(The author in Berlin’s War Memorials..)
SVETLANA GEIER: The Woman Who Understood Dostoyevsky (Satis Shroff)
Svetlana Michailowna Iwanowa was born in 1923 in Kiew. She came to Germany in 1943 with her mother and was awarded an Alexander von Humbolt scholarship. She did German studies and Comparative Language Sciences at the University of Freiburg.
Svetlana married a violinist Christmut Geier and gave birth to two children. She did her first literary translation in 1953, a tale written by Leonid Andrejew. She gave lectures at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg to acquire a regular income and gained a reputation as the legendary translator of all the great works of Fydor Dostoyevsky.
The Russian writer liked reading all of Walter Scott and even recommended the father of a girl on August 18, 1880 to allow his daughter to read all of Dickens without any exception. Dostoyevsky also recommended that the girl should read Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev and Goncharov.
Back to Svetlana Geier, the octogenarian lady who lived in Freiburg, and who internalised the great works of Dostoyevsky and who had a special way with the language so that the essence of what was written by the great Russian writer was not lost in translation from Russian into German. She had the ability to delve into Dostoyevsky’s innermost thoughts and question the relationship between the means and end in matters pertaining to the writer’s works and Russia in those days where freedom was a crucial issue.
‘Who am I?’ is the central urge of all the characters in the writings of Dostoyevsky. Much like the great Russian writer’s protagonists, we have to ask ourselves: who was this woman, how was her life and her works? For people who are interested in knowing more about Svetlana Geier, there’s a 94-minute German-Swiss documentary DVD written and directed by Vadim Jendreyko released in 2004. You can read Dostoyevsky (hardback) in German translation by Svetlana Geier published by Amman Verlag (Zürich). The paperback version has been published by S.Fischer Verlag (Frankfurt am Main).
Svetlana was an active mediator between Russian and German literature, and she translated Dostoyevsky’s five big novels big novels which she fondly called ‘the five elephants’, which were the milestones in her literary career.
Among the most famous works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment has a stellar position and the author was a contemporary of Charles Dickens. Crime and Punishment was first published in 1866 in a periodical named Russkii Vestnik. Other titles are: Notes from the Underground, The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. In Crime and Punishment
an ex-student Raskolinikov lives in poverty and chaos and eventually kills an elderly woman, a pawnbroker, and her sister. He believes that he has devised the perfect crime. A wonderful psychological novel about Raskolnikov’s psyche. Dostoyevsky shows how a person is formed by his mind and his thoughts.
For Svetlana Geier, her world became Dostoyevsky and she started translating his works at the age of 65. She was fascinated by the fast rhythm of Crime and Punishment and the author’s message to the reader. An act of aggression can be swift but life trudges on gradually. According to Svetlana, the correct German translation of Crime and Punishment should have been ‘Verbrechen und Strafe’ and not Schuld und Sühne. The English translation of the title is thus appropriate because the Russian words ‘presluplenije’ and ‘nakasanije’ mean exactly the same as in the English title.
A language has to be spoken and is not confined to a piece of paper, according to Svetlana in a Spiegel-interview carried out by Claudia Voigt. That’s why she always dictated her translations, because all thoughts have their origin in the recesses of the mind. In Creative Writing, we also say: read your poems and texts aloud. When you hear the spoken word you know whether there’s rhythm, style and beauty in the text you’ve brought to paper or recorder.
Dostoyevsky had used the word ‘suddenly’ (Russian: wdrug) very often in his Russian texts. The word suddenly suggests a turn of event, something’s happening and this is an action and device which moves the story forward.
The translation work of Svetlana Geier shows a great sensitive knowledge of language and her respect for the author is immense and she took pains to capture and translate the right spirit of the author’s work and the quintessence of author. She was also conscious of the fact that every translation remains an attempt to reach the absolute, which in turn is slippery as mercury. In this context, I think about Michael Hutt’s translation of Nepalese literature, as well as my experience with two other German translators in Freiburg. When you’re translating you can’t get into the psyche of the writer, what moved him or her at that moment in time and life. We can’t experience the circumstances the writers lived in. We can only imagine it and the question is: is your imagination precise? Dostoyevsky for instance possessed little money and often had no candles for work at night and sat hungry. And yet what he wrote was world literature about his country, politics, economy, characters and their innermost thoughts. Time also influences the choice of words that an author uses and even the language changes with the passage of time.
‘When you translate, you have to keep your nose high,’ was her teacher’s admonition to her when Svetlana was at school. You don’t translate from left to right, like the flow of the language, but the way you’ve read the sentence. It has to reach your heart. When she reads a Dostoyevsky text a day comes when she hears the melody of the text. To translate the works of the Russian literary giant, she studied his manuscripts and travelled to the original places described in the novels in order to understand the Geography and learn to see through the eyes of the author. Goethe also held the same view and said if you want to understand a poet’s verse, you have to visit his country. She was a painstaking translator of words, sentences, books, even searching for what lay beyond the written words.
Although she lived in Green City Freiburg and had seven grandchildren and 10 great-grand children, cooked for them and loved them, she had what we call a Russian soul (russische Seele) and the legendary Russian spirit. Her life was overshadowed by Europe’s fickle history and her fate was extraordinary. She worked as a translator during the occupation of Ukraine, and in 1943 she and her mother were interned in a work-camp in Dortmund (Germany). Later she studied, raised a family and began to translate Russian literature into German. She lectured for 40 years in different universities. Svetlana passed away last year.