On Western Armenian and Translating: A Conversation with Christopher Atamian

 

The cover of Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France

Author and literary critic Krikor Beledian’s Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France, translated from the original French into English by Christopher Atamian, is a groundbreaking study of the Armenian literary scene in the important Armenian Diaspora community of France.

The book examines Armenian literature as it emerged in France between 1922 and the early 1970s, and retraces the literary history of the period, starting with Armenian immigration until the passing away of the movement’s main representatives. It also examines the most significant works published in that period, studying the issues raised by a literature of exile, born after an event that was experienced and interpreted as a “national catastrophe.”

Beledian has lived in Paris since 1967 and has become intimately aware of the Armenian literary scene in France. He is an accomplished writer in his own right, as well as prolific critic. Through this book, he has produced comprehensive and fascinating view of the Armenian literary landscape in France, one that will be of lasting significance to the study of Armenian literature.

Atamian’s translation of Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France comes out at a time when a small but important number of works in translation are shedding light on literature previously unavailable in English.

The Armenian Weekly recently sat down with Atamian to discuss this latest publication.

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The Armenian Weekly: Why translate Beledian’s book Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France, and why now?

Christopher Atamian: First of all, Beledian is an important thinker, and the work deserves to be read as such. His book makes an important argument about Armenian culture, Armenian thinkers, and about the Armenian experience post-1915.

Secondly, it’s been 45 years since the last major writer of the Menk generation, Nigoghos Sarafian, passed away, in 1972, and over 100 years since the genocide, or Medz Yeghern. It’s about time that we took what our most serious thinkers had to say seriously and make their words and works available in English.

 

A.W.: Language is an important issue…

C.A.: Yes. Western Armenian, which the Menk generation wrote in, is now on the UNESCO endangered languages list, and some scholars no longer even learn French—the original language that Beledian wrote his book in. So, having this available in English—for both Armenian and non-Armenian readers and scholars—was important.

We need to teach Western Armenian on a more serious global level, and we need to translate more. This is part of a general need to strengthen our cultural politics across the board and build viable institutions in the diaspora—museums, cultural centers—which to date we have not done, I am sad to say.

Christopher Atamian

A.W.: What was the Menk generation, and why were they important?

C.A.: They were all immigrants who fled Turkey and settled in Paris and Marseille. Some were well off, but most were dirt poor and struggled to write. This group of some 50 writers included Zareh Vorpuni, Arshag Chobanian, Minas Cheraz, Shavarsh Missakian, Mguerditch Barsamian, Shavarsh Nartuni, Hratch Zartarian, Zabelle Yessayan, Nigoghos Sarafian, as well as the poet-revolutionary Missak Manouchian. They wrote novels, poetry, philosophical treatises, plays—you name it—in Western Armenian for other writers of Western Armenian.

 

A.W.: That is remarkable.

C.A.: Yes. It means that they knew from the beginning that they were writing for a very limited audience. They chose to write in a language that meant that they would never be famous, rather than write in French, the language of their adopted country.

 

Pages from Fred Africkian’s The Art of Letter Type (Armenian Decorative Letterforms), 1984

A.W.: What are some of the themes in their work?

C.A.: There are many. Assimilation is an obvious one. The figure of the stranger, of the foreigner, is another. Women play an important role, though they oscillate between classic mother-whore figures. There was also a lively debate around Soviet and Diasporan Armenian life (which tended to fall along party lines)—and the very notion of “Armenian-ness” and what that might and might not mean.

 

A.W.: And Beledian’s themes?

C.A.: Beledian’s great contribution—apart from his monumental work of documentation and analysis—is to note that these writers in a sense had to come to the West to discover themselves and measure themselves up—artistically, personally—to their Western counterparts (Baudelaire, Mallarme, Cendrars, et al—all these cutting edge writers and many more were read, digested and integrated into their work) and then refract or reflect themselves back if you will and create their own identity—something they could not do for many reasons as Ottoman subjects before.

Krikor Beledian

A.W.: Any other comments?

C.A.: Yes. Some of the works, such as Ship on the Mountain, or The Candidate, which Jennifer Manoukian and Ishkhan Jinbashian just translated, or Sarafian’s Bois de Vincennes or The Princess, are stunning works of literature and should be read just for the sake of being read. And then there is the simple fact that this was a post-genocide generation of writers—so we owe them that reverence, if only for that fact.

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Rupen Janbazian

Rupen Janbazian is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. His writings primarily focus on politics, human rights, community, literature, and Armenian culture. He has reported from Armenia, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh), Turkey, Canada, the United States, and Western Armenia. He has served on the local and national executives of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) of Canada and Hamazkayin Toronto, and served as the administrator of the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of Toronto. Janbazian also taught Armenian History and Creative Writing at the ARS Armenian Private School of Toronto, and has worked on several translations.

3 Comments

  1. excellent work Cristopher. 50 years of Krikor Beledian is a reference book to all those who are interested in the Armenian post genocide litterature. Thank you very much Christopher Atamian.

  2. Thank you for this interview. Beledian’s tome is a seminal work and a big boon for English students venturing into Armenian letters. However Mr. Atamian’s answer gives the impression that he was the initiator of this project. As I knew otherwise, I put the question to the then chair of Armenian Department at Columbia, Dr. Nanor Kebranian. Here is the answer I received:

    “The interviewer queries as to why Beledian’s work and why now? The answer to that is that in 2009, as mentioned above, I approached Atamian with a request to translate the work from the French into English. with a subvention from the Fesjian Fund at Columbia University so as to have English-language material available for my non-Armenophone students taking a course I was offering on Armenian literature and culture. This was in, other words, a commissioned work. And not, as Atamian’s response seems to suggest, an act of beneficent voluntarism on the part of the translator. And it was initiated by a young scholar long familiar with the work of Beledian the author, the critic, and the person; as his reader, translator (from Armenian), student, and subsequently peer; attempting to mainstream Armenian studies into a broader sphere of intellectual engagement, Armenian and otherwise. I’m glad the work has seen the light of day and is, indeed, becoming mainstreamed in some small sense with this review in an Armenian diaspora forum. Perhaps worthwhile noting, for those few (really very few) concerned (even dedicated) to such matters is the generational timeframe involved in the realisation not just of a work, but, more importantly, of ideas and of expertise. It was one thing to have my students read as-yet-unpublished sections of the work in English; it was another, trying to contextualise Beledian’s extraordinary thematically framed literary history both methodologically and substantively to a group of mainly undergraduates who were hardly cognisant of Armenians, certainly, but also of the tremendous range of concepts and issues concerning statelessness, displacement, and diasporicity.”

  3. Dear Raffi and Nanor:

    Perhaps the issue was context in my quote. Nanor is quite right in asserting that she originally asked me to translate the work–I never said or implied the contrary–she is duly thanked in the book. I never claimed to have initiated the project–but rather answered the question of why it was important to have translated it now in a general sense. My thanks do indeed go out to Nanor and Columbia or providing the original idea and the funds to translate the work.

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