May 26, 2007

It's a Wonderful Life?

It’s been called the “Crisis of Europe." It’s not the declining birth rate, it’s not the melting polar icecaps, and it’s not the recent influx of Muslim extremism. It’s Europe’s extreme pessimism. Europeans are said to be the most pessimistic people in the world, and nowhere is the malaise more severe than here in Germany, says a recent Harris poll.

My own experience certainly supports this thesis. When talking to most Germans, the conversation invariably turns to complaints about the rising cost of living, the declining quality of education, and just the general worsening of the quality of life here. However, when I look around me, I see better social services, better-educated children, and a cleaner, more-beautiful way of living than I’ve encountered anywhere in America. But apparently, this is because I’m American, and according to the Harris poll, Americans suffer from a very different disease: irrational optimism.

Last week I had a couple of experiences that really drove home for me the difference between the European and the American outlook on life. I was browsing the DVD selection Media Markt, the German equivalent of Best Buy, when I came across a copy of one of my favorite movies, the 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life!” However, in German, the film was called, “Ist das Leben nicht schön?” Now, the grammatical differences are actually pretty minor, but the difference in meaning is vast. You could read the German title to mean the simply rhetorical, “Isn’t life wonderful?,” or the more philosophical, “Is Life Wonderful?,” but either way, it’s framed as a question, which clearly implies that the wonderful-ness of life is in doubt. This completely misses the point of the movie. To Frank Capra and to American audiences of the film, the wonderful-ness of life as obvious as the 6-foot, all-caps, neon-lit signs running down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls. But apparently German audiences have their doubts.

I was beginning to have my own doubts about the interpretation of this seemingly innocuous piece of evidence, until my German class began a unit on fairy tales last Friday. Now, I grew up on the stories of Snow White and Briar Rose, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and I know them inside and out, from “Once upon a time …” to “… And they all lived happily ever after.” However, I had never read them in the original German before, and there is one major difference in the translation. The German stories all end with the line: “… Und wenn sie nicht gestorben sind, dann leben sie noch heute,” which literally translates to: “And if they hadn’t died, then so would they live even today.” Talk about pessimism!

I'd just like to tell the Germans, "You have 6 weeks of paid vacation a year, nearly 30 national holidays, and a strict 35-hour work week. It really is a wonderful life!"

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