The Woman with the Five Elephants
Director, Vadim Jendreyko
Svetlana Geier, the subject of Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the Five Elephants, is an example of how one’s passion can bring order out of chaos. Geier spent twenty years translating Dostoevsky’s five great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov and The Raw Youth. Geier, until her death in 2010 at age 87, was considered the preeminent translator of Russian literature into German. Those five translations, completed in 2007, the elephants of the title, were the defining achievements of her life.
Imagine spending twenty years of one’s life immersed in the novels of Dostoevsky. As Harold Bloom said, just reading Crime and Punishment will alter your consciousness. We don’t know if Geier’s consciousness was altered; her only comment about Dostoevsky’s effect on her is that “one doesn’t translate this with impunity.” As for Dostoevsky’s style, Geier says, “What one discovers again and again, and that is the sign of an excellent text, is that the text moves…. After an early reading, one has prepared it and sees everything, knows everything. But suddenly, something is there that one has never noticed before. A text like this is inexhaustible.”
In a few sentences, she elaborates the central theme in Crime and Punishment: “Right from the start, it is clear that to Dostoevsky the most important characteristic of a human being is his need for freedom. And this freedom expresses itself in self-determination. One does what one wants to do. And our intelligence plays a fatal role here because our reason constantly offers us reasons, when we want to justify something. We can offer a reason for anything, in fact. . . . Here, Dostoyevsky is in sharp contrast to all the potentates of this world. And for him, there is no doubt: there is no end that could ever justify a wrong means.”
Freedom, of course, is always fraught with moral ambiguities, and as Geier’s early life slowly unfolds, you realize how personal her comment was, how very much it reveals about her own conscience. Geier’s story is itself a Russian novel. She was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1923 and witnessed some of the most turbulent years in Russian history. Her father was a successful agronomist specializing in tobacco and sugar beets, and her mother came from a family of tsarist officers. Geier attended a modest school but at her mother’s insistence, had private tutoring in German and French. Languages, her mother thought, would be Svetlana’s dowry. It proved even more valuable. Geier was nine when the Great Famine (1932-33) began and 14 when Stalin’s Great Purge (1937-38) eliminated many of Kiev’s intelligentsia. Her father was imprisoned and her mother forced to clean houses. When her father was released 18 months later, sick and injured from beatings and torture, care-giving fell to the 16-year-old Svetlana, but he died a little over a year later.
In 1941, Geier and her mother, like many Ukrainians, welcomed the Germans as liberators. Geier’s fluency in German got her a job interpreting for a Nazi officer named Count Kerssenbrock. Kerssenbrock then recommended her to scientists at the Kiev Institute where she worked until the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad in 1943. She and her mother were briefly interned in a labor camp for easterners in Dortmund, and then, miraculously, Geier was awarded a Humboldt scholarship in Freiburg. She became a university professor, lectured for 40 years and translated for over fifty.
Always in the background of her rising career was the 1941 massacre of 30,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev. One of those Jews was Geier’s best friend; but, as Jendreyko said in an interview, “she doesn’t seem able to register how her good fortune in Freiberg was a byproduct of Nazism.” On film, Geier speaks of her immense gratitude to the Germans and to Germany for making possible her rewarding life in literature. She says she is translating to pay back her debts. “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.” And, yet, Babi Yar must have been a heavy burden: “It never ceases,” she said softly, “and it has never become the past. . . .”
Such ironies are what make this documentary so compelling and probably what made Geier such an exemplary translator of Dostoevsky. The two languages, she says, are grammatically incompatible. The fact that she herself was both German and Russian with a conscience in conflict with itself makes her the perfect translator of Dostoevsky whose brilliance was in portraying complex characters who enlarge our understanding of the dualism inherent in human nature.
Given the same circumstances, who among us would not have made the same decisions and rationalizations as Geier, would not remember with affection the middle-aged academic in uniform who made possible a better life for her and her mother. If translation was, indeed, an act of atonement, how lucky for Geier that it turned out to be also her passion. How lucky, too, to have a vocation so doubly gratifying—to know that you were making available to the world a clearer, more accessible Dostoevsky who, like Shakespeare, helps us see our true selves and, in that, to better see others.