Vadim Jendreyko

The Elephant in the Room

Last week, the National Capital Area Translators Association (NCATA) hosted a movie night at the Goethe Institut with a screening of the Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary,The Woman with 5 Elephants (Original Title: Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten), an award-winning 2009 Swiss film about Russian-to-German translator Svetlana Grier.

In case you were wondering, this is not a film tracking pachyderms across the savannas of East Africa—the five elephants are Ms. Grier's masterpieces—translations of Dostoyevsky's major works into German, completed in between relocating from occupied Kiev to Freiburg during Soviet rule.

The film brings to light interesting parallels between the preeminent translator's work and her life, also focusing on the fundamental incompatibility of the Russian and German languages.

One of the most eloquent quotes from the film is when Ms. Grier explains the internalization of the text during the translation process:

[...] 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 internalized, 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."


I have also posted a two-part interview at San Francisco's 15th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival with the film's director, Vadim Jendreyko, and some interesting production anectodtes.

The Woman with 5 Elephants is available for online viewing via Netflix. In German and Russian, with subtitles. 93 minutes run-time. Check out the trailer in German, French, or English here.