In today’s environment of communication orgies, when we’re called to dance naked in the social media, when whisps of 140-character dialogue have us all a twitter, it borders on science fiction to hear of someone taking the bulk of her 80-plus years of life to lovingly translate, and re-translate over and over, the words of one long-dead Russian author.
During the Boulder International Film Festival, held in Boulder, Colorado, Feb 17-20, 2011, my friend and fellow writer, Laurel Kallenbach and I attended a film titled “The Woman with the Five Elephants.” The five elephants are the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky; they qualify as weight-bearing exercises just to pick them up. The woman is 86-year-old Swetlana Geier, regarded as the greatest living translator of Russian literature into German.
Watching the film, an indulging chuckle rises from the audience at the touching anachronisms–her 80-plus-year-old secretary using a typewriter, for example, and waiting with the patience of Job for Frau Geier to utter a single word of translation as she pores over the “elephant” on her lap; or the elderly musician reading back to Geier her translation and attempting to argue with her over the placement of a comma, the use of a word, and almost always capitulating.
Geier is unmoved by the clock ticking, or the film rolling. She ponders the phrase. She studies the book. And, she laughingly explains, at one point, why one must be so careful with language.
You see, she says, here is a line. It would roughly translate to the car hums, the grandfather hums, the bee hums, and on and on in this rather repetitive, dull routinizing. But if one understands the Russian dialect Dostoevsky wrote in, one knows he used a word that in Russian is pronounced roughly “shs” –a sound that elicits a humming quality when spoken. It doesn’t translate because there is no such word that performs that exact way in German, Geier says. So, we get “hum.”
There’s a term called Lossy Compression. My audiophile husband tells me it happens when I turn my CDs into MP3s–something is lost. I started thinking about lossy compression as it relates to language. The depth, not just the breadth, of language is a marvel: the nuances of meaning that come through the neighboring of words, their alphabetical construction, their sound on your tongue, the way a word or sentence looks or feels. Geier knew there was no absolute truth of translation to be reached–no way to ever step inside Dostoevsky‘s mind. With each reading of him, she found new meanings. Like an onion, she says, there is no core.
I’m not a full-fledged Luddite. I’m not fearful of new media leading to the demise of civilization, but there is a great deal to be said for our spiritual hunger for communication that goes beyond #s and for the fine threads of meanings we can weave with language.
Best Day to You,