Life of a Dostoyevsky Translator

New documentary explores the fascinating life of Svetlana Geier
Ukranian translator Svetlana Geier. Photograph: Cinema Guild
NPR reviews Vadim Jendreyko's documentary, The Woman with the Five Elephants, based on the life of literary translator Svetlana Geier. Perhaps best known for her translations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novels (from the original Russian into German), Geier's work has been tempered by her experiences of the Second World War. The documentary explores not just the epic scale of what would ultimately become Geier's life's work, but draws connections between the themes of Dostoyevsky's writing and twentieth century atrocity:
Puttering around her old-fashioned home, translator Svetlana Geier compares the intricacy of Dostoevsky's writing to what used be to termed "women's work," like cooking and lace-making. "Text" and "textile" have the same root, she notes. But the huge novels that give The Woman with the Five Elephants its title aren't just intricately crafted. They're also full of murder and madness. What does this stooped Freiburg great-grandmother know of such things?

Quite a bit, Vadim Jendreyko's quietly astonishing documentary reveals. Born in Kiev, Geier lived through Stalinist repression and Nazi invasion. She survived the latter thanks to her knowledge of German, which her mother called her "dowry." In the film, the 85-year-old is shown balancing between two cultures, both of which have left her many bitter memories.

Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death in 1849, almost a century before Geier's father was purged by Stalin. Neither died in government custody, but Geier's father returned from prison battered and dying. Her mother was working to support the family, so Geier was assigned the hopeless task of nursing him back to health. She was 15.

Two years later, German troops occupied Kiev. One of Geier's childhood friends was among the 30,000 Jews massacred by the SS at Babi Yar, just outside the city. Yet Geier was rescued by the invaders, who gave her a scholarship to study in Freiburg despite her lack of Germanic ancestry. She never left.

For this cinematic portrait, Geier undertakes her first trip back to the Ukraine since 1943, accompanied by a solicitous granddaughter — and haunted by her son's current health. The journey yields some evocative moments, but mostly Geier finds her old haunts unrecognizable or simply impossible to locate. When she addresses some Kiev high school students, the gap seems unbridgeable. [Read More]

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