How does one begin to review an anthology of a century of poetry by over a hundred Armenian poets? Perhaps first by considering the translator—the one who selects the particular poems for translation from the pool of possibilities—which, in this case, is especially vast and deep given the richness of the Armenian poetry tradition. In a recent interview with Artsvi Bakhchinyan of the Armenian Weekly, Diana Der-Hovanessian, author of twenty-three books of poetry, including ten books of translations, said she translates poems she wishes she herself had written, or poems that are “pivotal in some historic aspect, and must be done.”[i] Translation is a precarious art—dependent on such a range of niggling and elusive variables, from insightful reading of the poet’s original intent and meaning to sensitivity to the nuances of words and syntax in not one but two languages and cultures. The ten thousand choices made and serendipitous accidents that occur while composing a poem are reapplied by another hand and eye to another canvas with a different available palette. It is all tricky business. In the end, the reader of translated poetry must, as Tranströmer said, believe in translation.[ii]
Der-Hovanessian describes the enterprise of translation in terms of obligation. In the interview referenced above, she explains she owes the reader the “original poem,” the original poet “the best possible version in the second language,” and finally, the poem “a vibrant second life in the second language.” Her attempt to retain the music of the Armenian language is particularly striking, if occasionally strained. The analogy of debt seems particularly apt regarding the translation of contemporary Armenian poetry. All of the poets in Armenian Poetry of Our Time (California State University, 2011; ed. Maro Dalley) were profoundly affected by the Genocide, which killed three-quarters of the Armenian population. The poems include many references to loss and longing, imprisonment and exile, as well as Armenian culture and geography. A number of poems are specifically about Armenian language itself, including one by Vahan Tekeyan (1878-1945) entitled “The Armenian Language”:
The Armenian language is an orchard where I walk
under green boughs growing in the shade of the past.
The words are clustered fruit I pick one by one.
My Armenian language is a garden I love that grows
beside a ruined palace, heavy boughs
alive with the flow of sap and sun…
I hold rounded words, fruits both tart
and sweet, with juices uncounted suns made ripe
words that anoint the lips, bless the palate
and give comfort to the heart.
And this poem, “The Armenian Language is the Home of the Armenians,” by Moushegh Ishkhan (1913-1990), who was orphaned in the Genocide:
The Armenian language is the home
and haven where the wanderer can own
roof and wall and nourishment inside…
In “An ABC of Translating Poetry,” Willis Barnstone writes, “even when famous at home, the [translated] work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers…”[iii] Fortunately, Der-Hovanessian constructs a context for these poems so they are not entirely orphaned in their translation. In a compact introduction to the anthology, she outlines a brief history of the long and deep tradition of Armenian poetry, which dates back to cuneiform on clay and pre-Christian chants. She discusses the various influences on the styles and themes associated with Armenian poetry. Der-Hovanessian also attempts a rough grouping of the poets presented in the collection, highlighting particularly influential and prominent poets. Given that there are 117 poets included in this volume, this guidance, though minimal, is welcome. In the anthology itself, poets are arranged in chronological order and span from Daniel Varoujian, born in 1884, to Vahe Arsen, born in 1978. Each poet is introduced with a brief summary of his or her life and accomplishments; many of these short personal histories mention a connection to the political events of the poet's homeland. For example, the biography of Matteos Zarifian (1894-1924) states that he was educated in Constantinople and deciding between further studies in science or medicine when “the 1915 upheavals ended his interest in the sciences and in any further schooling. He stayed with poetry. The trauma of deportations and persecutions and the fragility of life are his major themes. He died at 30 of tuberculosis.” The single poem of his in this collection is entitled “Toast”:
Fill the glasses.
Let us drink to
aimless sheer delight
and life […]
Fill the glass
and let me drink
the very fire of hell
while death himself
toasts in return
to my good health.
The sheer volume of poets and poems included in this collection affords it value. Themes emerge and reappear, and cultural tropes accumulate and gain a significance that simply can’t be communicated with an occasional translation published here and there. White-blossomed almond trees and mountains and snow—the landscape of Armenia written about in this volume with such devotion and longing—acquire their own reality, complete with deep shadows cast, as in the poem “Language” by Hamo Sahian (1914-1993):
Say springtime in Armenian
and it becomes an Armenian spring.
Say snow in Armenian and
feel an Armenian chill
Our tree blossoms in Armenian.
And in Armenian our songs console.
No matter how indifferent our pose
our blood flows as language flows.
Our mountains rise Armenian mountains;
we give them Armenian names.
Let God save what remains
of ours. Patience is our Armenian name.
While much of the work is fiercely geographical, historical, and sociopolitical, many luscious love poems also inhabit this anthology, such as this poem by Vahan Totovents (1898-1937), “When You Are Reading:”
When you are reading,
your eyes, cast down,
are blue lakes where borrowed
rainbows can drown.
You are reading, forgive me
if I interrupt.
It’s just to see those
lake eyes open up.
Among the nearly 300 pages of this collection are poems praising the day and cursing the night, poems to mothers and fathers, poems about the vulnerability of the heart, poems about dogs, wine, salt, birds, poems about “the sweet bouquet of winds” (Ardem Haroutiunyan, 1944-). If there could be such a thing as a representative poem in a volume this full and abounding, it might be “Perhaps” by Sylvia Gaboudikian (1919-2006), one of the very few women included:
Perhaps you became so small, Armenia,
so we could carry you in our hearts.
Perhaps you changed into charred parchment
so we would tremble lest you fall apart.
Perhaps your handful of soil was meant
as talisman, lesson, and exercise.
Your name became the symbol, perhaps,
for purification in a world of lies.
This anthology of contemporary Armenian poetry translations is indeed “talisman, lesson and exercise” in the experience of loss and exile, love and longing. The English-speaking world is, without question, the richer for these translated voices.
Mary Buchinger Bodwell, PhD, is the author of Aerialist (Gold Wake Press, 2015) and is an associate professor of English and communication studies at the MCPHS University in Boston.
Armenian Poetry of Our Time
Maro Dalley (Editor), Translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian
Fresno, CA: The Press at California State University, 2011
$20.00 paperback; ISBN: 0912201436
[i] The Armenian Weekly, Diana Der Hovanessian: ‘I Write Almost Every Day’
Posted by contributor Artsvi Bakhchinyan on December 27, 2011
[ii] “Translating in the Dark,” Tim Parks; New York Review of Books blog, November 30, 2011; http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/nov/30/translating-dark/