The third-person narrator takes the fly-on-the-wall technique to extremes in "Hills Like White Elephants." We can see both the journalist and the storyteller in Hemingway working together to construct the story. The journalist side doesn’t tell us what the characters are thinking, only what they do, see, and most importantly, what they say. The journalist also provides a bare minimum of context: the scenery (Spain, the river Ebro, some white hills), the weather (hot), and the train schedules. The fact that the story is told in the past tense means the narrator is putting it together after the fact, from memory, so to speak, and rendering it in symbolic terms, using simile and metaphor.
This all points to our theme "Language and Communication," but also to "Foreignness and the Other." If we combine those two we get translation. The narrator is sometimes translating the dialogue for us (his English speaking readers) from Spanish to English. Likewise, the man translates various things for Jig. But while it’s obvious when the man is translating for Jig, it’s not obvious when the narrator is translating for us. We’ll show you what we mean with two brief examples:
First, look at this passage from near the end of the story:
The woman came out through the curtains with two glasses of beer and put them down on the damp felt pads. "The train comes in five minutes," she said.
"What did she say?" asked the girl.
"That the train is coming in five minutes." (102-104)
This passage is often cited to show that Jig doesn’t speak Spanish, but what’s more interesting is that it’s twice translated – once for us by the narrator, and once for Jig by the man. So, the big question is, why didn’t Hemingway choose to say, "The train comes in five minutes" in Spanish, and then let the man translate it for us when he translates it for Jig? (Remember that the man originally orders the two beers in Spanish.) As with most questions in this story, there are many answers. One possibility is that Hemingway wanted to call attention to the narrator a little bit, to show us that the narrator speaks Spanish, and to make us aware of the fact that the characters are in a situation where a variety of languages are being spoken.
This next passage also plays with this reality, but is less easy to pin down than the one above:
"Dos cervezas," the man said into the curtain.
"Big ones?" a woman asked from the doorway.
"Yes. Two big ones." (5-7)
Here the man orders the beer in Spanish. (It doesn’t seem likely that the man ordered in English and that the narrator translated it to Spanish.) Even if the man didn't speak great Spanish, he still could have pulled off his order. In the late 1920s, when the story was written, the word cerveza was part of the global vocabulary. The question here is whether the narrator is translating into English the woman/waitress’s speech (and the man's subsequent reply). We just can’t say.
Anyhow, this switching back and forth between languages is part of why this story can be confusing to read. Keep in mind that just because a given dialogue might be written in English, it doesn't mean that it was spoken in English. Once you are aware of the translation situation, it becomes much easier and a lot more fun.