Friday, July 22, 2011

The Woman with the 5 Elephants

Vadim Jendreyko’s The Woman with the 5 Elephants, currently playing at Film Forum, is a documentary about the Ukrainian-born German translator of Dostoevsky, Svetlana Geier. Actually, Schiller, Mann, Melville, Pushkin and Tolstoy have roles in the film as well, but the five elephants of the title refer to Geier’s five tomes of Dostoevsky translations, including Crime and Punishment (which she titles Guilt and Atonement) and The Brothers Karamazov. “One does not translate Dostoevsky with impunity,” she remarks about her life’s work. Geier is a white-haired woman who, now stooped with age, looks like the Ida Kaminska character in The Shop on Main Street. In the course of the film, saddened by the illness and untimely death of her son, she sets off on a journey back to her native Kiev, the city she left when the tide of war turned against the Nazi occupiers. Geier is a victim of Stockholm syndrome—despite the proximity of Babi Yar and the indelible sorrow it left in her, she was somewhat of an apologist for at least the more cultivated Nazis who employed her as a wartime translator. (Her sympathy for these Nazis may also have been exacerbated by the fact that her father had been a victim of Stalin’s purges.) Translation is the ultimate act of collaboration, and her previous collaborationist tendencies took a creative form in building a bridge between German and Russian culture. She is brilliant when she talks about text, the incompatibility of Russian and German and the grammatical complexities of translation, which requires its practitioners to keep the “nose in the air.” Geier died after the making of the film, and she is portrayed as one of those gifted and battle-scarred human beings whose talents have been purchased at a price.

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