a small specialist newsletter for translators who work into and from Spanish.
I suppose one reason I wrote this article is that a great deal of chitchat about the comparative merits of various political systems tends to surround us, and much of it in my view often takes place pretty much in a vacuum. Communism and fascism are two of the systems most frequently mentioned. So it seems important to me to point out, first of all, that I belong to a small handful of home-grown Americans who have actually had the experience of living and working in a real "fascist" country boasting "positive values," "racial purity," "death to degeneracy," and all the other slogans of the far right, complemented by vast numbers of men blinded or mutilated by the '36'39 Spanish Civil War to bring this Utopia into being, remarkably full prisons, and huge hordes of fully grown men thronging the main streets to work as shoe-shine boys, not to mention machine-gun-bearing police at street corners, frequent identity checks while travelling, fear and anger among the people, the dictator's picture everywhere (even on every stamp and coin), and very real censorshipwhich may just give me a somewhat clearer perspective than many others seem to have about what the terms "leftist" and "rightist," "conservative" and "liberal" are all about.
Ten years later I would receive a writer-in-residence fellowship in Berlin, which gave me a chance to take frequent professional, theatre-related trips to East Berlin over two years and see the equally dismal communist side of totalitarianism. I remain fully convinceddespite rosy assurances to the contrary from somethat such a society and such a culture as that of Franco's Spain (or Ulbricht's East Germany) could for a variety of reasons nonetheless once again take over our world and our values. The curve balls which technology, a failing environment, or just plain bad cosmic luck could hurl our way are certainly among those reasons.
Even today I am still supposed to explain myself in some quarters for having worked in Spain back then, which I suppose is another reason why I wrote this article. Those of you who have seen the film version of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, made in Spain about a year after I left, will perhaps have a better picture in their minds of what I am about to describe, of the incredibly warm and colorful side of Spain that still survived despite their form of government and drew some of us to come there even during that period.
I grew up reading PM with its articles by I.F. Stone and Max Lerner in a largely left-leaning family, and my father published pro-communist articles in little mags during the 'Thirties, which did not stop him for an instant from becoming a capitalist map publisher as well. Nor did my time in Spain change my overall take on politics in the slightest, though it certainly left me a great deal better informed than I had been beforehand. On the whole it seems to me that my time with RNE was one of the more interesting experiences any American of my generation could ever hope to have, and although this entire article is clearly a confessional and is labeled as such, I believe fascist Spanish radio became a slightly better place for my having been there, and I have no truly deep regrets about my days in Madrid.
This is an attempt to describe my experiences as
a radio announcer/translator/interpreter at Radio
Nacional de España 40 years ago (and perhaps
also a nostalgic stab at recapturing some of my youth).
I landed the job quite suddenly. It was totally part-time,
remarkably underpaid, and I was to hold it for less
than a year, but it was still a life-saver at the
time and my first steady job of any kind. In other
words, some of the first-job adventures many English-speakers
might have in New York or London I would experience
in Madrid and in Spanish.
I had to show up for work on fivebut
often sixdays a week at the RNE studios on Calle
Serrano. We were theoretically scheduled to work for
one and a half hours, but it often went to five or
six. This was not the regular daily news for Spain
but the programación norteamericana. There
were Spanish-English lessons to be broadcast, Spanish
folk tales and proverbs to be explained, Spanish music
to be introduced, so knowing the language was essential.
Among theater people you still hear tell of an actor
so compelling that he could read the telephone book
and make people listenthese were simply the
minimum terms of my audition. I was handed the Guía
Telefónica Madrileña and told to read
it con pasiónI can still hear myself:
"Gil, Rafael; Gil, Ramón; Gil, Raul; Gil,
Oh, I forgot to mention. There was a
man called Francisco Franco Bahamonde, Caudillo de
España por la Gracia de Dios. Prominent Spanish
intellectuals had gone into exile in Paris and refused
to return. Censorship was commonplace and pretty much
accepted by local publications. Foreign papers, like
the Paris Herald-Tribune, routinely arrived a day
late, sometimes with pieces missing. Time and Newsweek
met the same fate, or sometimes they didn't come at
all. We all knew something might be up when that happened.
Few Spaniards were allowed to travel abroad, and the
mail was routinely searched. Yet there I was playing
a small but central part in the Spanish news machineyes,
we also had to announce the "News from Spain."
I can still hear my arrogant lisp intoning our title:
La Voz de España.
Was I too young or too dumb to understand
what I was doing? Possibly both, but it was still
a remarkable experience. And despite everything, I
was playing a realthough perhaps unconsciouspolitical
We would arrive at the studio around
six, when the scripts were supposed to be ready. Most
of the time they were there in Spanish, sometimes
in English as well. If we had them in either language,
we (I mean myself and the one or two other American-speaking
announcers) would begin our battle with the "producers"by
whom I mean my own personal boss Ricardo S. He was
the first boss I ever had, and even now I am so in
awe of him that I am afraid to mention his real name.
In a sense we dealt with translation
at its most demanding, though I had no way of knowing
this. The Spanish text and its literal English version
might say such and such, but Emily, Gregory, and I
would patiently explain that we could not possibly
read it as it stood. First of all, even when the translation
was reasonably correct, it didn't sound like any kind
of real English, least of all American radio English.
Secondly, there were often stylistic gaffes and howlersdepending
on the original translators, the English might be
either broken or too British. But worst of all, the
political statements were often a total insult to
human intelligence, what Xosé Castro has called
"unas ideas entre fascistas y pueriles,"
and we were supposed to make them sound presentable
in English. No one listening would believe the text
as written, we warned Ricardodid they want their
listeners to tune back in, or didn't they? And finally,
we kept repeating that we were Americans and there
were certain things, as we had all agreed from the
beginning, that we couldn't read without forfeiting
our own values. We weren't the least bit heroic, but
some things just didn't make any sense to us. We all
loved Spain passionately, but we were still Americans.
More often than not there were arguments.
The official translations were brought by Jorge, a
little man from the Ministry of Information who tended
to be intractable. Ricardo would twiddle his thumbs
and try to sound wise, barking orders at María,
our engineer. True to Spanish manhood, he would not
dream of touching a single switch, which María
had to do for him. Sometimes she also had opinions,
and there would be a four-way fight between the announcers,
Ricardo, Jorge, and María. Whenever Jorge said
something, Ricardo insisted on showing off by translating
it into English for us, even though our Spanish was
far better than his English. Sometimes we had to tell
Jorge that Ricardo was mistranslating him, which led
to further arguments.
This was the mid 'Fifties. Things were
still pretty weird in Spain, at least by American
standards. Virtually every bookstore still had the
official "best-seller" prominently displayed
in the window: Alemania Pudo Vencer ("Germany
Could Have Won"). Spain had been pro-German during
World War II, and they were just beginning to shift
gears. The whole idea of an alliance with Americapermitting
the Gringos to build their bases in Cadiz and Rotawas
not very popular or even well understood. Besides,
Spaniards claimed the hereditary rights of all Europeans
to look down on Americans.
This is why our taping sessions could
go on for hours. Plus which, the English translations
were often not ready or fully complete. In those cases
at first Emily but soon Gregory and myself would go
to work and fill the gap. We had little idea what
we were doing, but we went ahead and did it anyway.
Our boss Ricardo stood by rubbing his hands nervously,
because he knew it was against the rules. But he wanted
to go home too. Among the announcers Emily, who haled
from Arizona, was the eldest and wisest. She would
contemplate the Spanish as though surveying a stretch
of desert territory and deciding on its boundaries.
Then she would proclaim what it meant in English.
Soon we were all taking turnsla pureza de
la raza (the purity of the race) became "the
integrity of the Spanish people," and so on.
As often as not, our versions went over the airwaves
as the official Spanish position, whatever the original
may have said. Long harangues by Franco and his ministers
were despatched in this manner.
Worst of all, sometimes there was no
English OR Spanish version. This meant there
was a fast-breaking story possessing crucial subtleties,
except no one had formulated them yet. In these cases
there was nothing anyone could do but waitthese
stories all seemed so important at the time, but I'd
be surprised if anyone (including you, Ricardo, wherever
you are!) remembers or even cares about them now.
On those occasions we were so bored that we would
watch the official Spanish news going out live in
an adjoining studio, with its inevitable finale: "Señoras
y Señores, Muy Buenas Noches! Viva Franco!
Arriba España!" At least they had
the sense not to try making us say thator even
translate it into English. There were tales of earlier
attempts to do so, but they were not successful.
I don't want to make it sound as if Spain
in 1956 was any kind of major political scene, though
perhaps it seems so in retrospect. On the contrary,
it was a very lyrical and romantic place to be, especially
if you were 24 and a bit naive. Everything was remarkably
cheap, though scarcely luxurious, even for Americans
earning part of their living there. I've been toldbut
don't like to believethat this Spain no longer
exists. It was the neo-Hemingway world of drunken
foreigners using their jackets to torear los taxis
at three in the morning, of returning to your pensión
even later to clap your hands and hear your Sereno
strike the wall with his stick, shout Voy!,
and come running with his keys all ajangle, of endless
affordable three-course dinners in the Calle Echegaray
and the Calle Luna, of taking a succession of pretty
English and Irish girls out to row on the Parque del
Retiro lake, of being lucky enough to escort a few
back to remarkably inexpensive rooms for the night
near Madrid's sin center, the Plaza Santa Ana. There,
I warned you some nostalgia might creep in.
Perhaps the worst part was leavingor
trying to leave. This was the era of the Tríptico
Turistico, an extremely intricate three-part form
foreigners had to fill out. The story went that the
government wouldn't necessarily let you leave, especially
if they had decided they wanted you to stay for any
reason. You had to go to a police station near the
Puerta del Sol, approach a specific window open only
during certain hours, and ask for a Salida. One English
girl was so nervous that she actually asked for an
Ensalada (a salad) instead. By that time, I was certain
I would never make it. My boss Ricardo was sure to
stop me. But somehow I got my Salida anyway. I sent
Ricardo a nasty postcard from Paris, but it may never
have reached him because it was so nasty.
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