There is a scene in Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot where a class of American students discusses A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke. A know-it-all boy with a penchant for Barthes says he found the book “totally dank and depressive” and “loved it.”
“Suicide is a trope,” he announced. “Especially in German literature. You’ve got The Sorrows of Young Werther. You’ve got Kleist. Hey, I just thought of something.” He held up a finger. “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” He held up another finger. “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. My theory is that Handke felt the weight of all that tradition and this book was his attempt to break free.”
At this point, the teacher reminds him that the original German title, Wunschloses Unglück, has no “sorrow” in it: this “serious and strangely wonderful title,” a play on the phrase wunschlos glücklich (“happier than you could ever wish for” ), could be translated as “extreme unhappiness.” The student, without batting an eyelid, proceeds to explain what the author wanted to achieve with the book.
The English title is the invention of Ralph Manheim, whose translation of Handke’s novel was first published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 1975. As for the author’s intentions, he wanted not so much to “break free … from the whole Teutonic, Sturm-und-Drang, suicidal thing” (to quote the opinionated student again) as to respond to the loss of his mother, who committed suicide in 1971, aged 51. Handke wrote the book a few weeks after her death, partly to cope with his grief, partly because he felt he was capable of explaining her case better than anyone else. The main objective for him as a writer, however, was to demonstrate that facts, once put to paper, no matter how carefully and objectively, stop being facts and become “more or less a fiction.”
The life and death of the central character, referred to as “she” or “my mother” throughout the book, are unexceptional: her story is typical for many women who lived in rural Austria between the 1920s and the 1970s. Born into a society where “a girl’s future was a joke,” she tried to defy conventions, leaving her village, learning new skills, and finding work. Happiness seemed possible at 18, and the Anschluss in 1938 brought with it the enthusiastic Nazi years that helped her become independent.
“For once, everything that was strange and incomprehensible in the world took on meaning and became part of a larger context”—this may sound like Nazi propaganda at work, but there is another interpretation too: for some life was so miserable that any change came as a breath of fresh air. Back in her village after the war, the mother realized that “once again the outside world … became an impalpable ghost.”
The family lived hand to mouth, yet what killed human spirit was not poverty but the need to present it as “formally perfect squalor.” The mother took it all in her stride: hardship, drudgery, a drunkard husband, unwanted pregnancies, a woman’s obligations—until “gradually, in its daily effort to keep up appearances, her face lost its soul.” When life became less difficult, she began to read and take interest in politics, but the burst of vitality did not last, and soon depression came, followed by horrors: of death, of dark.
One day, she wrote letters of farewell to all her relatives, had her hair and nails done, went to the district center to get sleeping pills, and—although it wasn’t raining—bought a red umbrella. In the evening, she had dinner with her family, then came back home and took all the pills. “She put on menstrual pants, stuffed nappies inside, put on two more pairs of pants and an ankle-length nightgown, tied a scarf under her chin, and lay down on the bed.”
Handke appears to do little more than record dry facts, and yet he turns the story of his mother into a critique of her society. His radicalism manifests itself in language and style rather than in his direct involvement with social or political subjects. One example of this is capitalized words appearing throughout the text, clearly quotes, which tell us something about the people who are being quoted. Take, for instance, “VOLUNTARY DEATH” (FREITOD), a euphemism that replaced “suicide” (Selbstmord) at the time when the phenomenon was a social taboo. By drawing our attention to the term, the author makes us question whether his mother’s death really was “voluntary” rather than imposed.
Elsewhere, “SETTLEMENTS for marriage” creates the atmosphere of patriarchal life, while “many ADMIRERS, kept at a DISTANCE” hints at the sexual mores of the epoch. Descriptions of Third Reich paraphernalia use the same device: “Buildings decorated with the new national emblem SALUTED.” The translation is sensitive to these features and produces the intended estrangement effect, turning the narrative into a commentary by means of equivalent formulae.
The original title is all the more challenging for its ambiguity: glücklich means both “happy” and “lucky;” Wunschloses Unglück suggests a kind of unhappiness that is not only complete, but also leaves nothing to be desired. The echoes of Handke’s wordplay in the text are elegantly rendered: “Seldom: desireless and somehow happy; usually: desireless and a little unhappy.” To restore the lost symmetry, Manheim uses some of the book’s motifs in his version of the title. “Sorrow” is a reference to several things: the mother’s emotional state, as well as “the sweet Lady of Sorrows” and “the sorrowful Rosary,” religious rituals being among the few consolations offered by traditional life for the loss of individuality. “Beyond dreams” also seems to have been chosen for its range of meanings. “At best, I am able to capture my mother’s story for brief moments in dreams, because then her feelings become so palpable that I experience them as doubles and am identical with them,” says the narrator, having to rely on his own dreams now that his mothers’ have been dashed. Although writing the book failed as therapy, it brought “something cheerful: in a dream I saw all sorts of things that were intolerably painful to look at. Suddenly someone came along and in a twinkling took the painful quality out of all these things. LIKE TAKING DOWN AN OUT-OF-DATE POSTER.”
Manheim’s discovery is as deep as Handke’s invention. Titles that involve wordplay often send translators into overdrive: they try to replicate the effect at all costs and even to outdo the author on the pun front. On first opening My Foot My Tutor, a 1969 play by Handke originally titled Das Mündel will Vormund sein, I thought it was one of those examples. Then I read the translator Michael Roloff’s note explaining that the title, literally “The ward wants to be warden” (in reference to the play’s two characters), is the accepted German translation of Prospero’s line that makes the English title.
But such lucky coincidences are rare, and unless there is a good reason (aesthetic or commercial) to jazz a title up, it might be best to play things down. That’s what I had to do when translating The Marriage Plot. The multiple meanings of “plot” are important to the novel, but Russian has no single word that would encapsulate them all. I came up with several versions that sounded funny—deliberately so, hence a tad contrived. In the end, my publisher decided to use a line from a children’s book quoted in the novel, “And sometimes they were very sad.” The decision disappointed me, but it would please the student in the novel, who says, developing his point about Handke: “Books aren’t about ‘real life.’ Books are about other books.”
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. She writes for a number of publications, including 3:AM, the Independent, the LRB and the TLS—mainly about literature and arts. Her translations from Russian include Post-Post Soviet? Art, Politics and Society in Russia at the Turn of the Decade, a collection of essays edited by Ekaterina Degot (University of Chicago Press, 2013).