The many faces of Jay Gatsby

Seminar Paper, 2009

21 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Common Roughneck

3. The perfect Son in Law

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Appendix

1. Introduction

The translation of a text from one language into another is a science of its own, especially within literary works. The standards a translator has to meet these days are high and it is therefore hard to take as a coincidence that The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous work, has been translated into German three times up to now.

This remarkable number of translations for a book written not even a century ago might have something to do with the expectations the translator has to satisfy and which tend to be quite exalted when a lot of readers, who are not familiar with the language of the original work, and many publishers, who are aware of the fact that the translated work often sells better than the original, await its translation eagerly.

Once the translation is published, the question of the authenticity, of how much of the author the translated book still contains, is a common problem especially in the critique and the feuilleton but also among a books major recipients, the common readers. Everybody that ever had the chance to have a thorough talk with a foreigner about a literary work known to both sides might have come across the phenomenon that certain aspects of that book were perceived in different ways - maybe the irony of a main character suddenly bordered sarcasm, maybe his felicitous language did not sound eloquent at all or maybe the character’s whole appearance was bathed in a slightly different light.

The aim of this term paper is to analyse if there are such differences between two versions of The Great Gatsby, furthermore if and to which extent they can influence the perception of a character and finally to analyse how such aberrations can come into existence.

To achieve this, the original work by Fitzgerald is compared to the second translation into German by Walter Schurenberg from 1953 and the third and most recent translation by Bettina Abarbanell from 2006. The two German texts are treated as one corpus to simplify matters and only relevant parts of the narration, those that concern the novel’s eponym and his relations to the other characters, are taken into consideration. A complete list of all extracts from the three books can be found in the appendix.

2. A Common Roughneck

Jay Gatsby appears in a very ambiguous light right from the start of the novel. Fitzgerald himself confessed to John Peale Bishop a few months after The Great Gatsby had been published: “You are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at one time saw him clear myself”[1]. But it is also Fitzgeralds meticulous use of words that makes it nearly impossible for the reader to penetrate the air of ambiguity that surrounds Gatsby.

The translation makes it hard for this ambiguity to sustain and while it ceases it gets more and more apparent that “[b]eneath the elaborate, albeit gaudy, elegance of Gatsby looms Jay Gatz, the original ‘roughneck’ that Gatsby spends so much energy trying to conceal” [2].

Even though Nick’s conception of Gatsby is full of doubts and second thoughts from the beginning to the end, he always remains unsure whether the rumours and stories about his new neighbour’s past and true profession hold some truth or not. Right in the beginning when Nick introduces himself and looses the first and probably most important words on Jay Gatsby and his tragic future, the picture of the German Gatsby becomes prestressed. Instead of the expression “all right” [3], which is a valuation with no greater meaning, Nick uses the adjective “untadelig”[4] to describe how his neighbour turned out in the end. This description can be hardly taken as light as the original one for it is a moral, maybe even a legal, judgement and it furthermore implies that Gatsby must have at least ran danger to become reproachable, must have done something to question his faultlessness.

What this something is can possibly be found in the conversation between Nick and Catherine, Myrtle’s sister, in Tom’s New York appartment. On hearing that Nick is Gatsby’s neighbour, Catherine confesses that she would “hate to have him get anything on me” (Fitz 28). This phrase is a perfect example of the amibiguity in The Great Gatsby, because “anything” could be everything from personal information up to monetary debts. The translation once again leaves no room for any ambiguity. “Ich mochte lieber nicht mit ihm aneinandergeraten”[5] makes clear that Myrtle’s sister rather fears an actual conflict than any personal involvement with Gatsby and at the same time raises doubts whether her concerns are as unfounded as the relaxed context in which they are said originally implies.

But maybe this something that questions Gatsby’s faultlessness can as well be found in the relationship to Daisy, which lacks a lot of its romantic nature. “Sie wissen, daB ich nur Sie liebe“ (Schu 124) is a sentence Daisy adresses to Gatsby and that sounds a little bit too formal to say to a person she has kissed a second before and most likely even shared physical intimacy with. The address “Sie” instead of the more appropriate “du” makes the whole relationship between them look rather like a farce, a made-up thing that has nothing left of its origin, of love. It gets even clearer when Daisy makes her confession of never having loved Tom not with “perceptible reluctance” (Fitz 105), a reluctance that is quite understandable given the fact that her husband as well as three other people are present, but with “spurbarem Widerstreben” (Arba 165), as though she does not want to make the confession at all but is rather not free to decide what to say.

And if this scene provides the ground for arguing that the German Gatsby acts quite dominant, then there is more to underline this thesis a few pages earlier. “Why not let her alone, old sport?” (Fitz 101), Gatsby’s remark on Tom bothering Daisy, is made in an authoritative, but still polite way, while the German equivalent “Lassen Sie sie, alter Junge” (Schur 134) clearly violates the principles of policy and is actually a command and not a rhetorical question. This imperative coloring completes the picture of Gatsby as a common roughneck, but it is not the only possible version of him in the German edition.

3. The perfect Son in Law

When recalling the first impression he had of Jay Gatsby, Meyer Wolfshiem describes him to Nick as a “fineappearing, gentlemanly young man” (Fitz 136), a description which clearly indicates that even though Gatsby knew to behave like a gentleman, he nevertheless only appeared to be from a higher social class but actually was not. In German he is described as a “ganz vornehmer, feiner junger Herr” (Abar 212) and while the first attitude can still be carried out by a pretender, the second one entails a classification that, as was shown during the course of the novel, not even money can buy. These differences “call attention to the seam between what he tries to be as a personage and what he is as a personality”[6], what he wants to be and what he actually is. The two terms here refer to Gatsby’s new image as an aristocrat and to his old life as a common swindler, but what if they are actually interchanged, what if he is really not quite an aristocrat but at least a dignified person who only pretends to be a swindler?

The one who uttered the important judgement above is no other than Meyer Wolfshiem, a person who not only knows how to influence and to deal with other people but who is also, according to Gatsby himself, “a smart man” (Fitz 58), someone who is capable of committing a crime as big as the manipulation of the World Series without ever getting caught. So either Wolfshiem is not that smart at all, which is contradicted by the fact that he is still not in jail when even people like Tom Buchanan know about his crimes, or Gatsby is simply not the cunning and dubious guy he is said to be.


[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald, " Letter to John Peale Bishop, 9 Aug. 1925." The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Andrew Turnbull. (New York: Scribners, 1963) 358.

[2] Richard Lehan. “Inventing Gatsby.“ The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder. (Boston: Twayne, 1990) 59.

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 6. This edition is hereafter cited in the text as Fitz.

[4] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Der grofie Gatsby. (Berlin: Lothar Blanvalet Verlag, 1964) 6. This edition is hereafter cited in the text as Schu.

[5] F. Scott Fitzgerald, Der grofie Gatsby. (Zurich: Diogenes, 2006) 47. This edition is hereafter cited in the text as Abar.

[6] Richard Lehan. “Inventing Gatsby.“ The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder. (Boston: Twayne, 1990) 59.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


The many faces of Jay Gatsby
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar )
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Translation
Quote paper
Florian Arleth (Author), 2009, The many faces of Jay Gatsby, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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