Arts

1922 Novel On Race, Atlanta Gets English Translation

In "The Blue Stain," a young man of mixed race travels from Europe and is shocked by the racism he encounters in the United States. Two professors have translated Hugo Bettauer’s book from German to English.
In "The Blue Stain," a young man of mixed race travels from Europe and is shocked by the racism he encounters in the United States. Two professors have translated Hugo Bettauer’s book from German to English.
Credit Al Such / WABE

In the novel, “The Blue Stain,” by author Hugo Bettauer, a young man of mixed race travels from Europe and is aghast at the racism he encounters in the United States.

Moving from New York to the South, he takes a stand after witnessing Atlanta’s race riots of 1906. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this book is the fact that it was published in 1922 and was never released in the States.

Now, two professors have translated the book from the original German.

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“I was blown away because we don’t have anything prior to this in the 20th century,” Emory professor and translator Peter Hoeyng tells “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes, “any novel in German that I am aware of taking place in the United States, in the South, in Atlanta. So it is a unique novel by all means.”

Hoeyng and colleague Jeff Mellor, emeritus professor of German at the University of Tennessee, spent over a decade working to translate the text. The book follows a botanist in Jim Crow-era Georgia who finds himself aghast at the racism around him.

He falls in love with the daughter of a former slave and runs away to Atlanta with her after witnessing her family being lynched. She dies delivering their child. The book picks up with that child of mixed race now grown to adulthood, living in Vienna. He moves to New York with his fiancée and finds himself the target of racism.

“He, as an educated European man, doesn’t understand [this] at all,” says Mellor. The young man eventually comes to terms with his race and vows to stand up for other people of color after he witnesses the riots in Atlanta.

While progressive for its time, the translators admit that the book is melodramatic and still features many problematic racial stereotypes.

“The attitude basically remains that the African-Americans have to rise up to ‘our’ standards, that is to say the standards of the whites. And that is very disturbing,” Hoeyng says. “And yet, we pursued this project because seeing discrimination in the United States and segregation and Jim Crow through eyes from outside opens up a space to discuss these topics that, unfortunately, are still prevalent in today’s society.”

“Despite its shortcomings, it nevertheless brings up issues that are worthwhile to explore.”

Hoeyng and Mellor’s translation of Bettauer’s novel “The Blue Stain” has been published by Camden House.