Category Archives: translations

the “beehive” passage in Robert Alden’s last letter

 

In Book Three, Chapter XXII of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, there is an egregious typographical error, made, presumably, by Dreiser’s typist — Estelle Kubitz? Sally Kussell? Louise Campbell? Helen Richardson?; see Thomas Riggio’s commentary in Library of American edition, pg. 966-67 — in Roberta Alden’s last letter to Clyde Griffiths, a misprint which has been preserved in all subsequent printings of the novel:

I have been biding good-by to some places to-day. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here all my life, you know. First, there was the springhouse with its great masses of green moss, and in passing it I said good-by to it, for I won’t be coming to it soon again — maybe never. And then the old apple tree when we had our playhouse years ago — Emily and Tom and Gifford and I. Then the “Believe,” a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played [italics added].

The word transcribed and printed in the novel as “Believe” should have been “Beehive,” which makes sense (whereas “Believe” makes absolutely no sense).

A careful examination of Dreiser’s first draft seems to indicate that he wrote “Beehive,” although it is difficult from his handwriting to distinguish between “Beehive” and “Believe.” Anyway, the typist read “Believe,” and the mistake was not caught in any of the subsequent prepublication stages.

It was a mistake that was not perpetuated elsewhere.

The letters of Grace Brown (the real life prototype of the character Robert Alden in An American Tragedy) to Chester Gillette (the real life prototype of the character Clyde Griffiths in the novel) were read at Gillette’s murder trial and caused a sensation. The words “the ‘Beehive,’ a cute little house in the orchard” are rendered accurately (as one might expect) in the court transcript of the actual trial; in newspaper accounts of the trial, in which the letters were reprinted; and in pamphlets in which the letters were published for sale at the trial.

It is, however, interesting to see what translators of An American Tragedy have done with this passage. Here’s a sampling of some known translations.

 

ENGLISH

Then the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.

ALBANIAN

Pastaj «Besën» ─ një tendë të vogël. të bukuir në kopsht, ku loznim nganjëherë.

Një tragjedi amerikane
trasn. Bujar Doko
Tiran: Naim Frashëri, 1989

CZECH

A pak ten hezoučy altánek v štĕpnici, kde jsme si časem hrávali.

Americká Tragedie. Trans. Karel Kraus. Prague: Nakladatelství, 1948; vvol. II, pg. 306

DANISH

Og saa det morsomme, lille Skur I Frugthaven, hvor vi sommetider plejede at lege.

En amerikansk tragedie. Ttrans. Tom Kristensen, Copenhagen: Gyldendalske boghandel, 1928, 2 vols., II:197

FINNISH

Sitten mehiläispesälle, somalle pikkuvajalle puutarhassa, jossa joskus leikimme. (Then the beehive, a cute little house in the orchard where we sometimes played.)

FRENCH

Puis la « Crois-y » une mignonne petite cabane dans le verger où nous jouions parfois ensemble.

GERMAN

… und den ,Ewig dein’, einem allerliebsten kleinen Haus im Obstgarten, in den wir manchmal gespielt haben.

“The phrase under examination has been creatively rendered as ‘Ewig dein’, which literally means “forever yours/yours in eternity”, probably resulting from an interpretation of “‘Believe'” as an abbreviation of “I believe in you/in our love”. This shows that a typing mistake can be transformed into something meaningful in both the original and the translation (the typist probably interpreted the word in a similar manner [perhaps a Freudian mistake of a typist in love with Dreiser]. Be it as it may, it fits the context.” (I thank Professor Klaus Schmidt for an email by way of explanation.)

ITALIAN

E poi “Believe”, una graziosa costruzione nel frutteto dove a volte giocavamo.

The Italian translator threw up her hands!

JAPANESE

Professor Kiyohiko Murayama of Toyo University, Japan consulted two Japanese editions of the novel in which the passage in question varies, namely, a translation by Fukuo Hashimoto (4 vols., 1963-68) and one by Youkich Miyamoto (1970; 1975).

The phrase in question (“the ‘Believe,’ a cute little house”) was translated by Hashimoto as “‘shinrai’ to iu na no kawairashii ie” and by Miyamoto as “‘shinjiru’ to iu chiisana kawaii ie. … Now, Hashimoto translates ‘Believe’ into ‘shinrai’, while Miyamoto ‘shinjiru’. ‘Shinrai’ is a derivative from Chinese, which means ‘trust’ rather than ‘belief’, I think. ‘Shinjiru’ means ‘believe’ or ‘trust,’ sounding more Japanese, since it takes a form equivalent to infinitive in English verb conjugation. The root “shin” is a derivative from Chinese. Chinese derivatives do in Japanese what Latin derivatives in English: both of them tend to be used for conveying rather abstract concepts, such as philosophical, religious, or academic…. it would be very appropriate if ‘a cute little house in the orchard’ is named ‘Believe.’ The problem to a translator would be whether this ‘believe’ is meant to be religious, or to be of human relations. Does it mean to ‘believe in God, or have faith’? Or to ‘believe your friend’?

Hashimoto’s translation ‘shinrai’ means the latter rather than the former. Miyamoto’s ‘shinjiru’ is too unspecified to decide which it really means. Moreover, Hashimoto’s translation may be an attempt to make a point of the irony inherent in Roberta’s situation” (email from Kiyohiko Murayama).

KOREAN

A Korean edition of the novel was consulted for me by one of my former students at St. John’s University, who “decoded” the passage in question as follows:

And then, I walked to what it is called “the house of faith” which is in the snug orchard. This is also the place where I often came and played.

NORWEGIAN

Og det lille skuret bak låven hvor vi holdt til når det regent. (And the little shed behind the barn where we stayed when it rained.)

POLISH

Potem żegnałem “Ustronie”, maleńki, śliczny domek w warzywnym ogrodzie [one can say “w warzywniaku”), gdzie bawiliśmy się często. (“Later I was saying goodbye to the bower, the little, beautiful house in the vegetable garden where we spent a lot of time.” This is perhaps a somewhat stilted translation. The key word, “Ustronie”: means recess, place of retirement or seclusion, backwater, or secluded place.  I thank Anita Ludwikoska for helping me with the Polish.)

SLOVAK

A potom som bola pri našom peknom altánku v sade, kde sme sa ako deti brávali.
The Dutch and Hebrew editions of An American Tragedy are abridged and omit, egregiously, Roberta’s last letter to Clyde.

The “beehive” passage occurs in Grace Brown’s eloquent and moving last letter to Chester Gillette of July 5 1907, which was used in the libretto by Gene Scheer for Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy.

 

— Roger W. Smith