February 18, 2016


February 6, 2016

On “Blackselves”

Shushan Avagyan

When I was asked to translate a piece for Absinthe and write a short introduction focusing on the mechanics of translation, I proposed to do something else instead: to submit one of my own texts called “Sevamenq” and write a commentary on the text and its translatability, or perhaps a postscript about deficit. The deficit of faithful translations of Armenian literature in English, the deficit of interest in translation in general in the English-speaking parts of the world, and more abstractly, the deficit of originals and the voids of meaning that are filled in with simulacral effects, as in the case of Aurora Mardiganian’s testimony. So I come to this journal both as a writer and translator, more as a writer who has learned how to write by translating other writers.

“Blackselves” was written between 2006-07 as part of a triptych on displacement co-authored with Nancy Agabian, who wrote her part in English, and Lara Aharonian, who wrote hers in French. It is a fragmentary essay, where nearly every sentence references another text. I was probably interested in putting these fragments in new relationships and constructing a certain intertextuality through allusion, quotation, and referencing that would change the trajectories of the various hypotexts and lead to new links—insights. For instance, the epigraph is taken from Aurora Mardiganian’s testimony, which was orally narrated in her native Armenian, interpreted by so-called “native informants” into English, and transcribed in English by American screenwriter Harvey Gates in 1917. Although Gates didn’t know any Armenian, he appears as the interpreter of the Armenian narrative, which exists only in its translated form. The epigraph that appears in “Sevamenq” is not a back translation from the English text, but a new sentence that passes as a statement by Arshaluys Mardiganian (her signed name), standing as a witness to the ruptures and prostheses out of which Ravished Armenia was born.† And this (in)fidelity to fact, then, is the logic in which “Blackselves” operates, threading disconnected bits of my own recollections of childhood, post-Soviet amnesia, Micheline Marcom’s novel The Daydreaming Boy, a drunken conversation in a pub in Illinois with a man named Beyazit, and so on. These seemingly disparate threads evolve through a recurrent question around the notion of menq or “selves”—which might possibly refer to the authors of the triptych—Agabian, Aharonian and myself. The question of “selves” might also refer to a single construct, such as Marcom’s fictional narrator Vahé Tcheubjian, who is composed of multitudes of voices, all contradicting one another. Or it could refer back to the epigraph, where the word “selves” does not occur, but which can be inferred from the self-mention marker “we”: “Through the long night we waited—for what we did not know.”

But linked with the word sev or “black”—the new compound word “blackselves,” and the entire piece, becomes an extended metaphor of Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge.” In the age of “postmemory” (Marianne Hirsch) we are not drinking black milk anymore, we have completely consum(mat)ed  death, we have naturalized and neutralized grief, we no longer feel the compelling tension between “black” and “milk.” The replacement of “milk” with “selves” in Armenian, written as one word—sevamenq—creates yet another association with the word sevamaghdz (սևամաղձ), which means melancholia, literally—black bile. But this wordplay, of course, is not made explicit and not every reader will make these connections, though Celan is cited in the text. Still, if Celan is lost in the continuity of formation and deformation of meanings, the experimental text allows for another wordplay, which is more explicit and which poses a genuine challenge for the translator. The verb sevagrel or “to draft” would have had a very conventional sense in another text, but it compels a new emphasis, a new perception of drafting—literally, black-writing—when positioned against the backdrop of “blackselves.” And the title of the work itself changes in the light of this verb—to draft, in other words, to be involved in the process of (re)writing the different versions of self, a process that requires resilience, elation, and exuberance. But then, herein lies the difficulty of translation—how to choose which meaning(s) to select from a web of references that construct an elaborate hypertext and how to transmit it/them to the reader, so that the reader doesn’t feel completely lost or overwhelmed? After all, from its very beginnings, Armenian literature has attracted perhaps only two or three Anglo-American readers/translators (George Byron or Alice Stone Blackwell don’t count) who have truly appreciated and seriously engaged with the Armenian letters.‡

† Mardiganian’s narrative was a unique testimony of the Armenian genocide, which was adapted for the silent screen—the first of a number of motion pictures made by the Near East Relief about Armenian survivors. After losing her family and being forced into the death marches, during which she was captured and sold into the slave markets of Anatolia, and after escaping to the United States via Norway, Mardiganian was approached by Gates who proposed to make her story into film. The testimony was published in English language first as Ravished Armenia by Kingfield Press in New York in 1918 and as The Auction of Souls in London by Odhams Press in 1919. It was translated into Armenian as Hokineru achurte [The Auction of Souls] by Mardiros Gushagchian and published in Beirut in 1965. 

‡ I am infinitely grateful to Milena Abrahamyan for her radical generosity and trust in what George Steiner has called “as yet untried, unmapped alterity of statement.” I would not have entrusted the translation of “Sevamenq” to anyone else, including myself.

[Forthcoming in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation]