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on Jul 20, 2011

Anyone who reads literature in translation probably has some inkling of the effort it takes a specialist to mold foreign masterworks into readable prose that feels alive and inviting. Some translators have earned renown for their impeccable renditions of the classics — Lydia Davis comes to mind — but such formidably intelligent people are accustomed to working, for the most part, in complete obscurity, unknown except to the book publishers who commission their interpretive labors and those who bother to notice bylines. Until her death last year at age 87, Svetlana Geier was the most distinguished translator of Dostoyevsky in Germany, having shouldered the monumental task (beginning in 1992) of rendering the Russian novelist’s “five elephants” (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, The Devils, and The Raw Youth) into her adopted language. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, Geier began her work in the late fifties, but developed a special passion for the Slavic existentialist that consumed the last two decades of her scholarly life.

In his new film The Woman with the Five Elephants, which was nominated for a 2009 European Film Award for Best Documentary, Swiss filmmaker Vadim Jendreyko introduces us to this stooped but (at the time) still vibrant matriarch in her cozy Freiburg home, where she spends long hours translating literature with the help of two elderly volunteers, typist Hannelore Hagen and retired musician Jürgen Klodt. A mother of two and sometime university lecturer, Geier is disciplined and focused despite her frailty, wonderfully articulate about Dostoyevsky (“Right from the start, it was clear to him that the most important characteristic of a human being is his need for freedom”) and the arts (“A translation is not a caterpillar crawling from left to right,” she tells a group of students, “it always emerges from the whole”). At home she attends to daily chores with the same concentration as she does an engrossing literary passage, whether cooking for her grandchildren or ironing a shirt. Eventually, as he joins Geier on her first journey back to Ukraine since she left in 1944, Jendreyko reveals more of her fascinating life story, which is marked by the kind of suffering one might find in the Russian novels she has immersed herself in for more than 50 years. Geier recounts how the Stalinist purges claimed her well-educated father, who was officially released after an 18-month ordeal (a rarity) only to die from his wounds after a few months, despite his daughter’s caretaking efforts. When the Nazis invaded, Svetlana found work interpreting for a German officer named Count Kerssenbrock, who recommended her to scientists at the Kiev Institute, a fortuitous assignment that led to a scholarship in Freiburg. Though she fondly recalls this middle-aged academic in uniform (“Hitler has nothing in common with Goethe or Schiller or Thomas Mann, she tells Jendreyko, “and I cannot regard a person and the nation into which he is born as matching”), Geier refuses to accept that he has any meaningful connection to the death of her close friend, a Jewish girl marched off with 10,000 others for “deportation,” only to be machine-gunned in the Babi Yar ravine, an incident she recalls with quiet despair. Such ironies are what make Geier’s personal history so unique and her presence so riveting, and Vendreyko captures that mix of astute intellect and inner anguish with a craftsman’s precision for shotmaking and a humility that matches her gentle spirit.

Filmmaker spoke with Jendreyko about language and irony, Melville and Dostoyevsky, and the legacy of Geier’s life and work. The Woman with the Five Elephants opens today at Film Forum.

The Woman with the Five Elephants director Vadim Jendreyko

Filmmaker:  Did this film come out of a larger project you were doing on translation?

Jendreyko: No. I was working on a script for a fiction film concerning a historical event in Switzerland in the 16th century during the Reformation. At bottom was the question of whether the ends can justify the means. It was the period where Calvin was very strong in Geneva and started to kill people because of their religious beliefs. In the middle of this research I read The Brothers Karamazov. There’s a chapter called “The Great Inquisitor,” which is an allegory within the book [that deals with] this question. I knew that Dostoyevsky had been to Switzerland several times and wondered if he knew about this event. Somebody told me “If you want to find out anything about Dostoyevsky, there’s a woman in Freiburg” — which is about 50 miles from where I live in Basel — “who’s a specialist.” We had a nice meeting, made a connection, and then she invited me a second and third time. I got more and more interested in her — especially the care with which she treats the texts of an author. It was the same quality she had in her daily life, whether she’s cooking, playing with her grandkids, or ironing clothes. So I began to discover not only a brilliant intellectual, but also a woman who was connected to everything she did in her house.

Filmmaker: When did the arc of her remarkable life story start to emerge?

Jendreyko: The longer I knew her, the more I discovered about her life, which is a fingerprint, in a way, of 20th century European history. This led me to the idea of making this film. I was never specifically interested in the art of translation — I didn’t know anything about it. But I realized that it’s actually similar to the work I do. Documentary is always a translation: you can’t copy reality into something else, just like you can’t copy English text into a German text. You have to renew it, rebuild it. So it was very inspiring having an exchange about this. Of course I knew making a film about an 85-year-old translator didn’t sound very sexy! [Laughs] It was very difficult to finance.

Filmmaker: What do you think was the importance of Svetlana’s work to her outlook on life?

Jendreyko: It’s spiritual for her. She needs it like air to breathe. Translating Dostoyevsky gave her the motivation after all these years [of suffering] to go on. The death of her son was a shock she really never recovered from. I think it’s an artistic need as well. For her, Dostoyevsky was absolutely inspiring.

Filmmaker: Do you think she was able to see the ironic parallels between Dostoyevsky’s ideas and the facts of her own life?

Jendreyko: I think her life experiences gave her the key to Dostoyevsky. During the voyage we made to Ukraine, she told her life story to a group of students and after half an hour she said, “Why do I tell you this? Because if you’re in a dark situation, really at rock bottom, and you think everything is lost, you will always find something which helps you through.” That was her personal belief. And Dostoyevsky thought the same. He goes into the dark but there is always some light — maybe it’s a small light at first, but it becomes stronger.

Filmmaker: At the same time, she doesn’t seem able to register how her good fortune in Freiberg was a byproduct of Nazism.

Jendreyko: In Kiev during Stalin’s reign, and also afterwards when Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, she always met people who stayed human inside. It didn’t matter if they had a uniform from the Red Army or the Wehrmacht. She looked beyond the surface, and she met people who took big risks in order to help her. In 1944, a guy at the Ministry helped her get a scholarship and sent her to Freiburg — he was sent to the Eastern front as a result, because he had helped a Russian. So she feels guilty that she survived all that and so many didn’t. She has such a great respect for Germany too — because there were some who stayed human enough to help her. When she says in the film “I’m translating because I want to pay back my debts,” it’s because she has the impression that she has to build a bridge between the Russian and German culture [to honor that].

Filmmaker: Her work ethic seems vital to maintaining her placid frame of mind, and perhaps to disguise the hurt beneath it.

Jendreyko: Maybe. Yes.

Filmmaker: Language is also a force of civility and civilization —  a harbor of sorts from the material world. She says at one point that she thinks language is essential to helping people get past wanting to kill each other.

Jendreyko: That’s right. It has to do with consciousness, and bringing order into chaos.

Filmmaker: In your director’s staement, you write that the central question on which the film pivots is “Who am I?” What did you discover as a result of embedding yourself in Svetlana’s world?

Jendreyko: Spending time with Svetlana was a privilege because I’m one of these guys who’s always running around with a mobile phone and very busy. You hurry up getting to her house, but the moment you step inside and take her hand, you come back to yourself. If she asks, “How are you?” you can’t just say, “I’m fine.” She means where are you in your life? How close are you to your dreams? These are the qualities of someone at this age and with this knowledge who shows you a second or third layer. It’s about going deep. One of my favorite scenes is when she’s ironing and she speaks about the texture of things, and then references Moby Dick.

Filmmaker: I pulled Moby Dick off my bookshelf and reread “The Whiteness of the Whale” after watching that scene.

Jendreyko: And my son has started to iron his shirts! [Laughs] You know, it was impossible to stage things with Svetlana. When I asked her to make this documentary, she looked at me and said, “I don’t care as long as we’re having tea and interesting conversation.” She didn’t understand if I’d say, “Can you please repeat that?,” because she never treated us as a film team. There was no difference [in her manner] whether there was a camera running or not.

Filmmaker: You spend a lot of time examining her hands, and the work those hands do.

Jendreyko: This is the expression of her soul, it’s her sensuous connection to the world. She touches things while cooking, and children while they’re playing. It was important for me to show that connection she has, quite literally, to touch and tactility.

Filmmaker: I was fascinated by her helpmates as well, the woman who types her manuscripts and the musician who reads aloud the finished pages and suggests alternate words, sometimes to her consternation.

Jendreyko: Those two were a gift for a filmmaker. Normally, so much of this work is invisible. When she works with her secretary, who’s two months older than Svetlana, a lot of these inner processes become visible and hearable, and the same thing happens with Herr Klodt, the musician. You become a witness to very serious work, but also quite funny moments between them.

Filmmaker: There’s also a dignity to what they’re doing.

Jendreyko: Absolutely! Imagine all the pages they go through — for years. That’s an enormous capacity from both sides. It’s also a way for her not to become a prisoner of the written words. She needs this woman because, as she says, language is connected to human speech—it needs to breathe. And if she translated alone, she would become a prisoner to the sentences. So she has to speak it, and the secretary records it. A couple months later, Klodt reads it and she hears it. This process for her was essential.

Filmmaker: What do you miss most about Svetlana?

Jendreyko: The quality of her awareness. It’s beyond small talk — you really get in touch with things that are so important. Our meetings during the five years we filmed her were very important for me. It was inspirational.

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