You may want to know that ‘Meds Yeghern’ does not mean genocide;
it means “Great Calamity.” Armenians used that term before the word
‘genocide’ was coined by Raphael Lemkin in the 1940’s.
These explanatory words appeared after President Barack Obama used “Medz Yeghern” in his April 2009 statement: “The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people. … Nothing can bring back those who were lost in the Medz Yeghern.”2 He repeated Medz Yeghern twice or three times—always without translation—in each of his April 24 statements between 2009 and 2012.
In this article, we will discuss the use of the phrase and some of the reactions it triggered in Armenian and Turkish quarters, and in one of the many realms of public debate: Wikipedia.
Barack Obama and Medz Yeghern
Obama had certainly heard the phrase in June 2008, when, as a Senator, he questioned Marie Yovanovitch during the hearings that led to her confirmation as United States ambassador to Armenia. However, we cannot rule out that someone else in his administration or entourage may have inspired its use in his statements.3The source could also have been the apology campaign, which was started in December 2008 by a group of Turkish intellectuals and which had gathered 30,000 signatures by October 2009, etching in stone the equation that we may refer to as Medz Yeghern = Büyük Felâket = Great Catastrophe with the explicit purpose of leaving aside the word “genocide.” The President might have read the echoes of the apology campaign in the American press or the musings of any Armenian who wrote “Medz Yeghern (Great Calamity)” before April 2009.
Armenians immediately condemned the use of a phrase entirely unfamiliar to non-Armenians that, moreover, had been left without translation. Turkish journalists were equally critical, if for different reasons. For instance, Oktay Ekşi wrote in Hürriyet that Obama’s use of Medz Yeghern was worse than “genocide”: “He can turn to the Armenians and defend his statement by saying, ‘You use the term Meds Yeghern for the killings, and I used the same expression as you.’”4 As Doğu Ergil put it, “Mr. Obama has used the term Meds Yeghern to identify with the trauma of the Armenians without offending the Turks. He has proven to be a more astute and sensitive politician than many of his Turkish and Armenian colleagues who have expressed their distaste with this terminology. They wanted either a full accusation and condemnation or a full absolution.”5
Ali Bulaç took a different path. He claimed that Medz Yeghern was “the best word in the Armenian language to describe the events of 1915” and added, “Meds Yeghern is not the exact Armenian term for genocide, but its meaning is very close to genocide. These words come from the old Armenian language, from a time when the concept of genocide was not even known. The best translation of Meds Yeghern is ‘Great Calamity.’”6
Bulaç became a pathfinder: On May 6, 2009, journalist Ben Schott opened an entry in his New York Times blog “Schott’s Vocab” with the purported meaning of Medz Yeghern—“An Armenian term meaning ‘great calamity,’ used to describe the murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915”—and explicitly cited the Turkish columnist’s piece.7
We have found no sign that the Armenian-American media ever challenged either Bulaç’s or Schott’s translations. Instead, it continued to repeat the same translation. Meanwhile, the chorus of disappointment and condemnation followed the next presidential statements, as reflected by Armenian American commentator Harut Sassounian last year:
“Despite-Armenian Americans’ persistent appeals to President Obama to refrain from substituting ‘Meds Yeghern’ (Great Calamity) for Armenian Genocide in his annual April 24 statements, he has continued to do so for three years in a row. Apparently, henchmen of the denialist Turkish regime and their American cohorts have been able to compel the president of the United States to avoid any reference to the ‘genocide’ or ‘tseghasbanoutyoun,’ its Armenian equivalent. Otherwise, why would the president of the United States address the American public in a foreign language known only to a few?”8
Although the translation of Medz Yeghern never appeared in Obama’s messages between 2009 and 2012, most references to his use of the phrase in Western media and books are coupled with the translation “Great Calamity,”9 fueled either by Turkish insistence on it and/or, ironically, its uncritical acceptance by Armenian-Americans. For instance, in 2010 Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu manipulated the untranslated phrase to claim that “Obama’s using [of] the term ‘great calamity’ in his statement is not acceptable.” He added, “If we are going to share grief for humanitarian reasons, then we would expect respect for our own grief as well.”10
Is saying Medz Yeghern blasphemy?
Many Armenians, including some who claim proficiency of the Armenian language, seem unaware of what Medz Yeghern means. It was used by the survivors to name the event that crushed them, as Sassounian has recalled: “Every April 24, they would commemorate the start of the Armenian Genocide by gathering in church halls and offering prayers for the souls of the 1.5 million innocent victims of what was then known as the Meds Yeghern, or Great Calamity.”11
The term has now been degraded to denialist terminology by their descendants and become the ultimate casualty forced by the denier: The victim is compelled to deny his own words, like Peter denying Jesus three times. The irony of Sassounian’s comment is a case in point: “Not surprisingly, in his first April 24 statement, President Obama repeated all the euphemisms and word games for which he had strongly condemned his predecessor, President Bush! Obama used the old and all too familiar denialist terminology of past presidents, such as ‘atrocity,’ ‘massacre,’ ‘terrible events of 1915,’ and most incredibly, ‘Meds Yeghern’ in Armenian for ‘Great Calamity’!”12
Another interesting case is the classification of Medz Yeghern as an imprecise term by Appo Jabarian, the publisher and editor of USA Armenian Life weekly, who blasted the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute of Yerevan, Hayk Demoyan, for its use during a press conference in Los Angeles in March 2012. Jabarian’s column was entitled “Demoyan Commit[ed] Blasphemy to [the] Memory of Armenian Genocide Martyrs and Artsakh.” The contents was remarkably consistent with the hyperbole of the title:
“During his remarks, Mr. Demoyan spoke at length about the Armenian Genocide and other issues without using the proper and legally indispensable term ‘Genocide’ (‘Tseghaspanutyun’). Instead, he carelessly misused the words ‘Meds Yeghern’ (“Great Calamity”) which misrepresent the facts of the Armenian Genocide. … Mr. Demoyan’s careless mischaracterization of [the] Armenian Genocide and of the Armenian identity of the Artsakh Republic amounts to an act of desecration of the memory of martyrs of both the Genocide and the Artsakh liberation war. Mr. Demoyan’s ‘invention’ of duality in the usage of both terms of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Great Calamity’ may not be intentional but it does promote the Turkish denialist propaganda that seeks to weaken the magnitude of premeditated and state-organized genocide to mere ‘Great Calamity.’ … Instead of being gracious about his grave mistakes, Mr. Demoyan resorted to ranting and to patronize his critics at the cost of blaspheming the memory of the martyrs of both the Armenian Genocide and Artsakh Liberation War.”13
It is, or should be, common knowledge that both terms officially reference the same historical episode; for instance, the Haygagan Tseghasbanutian Tankaran-Institut (“Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute”), as it has been called since its founding in 1995, is adjacent to the Medz Yegherni Hushartsan (“Memorial of the Medz Yeghern”), the name of the monument that has stood on the hill of Dzidzernagapert since it was unveiled in 1967.14 The website of the Museum-Institute (www.armenian-genocide.am) describes the Hayots Yegherne (“the Armenian Yeghern”) and translates it as “Armenian Genocide” on the English page, and as “Ermeni Soykırımı” (Armenian Genocide) on the Turkish one.
It is most ironic that Armenian American commentators themselves seem to have unintentionally promoted Turkish denialist propaganda and weakened “the magnitude of premeditated and state-organized genocide” by repeating “Medz Yeghern (Great Calamity)” ad nauseam. They have given fodder to columnists like Suat Kiniklioğlu, who in 2009 made the case for a “common commemoration” of all the victims of the violence that took place during the fall of the Ottoman Empire:
“…I believe it is worth examining whether the term ‘Meds Yeghern’ has the potential to become a mutually acceptable term for both sides to commemorate the events in question,” he wrote. “As is now commonly known, ‘Meds Yeghern’ denotes ‘Great Calamity/Great Disaster’ in the Armenian language. Although I am not in a position to fully comprehend the context in which this term is being used in Armenian, I am willing to venture into the following. I believe the events of World War I constituted a Great Calamity for Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Anatolian Greeks, and probably other peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, it was a great trauma for the Turks, who saw their great empire collapse in front of their own eyes and who saw a multitude of peoples rebel against the state and side with the invading enemies of the time. It was a Great Calamity to the Armenians who had to be relocated during harsh war conditions and subsequently suffered immensely. It was a disaster for them as they left behind their homes and memories, similar to the millions of Turks who were chased out of the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.”15
The argument that the asymmetry of violence precluded the existence of any common “Great Calamity” would likely be met with the following denialist counterargument: “Armenians say that Medz Yeghern means ‘Great Calamity’ and Turks say that Büyük Felâket means ‘Great Calamity.’” Therefore, the logic of denial would conclude that the “Great Calamity” is common to both.
Our survey of nine Armenian-English and English-Armenian dictionaries published between 1922 and 2009 has yielded the following conclusions: (1) All of the dictionaries include translations of yeghern as “crime” or “genocide;” (2) no dictionary shows its translation as “calamity.”16
A bilingual dictionary published in 2010, oddly enough, is the first and only one we have found to contain the equation yeghern = calamity and calamity = yeghern.17 We can think of one possible reason: the relentless repetition of that equation in the Armenian-American press may have misled the author. But, in any case, that dictionary followed—not preceded—the use of the translation.
We are therefore entitled to question and reject categorically the grounds on which English-language newspapers and journalists from the United States to Turkey and beyond, Armenian and non-Armenian alike, have translated Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity” since the beginning of this century.18
The battle over ‘Great Calamity’
We have previously shown that Armenian-Turkish dictionaries do not support the contention that the Turkish translation of Medz Yeghern is Büyük Felâket. Nevertheless, this mistranslation has been cleverly exploited by denialists to blunt the meaning of the Armenian term for the genocide, and thus subtly diminish its meaning from “crime,” a legal term, to “calamity,” a non-legal one.
It is not surprising that a denialist offensive, taking advantage of the repeated Medz Yeghern = Great Calamity translation in English-language sources, has tried to insert that translation in Wikipedia. Interestingly, the translation had only appeared so far in one of the 40 top languages of this online encyclopedia (with more than 100,000 entries): the “Ermeni Kırımı” (Armenian Massacres) entry of the Turkish version contains the Büyük Felâket translation for Medz Yeghern.
It seems to be no mere coincidence that, on April 24, 2012, the name “Great Crime” was deleted from the lead paragraph of the English Wikipedia article “Armenia Genocide” as a translation of Medz Yeghern, and replaced by “Great Calamity.” Two bitterly opposed sides subsequently debated the accurate translation of the term in the “Talk” section of the entry. Meowy, one strident advocate of “Great Calamity,” admonished Diranakir with tirades like the following for his staunch advocacy of “Great Crime” (all emphasis is from the original):
1) The translation “crime” is reputedly trivial and distorting:
“It is not correct to give direct translations where the direct translation alters the essential meaning of the original. Nor is it correct [to] use modern meanings to translate a phrase that was coined almost a century ago. What is required is a translation which communicates the full meaning of the original. Most sources do use ‘calamity’ as the translation, and do not use a pov [point of view] word like ‘crime.’ Personally, I feel it is particularly objectionable to use the ‘great crime’ translation: it is a corruption and distortion of the original meaning. It was a phrase that was used INTERNALLY, WITHIN THE COMMUNITY, by those who survived the genocide as a way of trying to define and describe events which could otherwise not be defined and described. They would not have used a trivial, everyday word like ‘crime’ to define the disaster that fell upon them and I think that it is an insult to their memory to advocate such a usage” (May 4, 2012).
2) There are many supporting sources for “Great Calamity”:
“I am not debating this further because I do not need to: you have presented no legitimate arguments! Dictionaries are not sources, and we are not translating single words but the meaning of a phrase. There are numerous sources for ‘Great Calamity.’ … The ‘Great Calamity’ translation will ALWAYS be returned to this article because it is supported by hundreds of sources” (May 5, 2012).
3) Medz Yeghern is an “almost euphemistic” term:
“It’s rather sad that Diranakir cannot seem to comprehend what deep meaning ‘Medz Yeghern’ actually has. It and the Shoah = Catastrophe example are cases of catastrophic events (man-made or natural) being named by those who survived them using non-specific and almost euphemistic terms (another example would be the 19th-century potato famine in Ireland and Scotland being described as the ‘Great Hunger’ or the ‘Bad Times’ – there are probably many more examples)” (May 7, 2012).
4) Whoever uses “great crime” is just a propagandist:
“Let me say that, personally, I think your aims are obnoxious. You (and those whose works you cite [sic]) are propagandists who seek to exploit for their vain and selfish reasons the deaths of some two million people—and are so shameless that you try to alter even the wording the survivors used to define the disaster that fell upon them. Just because some Armenian nationalists have, over the last few years (no source you have cited is older than 2009), been engaged in producing their ‘Great Crime’ propaganda campaign does not mean that this very recently coined distorted meaning can enter the article (any more that the words ‘so-called’ can enter it because some Turkish nationalists use that wording)” (May 25, 2012).
As it often happens in similar cases, no references were cited to ground these arguments in fact. However, one non-Turkish source, Sassounian’s “Why Does Pres. Obama Torture Himself and Armenians Every April 24?,” published on May 3, 2012, was immediately used as a footnote to the spurious translation “Great Calamity”: “When they ran out of substitute English words for genocide, the president’s hardworking wordsmiths turned to an Armenian term, ‘Meds Yeghern,’ without providing its English translation (Great Calamity), so no one other than Armenians would understand what Pres. Obama is speaking about!”19 We may well wonder how one individual’s unsupported “translation” can be accepted as more authoritative than a dictionary.
On June 26, 2012, “Great Calamity” and its footnote were deleted and replaced with “Great Crime,” now backed by two dictionary citations (it was previously supported by a 2011 citation from the Armenian Reporter). After a two-month ceasefire, Meowy made several attempts (Aug. 17-22) to revert to what s/he claimed, in the “History” section of the article, to be the “original, reasonably well-crafted introduction that had been mangled and propagandised.” The argument was: “‘Great Calamity’ must remain as a translation for Medz Yeghern because it exists in a cited source. Is there something about that fact you do not understand? Stop deleting properly referenced content! You have been warned repeatedly about this in the edit summaries” (Aug. 22, 2012). The fourth attempt was successful: Between Aug. 26 and Oct. 1, the Wikipedia entry stated that Medz Yeghern is “usually translated as the Great Calamity or Great Crime,” with Sassounian’s article again in place as support for the translation “Great Calamity” and the Armenian Reporter article for “Great Crime.” This attempt was repealed on Oct. 1, when the status quo of June 26 was restored and “Great Calamity” disappeared from the text. The situation remains unchanged at the time of publication of this article, but denial may always try another comeback.
It is pertinent to quote another supposed justification for the inclusion of “Great Calamity” in Wikipedia: “Also, ‘Great Calamity’ needs to remain as the primary translation because, as was carefully explained to you many months ago, Google search results suggest that usage of ‘Great Calamity’ is almost four times more common than ‘Great Crime’ (and about 15% of all ‘Great Crime’ usage is in the context of an argument about whether ‘Great Crime’ should be use[d] instead of ‘Great Calamity’)” (Aug. 22, 2012). A good portion of those inflated results is unfortunately the product of ignorance of the Armenian language on the part of Armenian speakers who transmit their defective understanding to their peers, speakers, and non-speakers of Armenian alike, thereby unabashedly making themselves and those they influence readily available for the exploitation of denialists. Such is the case of scholar Lou-Ann Matossian, who misguidedly declared in 2009: “Meds Yeghern is an Armenian phrase, which translates as ‘great calamity.’ A tornado is a ‘great calamity.’ A genocide is a crime. The concept of crime implies the concept of justice. ‘Genocide’ has a meaning in international law. ‘Calamity’ (yeghern) has none.”20
It is time to save the term from the entrapments of denialist terminology and the misrepresentation of facts put forward by well-intentioned but ill-advised Armenian wordsmiths. The only responsible way to scale the rugged walls of the language is to enter its long history and to find there the answers to the following questions: Does yeghern indeed mean “calamity”? Is it the case that it has no legal meaning?
1 The Huffington Post, April 28, 2009.
2 See www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Statement-of-President-Barack-Obama-on-Armenian-Remembrance-Day.
3 Armenian American commentator Edmond Y. Azadian has suggested that Samantha Power, who was already in the staff of the National Security Council, “most probably had crafted the president’s speech” using the precedent “created by Pope John Paul II” (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, June 13, 2009).
4 Today’s Zaman, April 27, 2009.
5 Today’s Zaman, May 3, 2009.
6 Today’s Zaman, April 28, 2009.
7 See http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2009-05-06/meds-yeghern.
8 The Armenian Weekly, April 28, 2011.
9 See, for instance, Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 58.
10 See www.trt.net.tr/international/newsDetail.aspx?HaberKodu=8b48406f-3e7b-44da-b8e6-8ad7d463c14a.
11 Harut Sassounian, “Genocide Recognition and Quest for Justice,” The Armenian Weekly/Hairenik Weekly, April 2011 magazine, p. 37.
12 The Huffington Post, December 8, 2009.
13 USA Armenian Life, March 26, 2012.
4 “Metz Yegherni Hushardzan” (Memorial of the Metz Yeghern), Haykakan Hamarot Hanragitaran (Armenian Abridged Encyclopedia), vol. III, Yerevan: Armenian Encyclopedia, 1999, p. 666.
15 Today’s Zaman, April 27, 2009.
16 H. H. Chakmakjian, A Comprehensive English-Armenian Dictionary, Boston: E. A. Yeran, 1922, p. 200, 350; Adour Yacoubian, English–Armenian and Armenian-English Dictionary Romanized, Los Angeles: Armenian Archives Press, 1944, p. 15, 21, 90, 170; Mesrob G. Kouyoumdjian, A Comprehensive Dictionary English-Armenian, Cairo: Sahag-Mesrob Press, 1961, p. 185, 312; Idem, A Comprehensive Dictionary Armenian-English, Beirut: Atlas Press, 1970, p. 11, 168; Mardiros Koushakdjian and Rev. Dicran Khantrouni, English-Armenian Modern Dictionary, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1970, p. 135, 201; Idem, Armenian-English Modern Dictionary, Beirut: G. Doniguian and Sons, 1970, 7, 94; Thomas Samuelian, Armenian Dictionary in Transliteration, New York: Armenian National Education Committee, 1993, 7, 16, 69, 127; Nicholas Awde and Vazken-Khatchig Davidian, Western Armenian Dictionary and Phrasebook, New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006, p. 29, 58; Sona Seferian et al., English-Armenian, Armenian English Dictionary, Yerevan: Areg, 2009, p. 60, 83, 385, 456.
17 Gilda Buchakjian, Armenian English Practical Heritage Dictionary, New York: St. Vartan Press, 2010, p. 24, 108.
18 For a study of the semantic field of the word yeghern and the grounds to translate it as “crime,” see Seda Gasparyan, “Yeghern bari hamarzhekutian dashte anglerenum” (The Field of Equivalence of the word yeghern in English), Vem, 1, 2010, p. 125-135 (an English translation is available in http://www.armin.am/images/menus/496/GASPARYAN-Eng..pdf)
19 California Courier, May 3, 2012.
20 Eric Black, “President Obama breaks a promise to call the Armenian genocide a genocide,” MinnPost, April 26, 2009 (www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2009/04/president-obama-breaks-promise-call-armenian-genocide-genocide).