Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Woman with the 5 Elephants

by Drew Martin
I just finished watching The Woman with the 5 Elephants, which is about Svetlana Geier, a Ukrainian who translated Fyodor Dostoevsky's five major novels: Crime and Punishment, The IdiotThe Devils, A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamazov into German. Geier died in 2010 at the age of 87. The film is made when she was 85. She speaks about what is lost in translation when a word does not have a fitting partner, like the German gnade (grace), which she says sounds like a stuffed mattress. She explains that German and Russian are incompatible simply because you cannot say in Russian..."I have... (something)." In German, as in English, the object depends on the subject but in Russian it is the other way around. In this, Geier says you not only lose your nominative, but also your autonomy and your freedom.

Geier returns to Ukraine during the film with one of her granddaughters and gives a talk to young translators. She says translating is not like a caterpillar inching along, but that the meaning must emerge from the whole thought. Geier relayed this to a journalist in the beginning of her career and said you need to keep your "nose in the air," instead of tracking the sentence from left to right. To her dismay and amusement, that comment was published as her being "stuck up."

Stepping back and comprehending what is before you, is not only Geier's approach to her profession but also to how she views her environment and life. Geier is full of poetic comments. While pressing cloths, she talks about the relationship of text and textile and the need to iron out both when they lose their original form. She compares fresh linen on the bed to fresh snow - virgin territory.

Geier was deeply human. At the age of 15 she cared for her father when he was dying from the harm of the abuse he received as a political prisoner under Stalin. She referred to this time as the dress rehearsal to the main performance; taking care of her son who was debilitated from a shop accident. At the Ukraine border she is in awe that the conductor waited for her and her granddaughter to finish their conversation before asking them for their tickets and makes a comment about having to search for politeness on this planet. Geier concludes that language can remedy the hardships of life and of the profound effect good literature has on one's soul.