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"Fronting for Franco"

A True Confession by Alex Gross

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 censorship—which 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 convinced—despite rosy assurances to the contrary from some—that 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 five—but often six—days 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 listen—these were simply the minimum terms of my audition. I was handed the Guía Telefónica Madrileña and told to read it con pasión—I can still hear myself: "Gil, Rafael; Gil, Ramón; Gil, Raul; Gil, Roberto..."

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 machine—yes, 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 real—though perhaps unconscious—political role.

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 howlers—depending 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 Ricardo—did 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 America—permitting the Gringos to build their bases in Cadiz and Rota—was 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 turns—la 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 wait—these 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 that—or 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 told—but don't like to believe—that 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 leaving—or 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.

This article is Copyright © 1996
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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