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Film review: The Woman with the 5 Elephants March 28, 2012

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Fun stuff.

I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed this documentary here. I saw it last year, and it has stuck with me. I remember hearing about “Svetlana Geier” back when I lived in Germany. It was interesting to learn more about her in this manner.

Photo by the Cinema Guild

The five elephants in the documentary title are Dostoyevsky’s great literary works, all of which have been translated by the 87-year-old Svetlana Geier, who is considered the world’s most masterful translator of Russian literature into German. Retranslating Dostoyevsky’s five major novels took Geier twenty years. She completed the project in 2007 and died shortly after the documentary was filmed at age 87 in November 2010.

The filmmaker visits with Geier, whose fascinating and dramatic life story has been colored by some of the most violent events in 20th century European history: Stalin’s purges of the kulaks (responsible for her father’s death) and the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine (ultimately responsible for saving her life and leading to a university education in Germany).

As the audience, we meet some of her family members and get a glance at her home life in Freiburg, Germany, where she was a university professor. She studied languages as a young girl in Kiev, and after the Germans invaded Kiev she began working as an interpreter for Dortmunder Brückenbau AG. After the Nazis were defeated in Stalingrad she and her mother decided to flee to Nazi Germany in 1943. The reasons were twofold – as an interpreter and translator for the Nazis she would have been considered a collaborator by the advancing Russian Army and her mother did not want to live amongst the people who had killed her husband. She studied in Germany at the University of Freiburg and became a university professor in Freiburg and the University of Karlsruhe. She began translating in 1953.

In the documentary we accompany her and one of her granddaughters as she visits the Ukraine for the first time in 67 years. She visits locations from her early adult life and speaks to university students about translation. However, as a translator, what I found most interesting and compelling was watching her translate and parse the language, word by word, with her colleagues. She dictates her translation to an assistant and then revises the typed translation with a musician friend who questions her word choices, argues the fine points of the German language, and provides some much needed levity. It wasn’t stated, but I got the feeling she urgently wanted to finish the project before she died.

I walked out of the theater amazed at how she worked, knowing that as a retired university professor she could afford to argue the finer points of German. If you get a chance to see the documentary I recommend you do!

Here is a link to the trailer to whet your appetite:



1. Judy Jenner (@language_news) - March 28, 2012

It’s an absolutely fantastic movie. I saw it in Vienna two years ago and loved it. I just gave a presentation at a translation class at my alma mater yesterday and mentioned the movie — the class seemed very interested in it. It should probably be required for every literary translation class. What a fascinating woman. Her working method is quite unorthodox — and it works.

2. Kenny - March 31, 2012

I also enjoyed the film as both someone who is a long-time devotee of Russian literature (and particularly of Dostoevsky) and who works as a Russian translator. The only point I want to quibble about is when Geier claims that Russian only has one way of expressing possession, namely the u + the possessor (in the gen. case) + the object possessed (in the nom. case) construction, which generates sentences that would literally translate as, for example, “by me is the book”. This is supposed to illustrate, ala the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, how the Russian language reflects how Russians think about their world. It is true that this construction is the most common in Russian, but there is also the verb imet’ (to have), which can be used to construct sentences of possession which lack any passive meaning, much like in English or German. That is, a nominative subject is the subject of the verb, and the object possessed is in the acc. case.

3. Corinne McKay - April 6, 2012

Awesome movie!! Chris Durban arranged a screening of it at Translate in the Catskills last year and I *loved* it. I love her testy conversations with the older guy who reads her translations out loud; cranky seniors fighting about translation was never so engrossing! I agree that it was a beautiful film about an incredible person, definitely worth seeing for anyone in the profession!

4. Sally Massmann - April 9, 2012

I certainly will watch it and recommend it to my Stammtisch pals in Hanover (Germany). Lovely!

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