The Translating Ringmaster
Published on July 21st, 2011 | by B.L. Hazelwood0
Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary on the late Russian translator Svetlana Geier, “The Woman with the Five Elephants,” (currently showing at Film Forum) is a rare moment when the filmic and the literary beautifully collide. Note to potential translators of the world: the business is far from the jet-setting sexiness imagined. And for those not to keen on the process of translation, the film offers enough distractions from the painstaking insiders process and delves unexpectedly into the knotty biographical past of one Ms. Geier.
Jendreyko eases in with the first few minutes of the film enshrouded in a black canvas illuminated faintly by the visual and auditory reception of far away trains and their grossly oversized moving bodies. Soon the voice of Svetlana Geier, which is soon confirmed as her own indeed, enters the landscape by reciting a poem by Wladimir Sergejewitsch Solowjow. The timbres of her voice read the words carefully, knowledgeably and endearingly as she recites,
“Dear Friend do you not see that everything we see is but reflection of that which is invisible to your sight? Do you not hear that life’s reverberating noise is but the echo, an altered echo, of transcendent harmonies? Do you not feel, do you not sense that nothing in the world apart from this exists, that one heart speaks to another wordlessly?”
These first moments of the film set the stage for the overall thematic project Jendreyko is attempting to set, namely foreshadowing the slowly revealed past of Geier. However, the stark contrast is a bit unsettling upon first reception, especially as we meet Svetlana Geier in the midst of her charming southern German domesticity. However as the narrative unravels itself, Jendreyko’s stylistic choices become much more evident, though they do take a bit of patience. But who can complain about patience after seeing the excruciating and disciplined process of translation that Geier imposes on herself?
The film sweeps by as we move from one room to another in Geier’s small hamlet German home. The first half of the film is successful in placing significant focus on its subject, who we obsessively follow to the market and watch her crinkled hands admire the thread work of her late mother’s quilts. What is revealed in these small moments around the home, around the town and around the Svetlana mis-en-scène, is how the texts with which she has spent over fifty years has become for her a perpetual lens. The process of translations has been far forgotten for Geier as merely a profession, but has imbued her world with lessons, value systems and order. As she irons, we hear her drift off about threads and how the shirts are woven together; she shows off her mother’s quilts and notes the execution and how one must conceive of the whole even before conception.
This is how she approaches her text – or at least how she divulges she approaches her text. What’s truly unfortunate in the film is the scarcity of the actual translations process. We are awarded two distinctive scenes, one, where she has Frau Hagen transcribe her spoken words, and the second when she and her reader discuss meticulously debate word selection, grammar and sentence structure. In these moments, we meet Geier as the foremost Russian translating extraordinaire responsible for the five great texts of Dostoevsky. The second half of the film fails to recapture such splendor, regardless if the process itself is painfully static.
A significant portion of the film focuses on the return trip of Geier to her home country of Ukraine. The trip marks her first return “home” since she left in 1943 after the German army retreated from Kiev after its defeat in Stalingrad.
During this voyage to her past, Geier makes several startling revelations, not just about her family’s subjection to Stalin brutality (particularly her father), but also her warmness she has towards the German soldiers who took notice of her unique abilities with language and granted her a passage to safety by way of a fellowship. It is a tough pill to swallow after we have become so enraptured by the loving, white-haired, translating master in her unassuming hamlet town.
For Geier the point of translation, the very heart of it is to internalize the story, to feel it, breathe it. Yes, we know Geier as a translator, but we must see her in totality to lift her completely. Not so much. Though the self-reflexive attempt is appreciated, it is too contrived and the story is too heavy-ended and spotty. Additionally, the narrator’s voice, that of Jendreyko himself, is an unwelcome clash to the melodic harmony of the documentary in its detached dryness, though one may not fault the filmmaker all together and it may be a stylistic imperative of its television production company ZDF.
Regardless, the film is intimately successful in showcasing and paying an unexpected memorial to perhaps one of the finest translators of our time (Geier passed away this past November). Jendreyko is masterful in capturing Geier’s presence; one could spend hours, literally, hearing Geier go on about word choice and Doestevsky’s characters; she mesmerizes as if she were talking about past love affairs, forgotten friends and childhood memories. Despite the small stylistic and (uneven) narrative pitfalls, Jendreyko’s film is rippling.