Autobiographical Essays

Beate Caspari-Rosen, MD (1910 - 1995)

Disappointing Teachers

I recall that I was about eleven years old. I had returned to school after my summer vacation, and the German teacher asked students to write a short story about an experience that happened during our vacation. Even after some seventy years, I can still recall my story. I called it The Lips. The story was based on an  experience I had travelling on the train that took us back to Berlin. On our return from a mountain summer resort, my parents and I sat in a compartment – European trains have compartments for six to eight people, depending on whether the tickets are for first, second or third class. I became tired and my mother held me in her arms. While she was dozing, I looked up at my mother’s face and particularly at her lips; the inspection of her lips was the starting point for my story.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful young girl who was always happy and liked to laugh. Her lips were pink and slightly raised at the corners. (Naturally, my mother did not use lipstick and I did not purchase lipstick until I was twenty-five, after I moved to the United States.) To return to my smiling girl: “As she got older, fine vertical lines developed on her lips and at the end of her life, as she became elderly, there were wrinkles around her lips and in her face; these mirrored sad experiences in her life. Then I outlined what had happened to her.

I handed the story to my teacher the next day. The following day the teacher called me to come forward to her desk. She asked me if I had copied the story, and what was the text I had used. She never believed me that I had made up the story myself and refused to grade my work. After that experience I never wrote another story,

I now know what made me write such a  sentimental story. In my father’s waiting room there were journals for patients to read, as they waited for their examination. These journals were the equivalent of American publications, such as True Love Stories, The Saturday Evening Post, and so forth. I read them avidly.

Some years later I had a similar experience when I was in Gymnasium. Students were assigned to translate a page into English from Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.( I must admit that I was not a good student in languages—French, English or Latin. My favorite subjects were German and History.) This was an assignment to be done at home and we could use any dictionary we liked. My choice was a two-volume English—German, German—English, the MURET—SANDERS. It was exhaustive. And the explanations of words made their meanings clear. Of course, sentences or clauses in sentences were cited to insure that the sense of the word was clear. (Incidentally, I still use MURET—SANDERS today.)

I took more time than usual to do my homework; the following morning  I handed in my assignment. The next day the teacher called me to his desk and asked me from where I had copied the translation. I do not think that he believed me when I insisted that I had done the translation without assistance.

Several years later I came across a translation of Goethe’s novel. I was curious to see how the text had been translated. I turned to the page, and it recalled my own rendering. Most likely, the translator used the same dictionary, MURET—SANDERS. So I cannot blame my teacher for his suspicions.

Even today I like to do translations; it is like solving a puzzle.


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