Armenian Literature: A History, A Future in Translation

It is something of a surprise that a country with such an ancient literary tradition has not had more of its corpus translated into English.

Armenia is a small country with an enormous diaspora and a rich literary tradition—so why hasn’t more Armenian literature been translated into English? Today, Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon takes us on a tour of Armenian literary translation, introducing us to influential writers, both ancient and contemporary, who have yet to appear in English.

Many people in the English-speaking world, upon hearing of Armenia, naturally tend to think of the Armenian Genocide. While the recognition of a national tragedy beyond its borders is central to acts of both justice and healing, this notoriety can serve as a double-edged sword for a country’s culture. On the one hand, healing implies a significant act of transcendence, and so cross-border translation of Armenian literature has been important in the past for victims of the Genocide and presumably remains important for the Diaspora today. On the other hand, the works by (and about) Armenians that have received the most exposure have been those written in other languages, outside of Armenia. Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (originally published in German in 1933) is the most notable example of this kind, creating a ripple effect immediately after the dramatic effects took place and raising awareness for the Armenian plight tremendously; decades later, Varujan Vosganian’s The Book of Whispers (first published in Romania in 2009) was longlisted for last year’s PEN America Award. Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook (originally written in Russian), along with two English-language books, Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls (Doubleday, 2012), and Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (Viking Press, 2006) have enjoyed great success and are examples of the many texts that make up a sort of canon on the subject. But although the topic of the Armenian Genocide remains relevant and important, the fact that none of the best-known books on the topic were written in the Armenian language point to a lacuna that continues to present a question mark today. What’s more, though the Genocide is a central point in Armenian history, we still don’t publish enough Armenian literature in translation. Let us take a trip through this part of the world, then, and explore its literary history.

Like that of many predominantly Christian countries, Armenia’s early literary history was directly tied up with its ecclesiastical history. Armenia’s patron saint, Gregory of Narek, was a lyrical poet. His principal work is The Book of Lamentations, a mystical confessional poem. The work has been translated into English, Russian, French, and Farsi. There are three English translations of the book, the first of which appeared only in 1977; if we compare Gregory of Narek to St. Augustine, the fact that the former was not translated until recently seems odd, though perhaps it can be attributed to the variegation of religions conglomerated around the Armenian Basin, as opposed to the Christian hegemony of Europe at a similar moment in time. Gregory of Narek’s near-contemporary, Prince Grigor Magistros, was also involved in literary translation: himself a translator of Plato, he amassed his day’s Armenian manuscripts and translations of the Ancient Greeks.

Yet Armenia translation history can be traced even further back: the country’s fifth-century Patriarch Isaac organized a school of translators who disseminated texts in strategic areas of the Greek and Syriac worlds. This contributed to a flowering exchange of religious texts in dialogue with the European tradition, leading the fifth century to be known as the Golden Age of Armenian Literature. By the Middle Ages, the Arab conquest had also shaped Armenian literature, and in the sixteenth century, Persian invasion brought with it the printing press. Soon, Armenian printing shops were established in Venice, Rome, Lemberg, Milan, and Paris. (you can read about the vestiges of this world here).

In the modern era, the Armenian literary scene was partially influenced by the European humanist tradition. One translator of note during this time was Hovhannes Masehyan, a diplomat who translated Byron’s and Shakespeare’s work into Armenian. His translations were well received and quite popular. Shakespeare has been translated repeatedly into Armenian, one example of Armenia’s interest in Western literature. Likewise, Vahan Malezian, a notable writer himself, translated Victor Hugo and Henri Barbusse. This connection between the Armenian literary scene and the European humanist tradition arose, in many cases, from the simple fact that trade and consequential prosperity contributed to the dissemination of ideas.

Nineteenth-century literature was dominated by the Revivalist Period, similar to the Romantic movement taking hold of Europe at the same time, with national emancipation leading to the production of literature in both the Eastern and Western Armenian variants. This break would lead to an intellectual Armenian hub in Istanbul writing in Western Armenian and a Moscow group writing in Eastern Armenian, both of which persist today and are all the more reason for Armenian literature to be translated. Some names to remember from this period include Khachatur Abovian, the author of the first novel published in Eastern Armenian (as opposed to Classical Armenian), and Mikael Nalbandian, whose poems have served as national Armenian anthems. With the ushering-in of the twentieth century, Realism became the overarching literary movement, though Soviet censorship impoverished this period’s output. The atmosphere grew more relaxed as the century progressed, and writers like Henrik Edoyan and Artem Harutyunyan began experimenting with trends of Modernism and the Avant-garde. Like previous migrations and invasions, the Soviet Occupation left its mark on Armenian literature: one writer who explored this subject is Hrant Matevosyan, who wrote extensively on the topic of domination.

On the other hand, the problem of national emancipation provided a context for women to branch out socially, politically, and culturally. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Shushanik Kurghinian and Zabel Yesayan were two female writers profoundly concerned with representing the Armenian cause both in poetry and in journalism. In the twentieth century, Silva Kaputikyan, known as the leading poetess of her day, was deeply preoccupied with contemporary Armenian issues, while poet Diana Der Hovanessian, a student of Robert Lowell, promoted Armenian literature in translation in the United States. Armenian women writers continue to make an impact on the global literary scene today: Mariam Petrosyan is a bestselling novelist in Russian, while Marine Petrossian has published novels in French and translates her own poetry into English.

Like writers all around the world, contemporary Armenian writers have varied vantage points, thanks in part to the access to media and information that we all benefit from today. However, it seems that contemporary Armenian literature is as preoccupied with ideas of identity and national trauma as ever, though the publications of this type that have had the biggest international impact have been mostly produced by the diaspora, while contemporary writers living in Armenia seem, understandably, more concerned with portraying the current state of the republic. Examples of contemporary writers, both in Armenia and abroad, who are tackling current Armenian issues are Vahram Sahakyan, Vahe Avetian, and Armen Melikian. Some notable contemporary Armenian writers who are partially available in translation include Krikor Beledian, Jean-Chat (Hovhannes) Tekgyozyan, Aram Pachyan, and Armen of Armenia, to name a few.

The current state of Armenian literature, then, can be traced back to a history of amorphous geopolitical sovereignty bolstered by a strong literary tradition. Indeed, the fluid borders formed by invasions, migration, and instability seem to have created a place of honor for writers in the nation’s cultural memory. Overall, Armenian literature is varied in style and scope, and many Armenian writers tend to write in multiple languages. But it 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. Initiatives have been undertaken by various outlets: those interested will find that the Hamazkayin Armenian Educational and Cultural Society and its journal, Pakin, as well as the Granish Literary Foundation, are quite active in literary promotion; Armenia has been honorably represented at the Frankurt and London Book Fairs. However, if you make a point of seeking it out, you’ll see that Armenian literature in translation is quite rare in the international literary scene in comparison to the output of other countries. Here at Asymptote, we’ve made an effort to amplify Armenian literature (read an extract here), but there is still more work to be done, both within the confines of our space and outside it. The unique situation of a country like Armenia, with a small internal population and an immense diaspora, makes the translation of its literature as important now as it ever was.

Andreea Scridon is an Oxford-based poet, fiction writer, and translator of Romanian to English. She has been Assistant Editor at Asymptote since July 2018. You can read her work here.


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