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The Woman with the Five Elephants cover image

The Woman with the Five Elephants 2010

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Cinema Guild, 115 West 30th Street, Suite 800, New York, NY 10001; 212-685-6242
Produced by Vadim Jendreyko
Directed by Vadim Jendreyko
DVD, color, 94 min.

General Adult
Russian Literature, Russian Studies, Cultural Studies, Linguistics, Soviet History

Date Entered: 07/19/2011

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

The five elephants referred to in the title of this beguiling documentary are the classic novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Svetlana Geier, the central subject of the film, coined the phrase when she translated them from Russian into German.

The documentary dispenses Geier’s wisdom and wit, following her into the kitchen as she chops onions, cooks meat patties, and contemplates the meaning of life. She connects the feel of fresh linens with a passage from Moby Dick. Examining the intricate stitching of her white table cloth, she remarks that the details mean nothing outside of the entire context of the tablecloth. The remark concisely conveys her approach to translation: to see the work as a whole – and to eschew literal word-for-word translations that invariably distort the meaning of the text in its original language. Her translation of Dostoevsky’s classic work, Crime and Punishment, gave to German audiences the name by which it is known to English-speakers. It had previously been known in German, thanks to a far too literal translation, as “Guilt and Atonement.”

Yet Geier sometimes had the feeling of the fabled blind man feeling the elephant, as she attempted, sometimes unsuccessfully, to transcend the immense vastness that often separates meaning in one language from meaning in another. Translation, for Geier, was more than a way to make a living; it was her way of overcoming the barriers to communication between cultures and peoples, a kind of spiritual calling.

While the documentary has many interesting things to say about the craft of translation, perhaps its most fascinating subject is Geier herself. Her biography is worthy of a long novel. The film moves slowly, putting the viewer into a kind of trance-like state as Geier’s history unfolds, like the tablecloths she so meticulously cleans, irons, and lays out. The impression is of being invited into a home for a fascinating conversation with someone who has much to say – about her own life and labors but also, like her favorite author Dostoevsky, about life in general.

Geier was born in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Kiev. Her father, an agronomist who specialized in beet farming, was arrested in 1938 on trumped-up charges. Miraculously, he was released 18 months later, but not before being subjected to frequent beatings and torture. The 15-year-old Svetlana had the job of nursing her father back to health, while her mother found work as a housekeeper. But in 1939 her father died from the physical abuses of his incarceration and Svetlana and her mother, family members of an enemy of the people, had few prospects. Svetlana’s mother insisted, however, that her daughter get the best education possible under the circumstances. Svetlana excelled in literature and the study of languages – a skill her mother presciently believed would help her find her way in life. When Svetlana and her mother found themselves in Kiev under Nazi occupation, Svetlana impressed the Gestapo with her translation skills – so much so, that she was offered an opportunity to enter university in Germany. She arrived in Freiburg in 1944, got married, became a mother, lectured in literature at the local university and began her work as a translator.

The reasons for Geier’s collaboration with the Nazis are not entirely clear. She certainly did not endorse the Nazi agenda. She was traumatized by the murder of many of her Jewish friends in Kiev by the Nazis. But how and why she chose to serve the Nazis remains a mystery. Perhaps she had no choice. Or perhaps it was her love of German culture. She remarks at one point that Goethe and Schiller had nothing to do with the Nazis. Whatever the reason, her later work as a translator seemed to be her way of trying to heal the rift between the two great cultures she so admired. She was particularly impressed by Dostoevsky’s warning in Crime and Punishment that the means people use always shape the ends they get – a warning ignored by Stalin and Hitler.

During the filming of the documentary, Geier’s son, a crafts teacher, was seriously injured in the classroom by a broken saw. He was paralyzed and left speechless. After caring for him, Geier took a trip to Kiev – her first visit to birthplace since 1944. Before dying she wanted to drink from the well from which she had drunk at her family’s summer dacha. Unable to find it, she visited her father’s grave. Along the way she gave guest talks in Russian on her life, the translator’s profession, and life in general to enchanted teenagers in Kiev. With a twinkle in her eye, and with the same mastery she evinced as a translator, she imparted wisdom to her young admirers – clearly relishing the opportunity, as in her translations, to bridge the divide between the place where she was born and her German Heimat (another one of those untranslatable words) where the Ukrainian-Russian war refugee had made a new life.