We Need to Translate More Armenian Literature

Books from minority languages don't always make it into translation—but that's exactly why we need them

Car flying Armenian flag (red, blue, and gold stripes)
Photo by Rafael Ishkhanyan

On December 7, 2019, Ara Baliozian passed away. Hardly anyone noticed. Wikipedia maintains that he’s still alive, because the only proof of his death—a social media post written in Armenian—isn’t considered a reliable source. I’ve scoured the newspaper archives of his native Kitchener, Ontario in search of further proof, to no avail; through Facebook, I contacted his friends for documentation, but none of it exists online. A relentless advocate for Armenian literature, Baliozian was the author of some two dozen books of prose and poetry; as a prolific literary translator, he recovered from obscurity the works of Armenian writers scattered across countries and decades, urging readers and writers alike to stare deeply into our pasts and pull out the trauma we carried, like a surgeon extracting a tumor.

There’s much more I could say about Baliozian’s life, but this is not an obituary; the time for that has passed. This is a call to action.

I had the great privilege of growing up in a house with several floor-to-ceiling shelves bursting with books. So far as I remember, they were largely ornamental, but I have a hard time believing that they went unread: my parents were not the hoarding type. One day, shortly after graduating college, stuck at home and with nothing else to do, I began to really look at the books for the first time. Non-fiction bestsellers like I’m OK—You’re OK sat next to memoirs owned by every Armenian household, like Black Dog of Fate. Tucked between such books, I came across Gostan Zarian’s The Traveller & His Road, published in Armenian in 1926 and translated by Ara Baliozian in 1981. 

It has a truly wretched cover—forest green ink on a plain beige backdrop—and I would’ve reshelved it had I not read Baliozian’s introduction:

Next we find [Zarian] in Istanbul, which was then the most important cultural center of the Armenian diaspora, where in 1914, together with Daniel Varoujan, Hagop Oshagan, Kegham Parseghian, and a number of others, he founded the literary periodical Mehian. This constellation of young firebrands became known as the Mehian writers, and like their contemporaries in Europe—the French surrealists, Italian futurists, and German expressionists—they defied the establishment fighting against ossified traditions and preparing the way for the new.

Baliozian showed the Armenian diaspora that we had our own voices, our own poetry, our own stories to tell.

Until that moment, the idea that an Armenian literary tradition existed had never crossed my mind. Students of literature have all but memorized the various networks of influence between different writers and artists, but whoever has not achieved sufficient popularity remains the other on the outside. I became very excited at the idea of Zarian’s literary works running alongside the rest of the 20th-century canon. On top of that, he had learned how to wield the language he had forgotten at the age of 25 while living in Europe. I held in my hands an irrefutable testament that the obstacle of one’s diasporic status could be overcome. When I questioned my father why he had held onto this book, he mentioned that he had read the original in school, but he didn’t like Zarian as an author, finding him too hard to follow. That’s an accurate assessment, but it never explained how the translation ended up on his shelf.

After reading The Traveller & His Road, I acquired all of Baliozian’s translations; after exhausting the list, I became a literary translator myself. For myself and many Armenians with literary interests, Baliozian revealed that our own heritage was rich with authors of equal to those we studied and admired in school—and of even greater value to us, because they were originally written in the language we spoke. Armenia is situated right at the crossroads of Western Europe and Russia; its writers have produced works influenced by the very same themes and trends which originated from those regions. Baliozian showed the Armenian diaspora that we had choices beyond Kafka and Camus, Homer and Milton, Shakespeare and Ibsen. We had our own voices, our own poetry, our own stories to tell.

The omission of Armenian literature from global anthologies is no accident. In 1915, the Ottoman Turks systematically arrested and murdered thousands of Armenian community leaders—their own citizens—in a desperate attempt to silence their calls for independence after nearly four hundred years of occupation and abuse. This was an escalation of violence that had started in the late 19th century, only this time, the pashas specifically targeted artists and intellectuals to eradicate any trace of Armenian culture and history. This genocide would not only exterminate the lives of 1.5 million Armenians—close to half the population—but also expel its survivors. Armenians, driven from their homeland, were dispersed all over the world and forced to adapt to the language and customs of their new countries.

The diaspora created by the genocide also exacerbated a preexisting schism in the language. Spoken and written Armenian as used in the country of Armenia is colloquially known as Eastern Armenian, a standard form that developed as Armenians mixed with their neighbors along the country’s eastern border, primarily Russians. Western Armenian is a standard form of Armenian influenced by the myriad of languages which passed through Constantinople. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, what was left of Armenia was wholly absorbed into the Soviet Union, and Eastern Armenian became the de facto standard.

The omission of Armenian literature from global anthologies is no accident.

The Armenians fortunate enough to escape the genocide and emigrate brought the older Western form to their new homes. Although the two languages are mostly communicable, there are enough grammatical and orthographic changes to consider each as distinct from the other. As a consequence of this forced bifurcation, one branch of the language thrives while the other wilts: Eastern Armenian continues to grow, evolving through use as its native speakers live life in Armenia. Meanwhile, most of the Armenian diaspora communicates with the stilted, century-old Western language, which UNESCO identifies as endangered and under threat of extinction. It remains frozen in time; like a remora, it only grows by feeding off its larger hosts, incorporating words from the English and French and Arabic communities where Armenians established their new homes. What Western Armenian holds orthodox, Eastern Armenian maintains as old-fashioned; what Eastern Armenian views as obvious, Western Armenian finds unfamiliar.

Of course, Armenians are not the only dispersed peoples struggling to connect with one another. The challenges of keeping languages alive in diasporic communities exacerbates their original division, as the ability for second- and third-generation diaspora to communicate in their mother tongue is further weakened by assimilation. (That includes me: I was formally educated in Armenian until I was ten years old, but lived most of my life in English. Twenty-five years later I still find myself thumbing through colorful language books aimed at children to recall the most basic grammar.) These pluricentric languages behave like two close siblings who were suddenly placed into separate orphanages. They may share memories of their past, but eventually, they each grow with new experiences in their own way.

The distance between any diaspora and their homeland is measured not in miles, but in years. The longer we move away from the original rupture, the more pertinent it becomes to preserve what existed before the schism.

Baliozian primarily translated Armenian authors who challenged the status quo, a dangerous position for any writer no matter the era or language, and self-sufficiency. He translated authors across both standard forms; more accurately, he believed that there was no need to separate them: great literature is great literature, no matter the language. At one end are the Western Armenian authors of the late 19th century who lambasted their subservient status in the Ottoman Empire; at the other end were the Eastern Armenian authors of the mid-20th century that produced barely-disguised rebukes of Soviet authoritarianism and censorship. Between 1880 and 1960, the world was modernizing and identities were reforming; literature across Europe and America evolved in response to these changes. Poe had all but invented the short story format; Balzac and Chekov were conveying the harsh conditions of real life; Woolf and the Brontë sisters heralded larger feminist movements. These were movements that Armenian writers adopted as well: Krikor Zohrab was so skilled in his craft that he was dubbed “the prince of short stories”; Hagop Oshagan pontificated on humanity’s unfulfilled yearnings; Zabel Yeseyan worked towards the liberation of women. And Baliozian translated them all. 

For the Armenian, a minority within a minority, coming across Baliozian’s works is a reassurance that the Armenian identity is composed of much more than gaudy celebrities and an easy punchline to jokes.

Baliozian often lamented that he was unable to find publishers willing to produce his books. These works can be found scattered online like gold dust, self-published or preserved through the valiant efforts of smaller independent presses and bookshops. For many years, he posted snippets of his translations and literary analyses on his blog, granting him the freedom to pontificate without interruptions. He understood the medium as a way of at least ensuring that the words he cherished were at least tagged, archived, and made permanently available, if not read. For the Armenian, a minority within a minority, coming across Baliozian’s works is a relief, a reminder, a reassurance that your feelings and history are legitimate, that the Armenian identity is composed of much more than gaudy celebrities and an easy punchline to jokes.

Above all else, Ara Baliozian’s dedication was fueled by a frustration with a single truth: that Armenian literature has a universal appeal that no one acknowledges. It is hard not to imagine him agreeing with a line that appears on the first page of The Traveller & his Road: “Every thinking Armenian is like a radio station in the middle of a storm sending messages to distant places and receiving no answer.” Baliozian never gave up hope on the value of Armenian literature. He sought to elevate Armenian writers, only to be ignored by both the literary establishment and the reading public—in life, and in death. The only public proof of his labor is an “unreliable” Armenian social media post, and, of course, his translations.

Hundreds of years of Armenian literature remains untranslated.

Hundreds of years of Armenian literature remains untranslated. As Andreea Scridon, the Assistant Editor at Asymptote, wrote in 2018: “[I]t is something of a surprise that a country with such an ancient literary tradition, dating from 400 B.C., has not had more of its corpus translated into English.” The scarcity of the source texts almost certainly hindered the availability of works appearing in translation. To anyone with the passion, interest, or inclination, the opportunities for translation exist, even if it’s just for yourself. If my admittedly biased opinion does not convince you of the worthwhile endeavor to translate from Armenian, then perhaps Lord Byron might. He studied Armenian for several months, working on his own translations, and noted that it’s “a rich language” which would “amply repay any one the trouble of learning it.” 

With an endorsement from one of England’s greatest poets, there should be nothing left to add. But there remains a problem: even after fifty years of working as a translator, Baliozian did not bring about the revival of Armenian literature he had hoped for. As the months after his death passed, I began to question my own efforts to translate Western Armenian literature for an English-reading audience. What was the point if no one would publish them, let alone read them?

This reflection began shortly after Baliozian’s death, and I should have completed it in 2020. It may have arrived far too late, but it has never been more relevant. While the rest of the world was living through history once, Armenians were living through it twice. Last July, Turkey and Azerbaijan initiated yet another war against Armenia, over a territory that’s been a part of Armenia since the 5th century BCE. All over social media, Azeri users wrote messages denouncing Armenians and our culture. They posted pictures of gruesome beheadings and bombed churches, vowing to eradicate every last one of us. It’s impossible not to draw a parallel between now and 1915, as another genocidal purge is festering, while other countries keep to themselves, distracted this time not by a world war, but Covid-19.

In translation studies, we often ask how to approach a translation. But we rarely ask why we do it at all.

In translation studies, we often ask how to approach a translation: what methodologies we’ll use to take concepts and eloquence from one language and transform them into another. But we rarely ask why we do it at all. The easy answer—the fun answer—is that translators are readers, and readers all belong to the same enthusiastic club. As fiction and poetry continue to be pushed behind other digital distractions, we seek to lure fans to our favorite reads by endlessly advocating on behalf of the stories we discover; too few have ever been accused of binge reading. For our own sake more than anything else, we translate so that we have someone else to share a story with. 

The hard answer is much longer.

There’s an imbalance in the published translations of minority languages versus majority ones. Most publications come from the same set of European languages: Spanish, French, and German, maybe with Russian, Japanese, and Korean thrown in if the publisher considers their imprint “diverse.” On the whole, I understand the decision to limit one’s language sets: publishing is a fragile business, and there are inherent risks in producing works that are different, whether by first-time authors, unknown translators, or “untested” languages. The consequence of this nervousness is the flattening of literature into something unremarkable. Consider, for example, Valeria Luiselli’s irritation that every Latin American writer must now resemble Bolaño or they won’t get published (as expressed in Faces in the Crowd, translated by Christina MacSweeney). The issues at hand with the cultivation of languages to translate are already prevalent in every aspect of cultural power dynamics: who decides what is worth publishing, and are they appreciating or appropriating the work? As readers celebrate the arrival of more world literature, we must ask where the stories are coming from, whether the stories are actually representative of the culture they are being translated from, and whether these stories do more than just reconfirm the existing narratives and opinions already prevalent within the majority language.

Aside from bringing attention to cultures and ideas different to a reader’s own, translation also has the potential to teach readers about their own literary lineage. For members of a diaspora who lack access to their mother tongue, either through its suppression or subsumption, translations into a majority language are oftentimes the only way in which people can access their histories. Storytelling is more than just a form of entertainment: it’s also an unceasing memory.

Storytelling is more than just a form of entertainment: it’s also an unceasing memory.

We, the minority language speakers, must take the serious responsibility of translation into our own hands. Readers don’t just need more Armenian literature, they need many more stories outside of Europe, more stories from and about post-colonial countries, more stories written in languages that are withering away. This is the only real way to ensure that we are being expressed honestly. Through our translations, we are extending compassion to the majority language readers: our labor brings them the wonderful tales that they will otherwise never be privy to. Baliozian understood this, encouraging readers to judge an author’s work “as human beings and not as Armenians.”

Translating literature, in any language, is a never-ending task. And we need more translations from minority languages not because we seek inclusion into cannons and anthologies. We need them to assert our very existence. This practice goes beyond just the neglect of Armenian literature. It’s about blunting the erasure of indigenous peoples all over the world. Majority languages don’t need to worry about their stories being written in disappearing ink—we do. As more translations are made available from minority languages, it brings more validity to all the other languages that are disproportionately represented in so-called world literature. We, the descendants of the displaced, must undertake these acts of remembrance and preservation not only to honor our mothers and fathers and unbroken lineage of survivors. We do so to inspire our brothers and sisters whose stories have been buried by the machinations of conquest. We do not only tell ourselves stories to live; we tell others our stories in order to survive.

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