Swetlana Geier is considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German. Her new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels, known as the "five elephants", are her life’s work and literary mile-stones.
"The concept of transportation is not an adequate metaphor for translation. It is not transportation, since the luggage never arrives. I’ve always been interested in the losses. By what always has to be left outside that which has been newly created, the translation."
Her work is characterised by a great and sensual feeling for language and uncompromising respect for the writers she translates. The standard she sets for her translations is that their encapsulated spirit must correspond to the essence of the author. At the same time, she is aware that every translation is, in the end, an incomplete work, bound to the era of its creation. She says:
"Translations are mortal. Every epoch deserves its own translations."
Swetlana Geier’s life was overshadowed by Europe’s varied history and her fate is unusual: Born in the Ukraine in 1923, she saw, at the age of fifteen, how her father was arrested during Stalin’s purges and released after eighteen months of terrible mistreatment, only to die soon thereafter. At eighteen she lost her best friend, when SS commandos executed 30,000 Jews in Kiev.
She worked as an interpreter during the occupation of the Ukraine. In 1943 she and her mother were sent to a labour camp for Eastern European prisoners in Dortmund.
She experienced the horrors of two dictatorships, but repeatedly came into contact with people who had the moral courage to assist her and make her survival possible.
"There was a man who stood up for me. He was employed at the ministry for the occupied Eastern territories. And it wasn’t that he was looking for some sweet young thing to drag into bed. During that time I met some German people who, entirely selflessly, achieved the impossible for me."
She remained in Germany after the war, studied, had a family and began translating Russian literature into German. Today she has been lecturing at various universities for forty years. She is the grandmother and great-grandmother to many children and the head of an extensive family.
"My teacher always said: ‘Nose up in the air when you translate.’ That is to say, one doesn’t translate from left to right, following the text, but only after one has made the sentence one’s own. It first has to be internalised, taken to heart. I read a book so often that my eyes ’gouge holes’ in pages. I basically know it by heart. Then the day comes when I suddenly hear the melody of the text."
The works of Dostoyevsky have a special significance in Swetlana Geier’s life. In a process which lasted for years, she imbibed these texts, studied Dostoyevsky’s manuscripts and travelled to the locations where the novels’ events took place, so as to understand their geography and to see them through the eyes of the novelist.
"One has to read Dostoyevsky like a treasure-seeker: Jewels are buried in the most inconspicuous places and are often only to be discovered at a second or third reading. He is inexhaustible."
Today Swetlana Geier is probably more familiar with the life and work of this writer than almost anyone else. And the central themes, around which his novels are pivoted, fascinate her more than ever: The questions as to human freedom and self-knowledge; and whether the end can ever justify the means.
At the age of eighty-five Swetlana Geier makes her first trip since the war back to the scenes of her childhood in the Ukraine. The director Vadim Jendreyko accompanies her on this journey. The film traces its protagonist’s recollections as fragments, archive footage reflects the events in world history she witnessed. It accompanies her back to the sealed scenes of her childhood and follows her at home whilst she goes about her daily and literary business.
The film interweaves the story of Swetlana Geier’s life with her literary work and traces the secret of this inexhaustible mediator of language. It tells of great suffering, silent helpers and unhoped-for chances - and a love of language that outshines all else.