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