Film Forum is celebrating my birthday today by screening an absolutely gorgeous movie about a translator. OK, they don’t actually know it’s my birthday, but I’m delighted that The Woman with the 5 Elephants is opening today, since it’s a movie I dearly love for several reasons. For one thing, it’s beautifully shot and edited. For another, it’s about a translator. For a third, it weaves a multigenerational story all around the life of a single woman (which I guess is possible when you get to be in your mid-80s). I blogged this film last week to announce it was on its way, and today you’ll find me blogging about it again – not just here on Translationista but also as a guest blogger on the Women and Hollywood website, which is devoted to tracking the role of women in the movies on both sides of the camera.
Given the focus and point of view of the Women and Hollywood site, I didn’t want to let my guest post get too nerdy on the subject of translation. But listening to Svetlana Geier speak so beautifully about translation when I rewatched the film yesterday was truly inspiring. She says that when she was first learning to translate, a teacher who was influential in her development liked to say “Nase hoch beim Übersetzen” (Keep your nose up while translating). This meant, Geier explains, that the translator should not just creep her way through a sentence from left to right but rather should take in a sentence as a whole and then think about how to utter the sentence, as a whole, in its new language. In the film, we see her putting this instruction into practice. It’s not clear whether or not this was always her work method (I doubt it), but in the film we see her translating with the help of two skilled assistants: a woman who types up each sentence of the translation as Geier dictates it, and a male friend (a musician, no less) who reads her finished translation back to her so she can hear what it sounds like in order to edit it. I’m just writing an essay about revising translations in which I discuss, among other things, the importance of reading your work aloud. Having someone else read it aloud to you is even better.
The film’s most striking leitmotif is that of woven fabric. Geier shows the camera a beautiful, ornate tablecloth whose lace edging was embroidered by her mother. Talking about the needlework, Geier emphasizes the artistry and meticulous attention to detail necessary to create such a piece. It’s crucial, she says, that each stitch be counted; one thread too many or too few and the pattern won’t work out. To create this lace edging, she explains, you have to destroy the weave of the linen fabric and then fill it out again, a process she describes as “very human.” And in fact this is just the process we see when she picks apart a sentence by Dostoevsky, destroying its weave in order to “fill it out again.” The film ends on a scene in which she and her musician friend tease apart a sentence to determine whether or not horses described in the sentence as having riders are the very same horses hitched to a small carriage that is also mentioned; it would be strange for a horse in harness to also be wearing a saddle, and the two decide that there must be yet other horses on the scene. The impetus for this discussion? The number of horses will determine whether or not the sentence should have a comma at a crucial juncture. A comma, it seems, can make all the difference.
Early in the film, while showing the camera how she does her ironing, Geier explicitly draws a connection between text and textile, and she often uses the word “Gewebe” (weave) when she talks about writing. The film’s attention to the physical materiality of her surroundings shows us that director Vadim Jendreyko believes there is a weave to images as well.
Svetlana Geier died in November 2010. I’m so glad that Jendreyko was able to shoot this film about her when she was still alive. It’ll be playing at Film Forum for one week starting today. See it if you can.