December 3, 2012

Reimagining in English: Armenian Literature in Translationese

By Shushan Avagyan

One of the earliest translations of Armenian literature into English appeared in the Journal of American Folklore in 1893, where folklorist A. G. Seklemian introduced American scholars to his translation of the Armenian fairy tale “The Youngest of the Three.” Another tale, “The Wicked Stepmother,” was translated and published in the same journal in 1897. The following year Seklemian published an anthology, The Golden Maiden and Other Folk Tales and Fairy Stories Told in Armenia, which was introduced by Alice Stone Blackwell who had collaborated with Ohannes Chatschumian and Bedros Keljik, among others, on the translation of Armenian poetry. The Golden Maiden included twenty-eight tales and a tragic ballad about two young lovers, “Sia-Manto and Guje-Zare,” which was versified by Blackwell. Blackwell’s introduction to The Golden Maiden was set against the backdrop of the Hamidian massacres of 1894-96, as was her own anthology of Armenian Poems (1896), and aimed to draw attention to the plight of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. In this context it is not surprising to read an introduction that says nothing about the literary merit of the tales, but rather offers an ethnographic summary of the Armenians as a “race.” The introduction traces the origins and history of Armenians, testifying that “they are of Aryan race, and of pure Caucasian blood,” and cites various travelers who “have been struck by the ability of the Armenians, and by the marked difference between them and other Oriental races” (xi). Blackwell quotes English explorer Isabella Bird Bishop who wrote, “It is not possible to deny that they are the most capable, energetic, enterprising and pushing [sic] race in Western Asia, physically superior and intellectually acute; and above all they are a race which can be raised in all respects to our own level” (xii). Such racializing descriptions not only rendered Armenians as inferior to Anglo-Europeans, but also indoctrinated irreconcilable differences between Armenians and other ethnicities of the Near East. In addition, it doomed the mixing between “superior” and “inferior” races, as is “evident” from the tragic union between the Armenian youth Sia-Manto and the Kurdish maiden Guje-Zare, which is strategically placed at the end of the anthology. An interrogative reader, however, might read against this translation that painstakingly portrays the Armenians as “a pure race,” as Seklemian’s preface underscores the hybridity of Armenian culture as evinced in the folk tales:
Although all the tales contained in this volume are taken directly from the lips of the Armenians, it will be noticed that some of them bear traces of Persian, Arabic and Turkish influence. This, of course, was naturally to be expected, as the Armenians have been ruled successively by these nations. (xviii)
Despite Seklemian’s recognition of “foreign” influences, Blackwell’s construction of the purity, as well as physical and intellectual superiority of Armenians, was a strategy for mediating the trauma befalling them, one that aimed to persuade the targeted American audience to become involved in relief efforts for the victims of the Hamidian massacres who, being “the Anglo-Saxons of Eastern Turkey,” were “like us” (xi). This strategy functioned as part of what Jeffrey C. Alexander calls “a complex and multivalent symbolic process” meant to convince an audience that it too had become traumatized by the experience (12). However, Blackwell’s assimilative reading of Armenians and their fairy tales muted the complex cross-ethnic relationships of the source culture at the same time that it set up an ethnocentric hierarchy that ensured the dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture over others. These strategic gestures, as I will argue in the following pages, not only reveal the domestic interests vested in Armenian-English translation projects at the turn of the century, but also helped popularize the Armenian cause through literature in the unique context of ethnic and cultural annihilation.
A wave of renewed interest in Armenian literature grew during the crisis of World War I and more translation projects were initiated or commissioned by individuals and groups who were involved in the organization of humanitarian relief. The anthology Armenian Legends and Poems (1916) was one such project in which the selection of works was motivated by topical proximity to the genocide and the tradition of lamentation and elegy. The translator of the anthology, British-Armenian poet Zabelle C. Boyajian wrote in the preface: “In preparing this book of Armenian legends and poems my principal object was to publish it as a Memorial to an unhappy nation. The book does not claim to represent Armenian poetry adequately. Many gifted and well-known authors have been omitted, partly from considerations of space, and partly because of the scope of the work” (ix). In his introduction to the anthology, Viscount James Bryce, who was simultaneously involved in preparing a record of eyewitness accounts of the genocide, further constructed a cultural rationale for humanitarian involvement:
Few among us have acquired their language, one of the most ancient forms of human speech that possess a literature. Still fewer have studied their art or read their poetry even in translations. There is, therefore, an ample field for a book which shall present to those Englishmen and Frenchmen, whose interest in Armenia has been awakened by the sufferings to which its love of freedom and its loyalty to its Christian faith have exposed it, some account of Armenian art and Armenian poetical literature.
If Boyajian cast her translations as a mode of commemoration, Bryce used the occasion to draw in a select group of Europeans who were already familiar with the Armenian people through the crisis in the Ottoman Empire. In other words, the collection was not presented as a literary endeavor, nor was it marketed to a literary or a scholarly community, but rather promoted through the frame of the genocide. The cursory survey of literature included hastily and indiscriminately arranged Armenian folk songs, medieval legends, and poems ranging from fifth- to early twentieth-century poets, as well as works about Armenia, such as the fourteenth-century English poet John Gower’s “The Tale of Rosiphelee,” with scant historical and cultural contextualization, which undermined the serious study of this body of literature. Blackwell’s second volume of Armenian Poems came out the following year, in 1917, with an expanded list of works including contemporary socialist poets Shushanik Kurghinian and Hovhannes Hovhannesian.
That same year, the daughter of an American missionary, Jane S. Wingate, who had grown up in Marsovan in Ottoman Turkey, translated Armenian novelist Raffi’s The Fool, further building on this body of literature that was being framed through the unique context of the genocide.[1] Wingate grew up in a community of Protestant Armenians, where she studied Armenian and translated in order to improve her knowledge of the language. She devoted herself to the study of ancient and modern Armenian literatures, and commenced translating folktales, which she sent to the Folklore Society of England, of which she was a member. Several of these translations were published in a Boston-based journal Armenia in 1910, while others appeared in the British Folklore Society’s journal Folklore in 1911 and 1912. However her most widely read and popular work was the translation of Raffi’s The Fool (1917). Originally published in 1881, this short novel on the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78 depicted the pogroms against the Armenians in Bayazet and their struggle against Ottoman oppression. Wingate may have selected this novel for translation because it portrayed scenes of atrocity in Armenian villages similar to what she was witnessing during World War I. She may also have seen it as an important text for understanding the historical context of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Not only did The Fool show a long and continuous history of a state-endorsed program of ethnic cleansing that preceded the genocide, but it also unleashed a scathing critique of the state of the Armenian Church and its clergy, and implicitly defended Protestantism. In this sense, the selection and translation of the text served as persuasive evidence for the necessity of American missionary involvement in rescuing Armenians from both the corruption of their own church and annihilation by Muslims.
Wingate’s English version of the novel, however, included a variety of disparities that change critical scenes and “regulate” cultural, ideological, and political realities that were intentionally constructed as contradictory in the original. For example, the name of one of the characters Ստեփանիկ (Stepanik) or “little Stepan”—a male name—becomes “Stephanie” in Wingate’s translation. While Wingate follows Raffi’s description of this character as an Armenian villager’s “youngest son” who resembled “Joseph, the beloved,” she nonetheless hints at a discrepancy by choosing a feminine name: “The youngest son of Khacho was unmarried, being a lad of sixteen, who was called Stephanie [sic]” (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 5). As a result, a crucial revelation in the novel is completely lost due to this free translation, for the character initially presented as the young man Stepanik, turns out, toward the middle of the novel, to be a young woman named Lala. The English translation thus erased the character’s gender ambiguity, and diminished both the tension of the situation she found herself in and the impact of the exposure. Cross-dressing was not unusual in Ottoman Armenian households; Armenian girls were occasionally disguised as boys in order not to attract the attention of Turkish gendarmes, Kurdish tribesmen, or Circassian militiamen, who used systematic rape and forced impregnation as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Later on, during World War I, this form of resistance was adopted by many Armenian women who applied strategies like cutting their own hair, rubbing coal or dirt on their faces, and wearing ragged clothing to appear unattractive, to avoid sexual violence or “a fate worse than dying”—sexual enslavement (Bjørnlund 25).[2] In his construction of one such act of resistance, Raffi paid particular attention to his portrayal of the cross-dressed Lala, carefully dressing her up in masculine traits and passing her off as a handsome young man. Betraying her gender, in the context of the novel, literally meant risking her life and exposing her to a danger to which her older sister, Sona, had fallen victim:
Sona’s death left her father so oppressed with grief that he had a foreboding that his other daughter would suffer the same fate. His anxiety was not without grounds, especially in his country, where he had known of many and many a young girl carried off by Turks or Kurds. Consequently he wished to have Lala grow up as a boy till she became of age. . . . The secret had been kept most scrupulously. Outside the family only three persons knew the fact: the village priest, and the godfather and godmother who were no longer living. (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 13)
In this passage and the following chapter, where Raffi further explores the predicament of the character as a cross-dressed woman, he stresses the “unnaturalness” of her condition through the main hero, Vartan, thus drawing attention to the normalizing gaze:
Vartan had long known that Stephanie [sic] was a girl. He surmised, also, the reasons why her parents had been obliged to dress her as a boy, and to have her grow up as a boy. It was these circumstances that had attracted the attention of the young man to the unfortunate girl, and filled him with a heroic desire to rescue her from her unnatural condition. (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 14)
The revelation that “Stephanie” is “a girl” in Wingate’s translation comes as no surprise and doesn’t draw attention to the “unnatural condition,” which Raffi tries to problematize in the original novel. Wingate’s strategy to give Lala a female pseudonym, Stephanie, expunges the strangeness of the circumstances in which many Armenian girls and women found themselves and neutralizes the novel’s turning point, which is marked by the gender revelation. Driven perhaps by a discomfort of having to deal with a cross-dressed woman or possibly trying to spare her audience the “gender trouble” caused by Raffi’s destabilization of assumptions about gender identity, Wingate’s domestication constructed a heteronormative anticipation of what Judith Butler calls a “gendered essence” (xv).[3]
Other discursive choices made by Wingate further misconstrue the Armenian text and its critique of parochial values and mores that, according to Raffi, were widespread especially in Armenian villages under strict Ottoman rule. For example, the original text employs a profusion of proverbs (such as “If you can’t cut the hand of a villain, you must kiss it”) that perform the submission of Ottoman subjects to the duplicitous policies of the government.[4] As the central character, Vartan, explains, “To talk with these people you must know hundreds of proverbs and anecdotes” (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 17). Raffi strategically places three proverbs as epigraphs to the novel, which in their own way parody and negate the proverbial or metaphorical language of “the wise.” The first two proverbs construct “the fool” as a troublemaker and a shrewd trickster: “The fool rolled a stone into the pit; a hundred wise men came to the rescue but could not draw it out” andWhile the wise man ponders, the fool crosses the river” (my translation). And the last proverb “Խենթիցուղիղ պատասխան (“The fool will always give a straight answer,” my translation) directly refers to Vartan’s discourse, or the discourse of “the fool” as he is nicknamed in the novel, and is juxtaposed to the proverbial language of the Turkish authorities and the Armenian subjects who mechanically reproduce the language through which they are oppressed. While Wingate faithfully translates the first two epigraphs, she reverses the meaning of the last one, rendering it as “The replies of a fool become the proverbs of the people,” allowing for a slippage of the differentiation between “the language of the fool”—straightforwardness, frankness, literality—and other discourses. It further undermines Raffi’s ironic overuse of proverbs, enlisted in the text to reveal the language of imprecise utterances and vague promises by authorities to reform the social conditions of Armenians living as colonial subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
In other instances, Wingate’s choices can be described at best as arbitrarily unfaithful to the source material, as “մարդկային մարմիններ” (“human bodies”) becomes “putrid bodies”; “պառավ տատը (“old grandmother”) becomes “old granddad”; “լարախաղացի օգնական” (“tightrope walker’s assistant”) becomes “a clown or a juggler’s assistant”; “անձնապաշտպանություն” (“self-defense”) becomes “self-preservation”; “Նա իր զավակին հանձնեց ֆրերների միաբանությանը, իսկ ինքը անհետացավ (“He left his son to a brotherhood of Frères and disappeared”) becomes “He committed his son to a brotherhood of Frères, but he himself became an infidel”; “Եթե հավաքելու լինենք վերջին 20-30-50 տարիների ընթացքում կատարված փաստերը” (“If we look at the facts from the past twenty, thirty, or fifty years”) becomes “If we collect together the proofs of this during the past thirty-five years,” and so on. Other infidelities to the original appear to be motivated by an anti-socialist sentiment, as Wingate omits large sections of the novel on the socialist revolutionary Levon Salman, who is characterized by Vartan as “a skilled guide in life,” and who, “apart from being an intellectual, is a very kind and honest man.”[5] Finally, some of Salman’s progressive feminist ideas, which are both original and far ahead of his time, are attributed to Vartan, the eponymous hero of the novel, who in the original seems less interested in women’s emancipation:
“It is necessary to draw on their strength which is confined within their four walls, then we shall surely succeed,” Salman often said.
“It is early yet,” replied Vartan, “they need preparation first. [The following words belong to Salman in the original.] No reform in the life of a people is possible without the assistance of women. If our people have remained static the principal reason for it is because women have had no share in public affairs. The strength, the energizing force which has lain abortive within their four walls has yielded no results.” (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 23)
Although this passage is inconsistent with Vartan’s view on women’s rights and appears contradictory to his character, Wingate may have wanted to construct Vartan as more progressive than he appears in the original novel to make him more sophisticated for the target-language audience. Despite these inconsistencies, Wingate faithfully translates what is perhaps to her the most important message of this text (ironically, pronounced by the socialist Salman)—the uncanny continuity of the government-endorsed plan of annihilation in the late nineteenth century and of the genocide of World War I:
“We looked at the disorder, corruption and barbarity practiced, but we did not see the hellish machinery hidden beneath all this. We saw oppression, murder, forcible change of religion, all the wickedness committed by neighboring tribes. We considered all that as temporary and accidental and did not know that these irregularities were secretly encouraged and fomented by men of high degree. We blamed the government, considering it simply weak and unable to control its lawless subjects. We did not know that government officials themselves excited these barbarians against the Armenians, in order to destroy the Christian element. . . . Here the principal nationality that threatens the partition of that portion of the empire, is the Armenian. Therefore, in order to stop the noise of the European Governments [Turkey] must show them that no Armenians remain in Armenia.” (Wingate’s translation, Ch. 21)
In her attempt to alert the English-speaking world of the crimes that she was witnessing in modern-day Turkey, Wingate turned to Raffi to show the continuous mechanism of ethnic cleansing that neither started nor ended with what is now known as the Armenian genocide. By producing a translation rather than a text of her own, Wingate was invoking the authority of Raffi’s text and inherently drawing attention to Armenian literature, along with Seklemian, Blackwell, Boyajian, Bryce, and others, through the frame of the massacres and the genocide. Translations from Armenian at the turn of the century, then, unavoidably bore the mark of these historical events and, consequently, studying this body of literature entails developing a critical lens for reading against the domesticating effects, locating the discontinuities that expose the translation as being a rewriting of the foreign text, and reconsidering dominant perceptions in the target-language culture.
Translation, as André Lefevere argues, implies authority, legitimacy and, ultimately, power, and nations have always sought translators they could entrust with a faithful reproduction of their own values, ideologies, and traditions, which often means that trust in the translator has been more important than fidelity to the original (2-3). To Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, this meant that translators should only translate from a foreign language into their own, as anything else would be “an act that runs counter to both nature and morality” and would mean “to become a deserter to one’s own mother tongue and to give oneself to another” (qtd. in Lefevere, Translation/History/Culture 5). From this perspective, where one is expected to remain faithful to his or her native language and cultural ideologies, it would seem impossible to remain at the same time faithful to a foreign text if its values and ideologies do not coincide with those in the translator’s native culture. One would always be, if not consciously, then, unconsciously, domesticating a foreign text, which is evident, as I have argued, in Wingate’s translation of Raffi’s The Fool, where the translator remains faithful only to those elements that are not contrary to her own situated knowledge, ideology, and values. By “naturalizing” the gender ambiguities, for example, or by eliminating the socialist elements, Wingate created a fluent account that would comfortably fit into the dominant conceptions of heteronormativity and capitalism in the United States. Notions of fidelity, then, are always in constant flux and invoke different answers, depending on cultural dictates and the politics of the translator, to Jakobson’s famous questions: “Translator of what messages? Betrayer of what values?” (118).

[1] Raffi is the pen name of the Eastern Armenian novelist Hakob Melik Hakobian (1835-1888).
[2] On gender-specific violence during the Armenian massacres and genocide, see Bjørnlund; Dadrian; Katharine Derderian; Watenpaugh.
[3] In Gender Trouble, Butler analyzes how heteronormative expectations and regulations concerning gender produce distinct “essences” that men and women are expected to reproduce through certain bodily acts of naturalized gestures.
[4] My translation, Ch. 17.
[5] My translation, from an omitted section in Ch. 19.


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December 2, 2012

At the symposium TRANSLATOR / BETRAYER

photos by tatia skhirtladze