Our title this week mimics that of an essay by the cultural critic Walter Benjamin. In that essay, Benjamin suggests that translating a text from one language into another is not simply reproduction, but is productive: the translator, making not just the words but the world-view of the original text fit into a language with a different range of vocabulary and a different orientation to the world, reveals aspects of the original text that might have been missed. Translation, then, becomes a powerful exercise in transmission, and the translator clearly has a momentous task in front of her. The “Holy Translators,” celebrated this Saturday by the Armenian Apostolic Church, would surely agree. After Mesrob Mashdots invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD, the first thing translated into Armenian was the Bible, the ultimate textual source for the Christian.
Mashdots’ student Goriun/Koriun, who penned a biography of his teacher, tells us that the first written words translated into Armenian were from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” With this paean to wisdom, the first translators demonstrated that they fully understood the momentous nature of their task. To render the Bible into Armenian was to make the very Word of God present among the Armenians. With the invention of the alphabet and the translation of the Bible, Mashdots and his students, the first of the Holy Translators celebrated this Saturday, created the possibility of Armenian literature. They also, as the late scholar of Armenian liturgy, Fr. Robert F. Taft wrote, made possible the unique Armenian expression of the faith, the Armenian rite: it is only after the invention of the alphabet and the development of Classical Armenian, krapar, that one is “really able to speak of an ‘Armenian rite.’”
We can see, then, why the Holy Translators are celebrated as saints of the Armenian Church. After the first translation of the Bible, Goriun tells us that “the blessed ones turned their attention to the improvement and refinement of the literature of their people.” They translated patristic sources like Gregory Nazianzus and John Chrysostom. In addition to this explicitly Christian literature, the early translators also translated works of classical learning: the philosophy, rhetoric, and grammars of the Greeks. Last year for the Feast of the Holy Translators, we wrote about David the Invincible Philosopher, who is listed among the Translators. In many ways, we can say that he prefigured some of the insights of Walter Benjamin by over a thousand years—in the Armenian version of his philosophical works, he not only translated individual words but entire concepts and worldviews (for, according to the traditional biography of him, he both wrote original works in Greek and Armenian and translated his own Greek works into Armenian). For instance, instead of talking about a Pegasus, he mentioned the aralez, an Armenian mythical creature—a winged dog— mentioned in Khorenatsi and other sources. The Holy Translators celebrated this Saturday truly understood the momentousness of their task, and we are the beneficiaries of their careful work.
|The Life of Mashtots||One of the first works written in the Armenian language, by Koriun, the student of Mesrob Mashdots. Many of the details about the invention of the Armenian alphabet and the lives of the first translators, celebrated this Saturday, come from this book. An English translation with the Classical Armenian text included.|
|A Repertory of Published Armenian Translations of Classical Texts||This little pamphlet by Constantine Zuckerman provides a list and short introduction to many of the Greek classical texts that were translated into Armenian, especially those of the Hellenizing School.|
|Magnalia Dei, Biblical History in Epic Verse||Grigor Magistros’ incredible verse version of the Bible, written in response to a challenge from an Islamic theologian. Translated into English by Dr. Abraham Terian.|
|My Soul in Exile and Other Writings||Translations into English of work by the brilliant early 20th century Istanbul-Armenian writer Zabel Yessayan. One of several translations of her works by a group of contemporary translators bringing Armenian language works—especially texts written by women—into English.|
Translation, of course, did not stop after this initial flurry of work by the original Holy Translators. In particular, translations of classical literature continued. Shortly after the original set of translations, a school of translation known as the Hellenizing School rendered Greek originals into an Armenian that carefully translated each word. For a long time, the scholarly consensus on the Hellenizing School was that it was a kind of slavish reliance on Greek. The scholar Mandayan differentiates the Hellenizing School from the earliest translation activity, observing that “there seems to be no serious effort in the earliest translations consistently to render Greek compounds with Armenian compounds, but in the later translations a mechanical imitation of Greek compounds becomes increasingly common” (Terian, The Hellenizing School). Dr. Abraham Terian, in an article on the Hellenizing School republished in the St. Nersess Theological Review, complicates this picture, differentiating between several groupings within the school, arguing that we can say the Hellenizing School was active between 570-730. Stepanos Siwnetsi, one of the great polymaths of Armenian history, marks the end of the Hellenizing School. He made many of the translations of Greek philosophical classics, including the influential works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.
After the Hellenizing School, there were many important translators and translations into Armenian. Perhaps most notable among them was the brilliant Grigor Magistros, a scholar, military leader, and administrator born in 990 AD whose descendants and relatives included several Catholicoi. Magistros exemplifies the idea of translation we have been discussing, because his most famous work was written after a bet with Manazi, an Arab theologian who insisted the Quran was more beautiful than the Bible because it was written in verse. In response, Magistros produced the Magnalia Dei, a “Biblical History in Epic Verse,” itself translated into English by Dr. Abraham Terian. By rendering the Bible into verse, Magistros translated not just words and ideas, but made the Bible intelligible as a beautiful cultural product resonant with the worldview of an Islamic scholar. This exemplifies the broad and powerful notion of translation under discussion today.
By the nineteenth century, the krapar, the “Classical Armenian” of the early translators, had fallen out of daily use. Several centuries prior a “Middle Armenian” had already emerged. Yet krapar continued to be used alongside the more vernacular Armenians. In the nineteenth century, a debate raged about the use of ashkharapar, the “modern” language in one of dialectical variants. Many felt that the true literary language was krapar. With the founding of schools separate from the monasteries, intellectuals argued about curriculum. In newspapers and through the publication of books like Khatchatur Abovian’s The Wounds of Armenia, considered the first novel in Armenian and the first written in “modern” (in this case “Eastern”) Armenian, slowly the modern ashkharapar took shape. Works in French, English, and other European literary languages were translated into the modern dialects. For instance, the Mkitarist congregation in Vienna published Hovhannes Masehyan’s translations of Shakespeare into Armenian.
Today, the question of translation for Armenians revolves less around the translation of other works into Armenian, but rather the translation of Armenian texts into the languages of the countries and societies where Armenians live in Diaspora. Most notably, there has been a flurry of translation of Armenian classics into English. While there is certainly something to be said for reading beautiful Armenian literature in the original language, contemporary translators like Jennifer Manoukian, a PhD Student at UCLA, help make that beautiful literature accessible to a larger audience. Not only Armenians who might not read Armenian, but non-Armenians can appreciate the brilliance of a writer like Zabel Esayan, who wrote about Istanbul before the Genocide, as well as about the Adana Massacres. You can read her books at the Zohrab Information Center—both in the original Armenian, or in the striking translation of Manoukian and others.
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