“The Woman With the 5 Elephants” and the power of language

A few years ago, I read about a Ukrainian woman who survived the Nazi occupation during World War II by learning German and becoming a translator. She was so precocious and had such a facility with languages that even as a teenager, German leaders recognized the value of her expertise.

The woman, Svetlana Geier, is now 85 and the subject of a German documentary, Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (The Woman With the 5 Elephants), which is about to be released in North America.

When we meet Geier at the beginning of the film, she has just completed new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels (her five elephants): Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamasov. She is the epitome of a serious German scholar — a critical thinker with a strong work ethic.

As we learn more about Geier, however, we see the complexity of her past and the ways she deals with the contradictions of working for the people who brought so much pain to those close to her. She believes that she owes her life and career to the Germans, but is very aware of Nazi horror. The film interweaves her life and work to reveal a remarkable woman with a love for language and an unwavering respect for the writers she translates.

Here’s the trailer.

Geier is still translating, her mind still sharp. She works with people as exacting as she is – including a musician whose job is to read the translations out loud. The rhythm of the language and the precision of the word choice are the subject of lively debate. Geier notices everything about language — and is not satisfied until it “works.”

The Woman With the 5 Elephants looks like a gorgeous and fascinating film about an incredible woman – and one that we might never know otherwise. Is it something you would like to see?

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