Translating an Epic Life in The Woman With the 5 Elephants


Begin with the fact that, until Svetlana Geier published her translation in 1994, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was known in Germany as Guilt and Atonement. The story of her life and work is the subject of Vadim Jendreyko’s numinous, surpassing documentary, The Woman With the 5 Elephants. Geier’s complexities and achievements can be seen to flow into and out of that single mistranslation: Born in Kiev in 1923, she nursed her father after his long imprisonment under Stalin; during World War II, she worked as a translator with the Gestapo, eventually relocating to Germany. Drawn to Dostoyevsky, she began translating his five morally exacting novels. Jendreyko gives his portrait, begun in 2007, the rough, ruminant structure of a journey, mixing Geier’s memories with the present. Geier returns to the Ukraine after a 60-year exile, seeks out her family’s dacha and her father’s grave, and rides train after train, framed by natural light and striking, placid compositions. Geier, who died in 2010, speaks on all subjects—from her son’s mortal injury to the nature of her various collaborations—with the contemplative, courtly intelligence of her favorite novels. She is most radiant pondering the existential mysteries of grammar, and the fulfillments of a life spent escorting the truth from language to language.