By Alistair Ian Blyth
Over the millennia, translation has often saved original works from oblivion. For example, Armenian translations have preserved philosophical works by Philo of Alexandria that are otherwise lost and, embedded within those works, fragments of the Greek pre-Socratic philosophers that would otherwise be unknown. Armenian as a written language itself originates in an act of translation, its unique script having been invented by Saint Mesrop Mashtots in the early fifth century for the purpose of translating the Scriptures. Translation is therefore foundational to literature, and not only in Armenian, although over the course of millennia, it might be said to have greatly decayed in the importance, the reverence in which it was once held. As Shushan Avagyan puts it in her novel Girq-anvernagir, published in Yerevan in samizdat in 2006 and now eloquently translated into English by Deanna Cachoian-Schanz as A Book, Untitled (Awst Press, 2023): “They say there’s no demand nowadays for literary translators. But several hundred years ago, our scribes celebrated a holiday called the Feast of the Translators.”
A Book, Untitled is an absorbing, moving literary experiment that intercalates fragmented texts—snatches of dialogue real and imagined, postcards sent and unsent, lines of poems published and unpublished, “a thousand and one inner monologues; the monologues of different people”—to build up a lyrical, philosophical, critical narrative in which the voices of two major Armenian feminist writers, Shushanik Kurghinian (1876-1927) and Zabel Yesayan (1878-1943?), are drawn back up from the oblivion to which they have been condemned by successive iterations of the literary canon. As Avagyan puts it, “the book has two purposes: to recover what’s been lost and to create something new.” Translation is fundamental to this act of creative remembrance, and A Book, Untitled is also the polyphonic diary of Shushan Avagyan’s “re-remembering” of Kurghinian’s lost work, as she brings it back to life, compiling and translating the collection of poems I Want to Live, published by the Armenian International Women’s Association Press in 2005.
Kurghinian, an Eastern Armenian writer, was born in Gyumri, then part of the Russian Empire. Her work was suppressed by the censors of the tsarist régime; minimised by the Armenian nationalists of the Tashnagsutyun, who condemned her for her socialist revolutionary ideas; distorted by the Soviet régime, which posthumously transformed her, who had always been a “rebel on the side of humanity” rather than a revolutionary, into a regimented proletkult poet whose radical feminist ideas were an ideological embarrassment best ignored; and finally consigned to oblivion, excluded from the patriarchal literary canon of the post-Soviet independent Armenian nation state—or, as the “typist/editor/writer/translator” of A Book, Untitled pointedly remarks: “The portraits of Armenian writers from different centuries are arranged along one of the walls of the fourth or fifth floor of Yerevan Public Library. Something’s missing.”
Prior to the act of literary re-remembering whereby Avagyan’s translation fills in what is missing, Kurghinian seems latterly to have been remembered, if at all, mostly for an anthology piece titled “Banvornere” (The Workers), a poem in the first-person plural, in which the barefoot, downtrodden, exploited, starving masses—“shabby goods in life’s marketplace, sold for a pittance”—announce to the capitalist “bloodsuckers” and “vile stranglers of creation” that they are “on the march.” Included in Hayreni ghoghanchner-tzaghkakagh Sovyetahay grakanutyan (Voices of the Homeland: An Anthology of Soviet Armenian Literature, Yerevan, 1985), a translation of the poem is the sole text representing Kurghinian in The Heritage of Armenian Literature, Volume Three: From the Eighteenth Century to Modern Times (ed. Agop J. Hacikyan et al., Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2005), published the same year as I Want to Live, Avagyan’s collection of Kurghinian’s work. On the strength of this one piece in isolation—in other words, without access to her work as a whole, either in the original or in translation; without access to what censorship and oppression and ideology and literary canon-building have caused to go missing—it is easy to see how Kurghinian might be dismissed as a historical footnote, an anachronism from the Soviet period, whose poems of “revolutionary ardour” were lumped together with the general diet of propaganda formerly force-fed to schoolchildren or rolled out on patriotic occasions.
It is precisely through manipulation of her work as a whole, through deliberate erasures and omissions, that Kurghinian has been turned into a writer missing in plain sight. Calculatedly incomplete editions of Kurghinian’s work, officiously purporting to be complete, were published in Yerevan during the Stalin and the Brezhnev eras: Yerkeri zhoghovatsu (Collected Works, 1947) and Banasteghtsutiunner, ardzak ejer, piesner, namakner (Poems, Prose, Plays, Letters, 1981). Avagyan incorporates into the text of A Book, Untitled a letter from philosopher and professor of Armenian literature Marc Nichanian, who argues that these posthumous editions of Kurghinian’s work were in fact part of a “careful, intentional, and organized disavowal” of Kurghinian as a writer and “rebellious woman.” Publication of her expurgated works was a means to expurgate “a challenge to the patriarchal social structure,” be it that of the Armenian diaspora, be it that of Soviet society, both of them hidebound in their own different and not so different ways. The earlier edition played up to the diaspora’s image of an unthreatening lyric poet who wrote “charming poems mainly devoted to love with a mildly revolutionary spirit.” (In this context it should be noted that, at the time, Stalin was cynically attempting to neutralise any external nationalist threat to the communist régime in Armenia by luring Armenians from the diaspora to settle in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, where, effectively trapped, they could be kept under strict control.) The later edition presented Kurghinian as “the archetype of the Bolshevik revolution”—a one-sided construct derived from the poet of “The Workers”—and therefore an unthreatening upholder of the by then sclerotic Soviet status quo.
A Book, Untitled is a narrative whose fragmented form itself seems to enact the difficulty of gaining access to Kurghinian’s fragmentary, unpublished, censored, missing other work, a significant part of which is represented by fifty-nine notebooks kept in a forgotten corner of a museum, whose poems Avagyan, along with her friend Lara—one of the novel’s four interwoven voices, along with those of Kurghinian, Yesayan, and the “typist/editor/writer/translator” herself—rescues from oblivion, edits, and, by necessity, publishes for the first time in translation rather than in their original language. Within and among the interlayered voices of A Book, Untitled, Kurghinian’s missing literary work is restored to life, her life is restored to literature. It is a literary re-avowal, but one which Avagyan, in a passage worth quoting at length, recognises is open to the accusation of appropriation:
Sometimes, reader, the typist/writer forgets to put quotation marks around cited words or sentences.
Does that mean she steals others’ words?
Which is worse: To let the living words of the poet die in damp boxes in dark, treacherous rooms or to sow them like seeds, mixed with another’s words, to revive them and let them bloom in untitled fields?
Besides, quotation marks privatize words and make them someone else’s property.
The words belong neither to the typist/writer nor to you, reader.
They simply unite our past, present, and future.
Also interwoven with Kurghinian’s de-privatised words in A Book, Untitled are those of her contemporary Zabel Yesayan, a Western Armenian writer who, unlike Kurghinian, had the misfortune to experience the worst excesses of the Stalinist period, falling victim to the purges of the thirties. Yesayan was born in the Ottoman Empire, in Scutari (Üsküdar), a suburb of Constantinople, or Bolis, from Gonsdandinobolis, as it was known to Western Armenians. She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne, contributing short stories to French and Armenian periodicals, as well as translations from and into her native language, returning to Constantinople in 1908. In 1911, she published, Averaknerun mej (In the Ruins), a report on the Adana Massacres of 1909, and in April 1915 she was the only woman to be placed on the hit list of the hundreds of Armenian intellectuals rounded up by the Young Turks before being tortured and murdered, an atrocity that marked the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. Escaping to Bulgaria, Yesayan would later write and publish a harrowing account of the genocide: Zhoghovurdi me hogevarke (The Agony of a People, 1917). Her fiction includes feminist novels such as Verjin bazhake (The Last Cup, 1919) and Hogis aksoryal (My Soul in Exile, 1922). Her autobiography, Silihdari parteznere (The Gardens of Silihdar, 1935), a major work, was written shortly before her arrest. Yesayan had visited Soviet Armenia in 1926 and decided to settle there in 1933. In A Book, Untitled, it is in the spring of 1926, the year before Kurghinian’s death, that Avagyan sets an imagined encounter and dialogue between Yesayan and Kurghinian. Yesayan’s decision to move to what she saw as the homeland of a resurrected Armenian nation was to prove fateful: one of the countless victims of the purge of 1936-7, she was exiled to Siberia, where all trace of her is lost. It is thought that she perished in 1943, the year when the postcards and letters from captivity that she sent to her daughter petered out. As the typist/editor puts it, A Book, Untitled is also a “book composed of postcards from death row.”
In counterpoint to the four interwoven female voices of A Book, Untitled—“Four authors and one typist/editor for all”—are the voices of Yesayan’s two interrogators during her arrest. While the second is an ignorant brute, whose interrogations always end with the mopping up of the blood, the first sees himself as an educated reader, even something of a literary critic, who makes a show of complimenting Yesayan on The Gardens of Silihdar (he is particularly “enraptured” by her description of post-partum depression), while lecturing her on the advantages of “the traditional narrative form,” which, he says, “doesn’t require any particular effort on the part of the reader or audience, just like Hollywood films.” On the other hand, difficulty in reading—one might say the effort of reading as a form of translation—causes the Second Interrogator to fly into a rage. He is indignant at Yesayan’s literary style, which “doesn’t correspond with socialist realism,” and at her disregard for “the rules . . . the methods of conventional style”; he only has to glance at her latest work before throwing it away in disgust. The socialist realism of the Second Interrogator is ultimately a caricatural descendant of the nineteenth-century European novel, on which the more sophisticated First Interrogator holds forth: “at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a concrete body of women’s literature that had rich and unique qualities.” Yesayan’s postcards from prison, fragments of which are interspersed throughout A Book, Untitled, become both a means “to keep her work going” and an act of defiance against this nineteenth-century, patriarchal vision of women’s literature imposed by the system imprisoning her. The language of the postcard, which is both “open” (it can be read by the anonymous eyes of those who deliver it, as well as by those who intercept it) and private, is implicitly a radical challenge to hidebound conventions, as well as one that presupposes an act of translation: “the contents of a postcard must either be neutral, consisting of empty generalities, or coded, encrypted in another language.” And this is why the Second Interrogator finally announces to Yesayan that he has confiscated her postcards, depriving them of their intended reader, since their contents are “incomprehensible to us and therefore suspicious. Whatever it is we don’t understand, we condemn.”
Literarily, says the editor/writer/translator, “the postcard form itself limits the writer from excessiveness; that is, it filters her stream of thoughts, keeping only the crème.” It also reorients the voice of the novel from the third to the second person, including the reader in the author’s utterance, and points away from the kind of novel—and patriarchal, proprietary view of authorship—that the two interrogators want to enforce. Ultimately, however, Avagyan remains pessimistic as to the wider prospects of a literature such as that written by Yesayan or of Armenian literature in translation more generally: “The European novel has enslaved all other genres; / the thing is that my country’s literature doesn’t interest anyone; / who reads Yesayan?” But A Book, Untitled, by inventing its own inclusive, polyphonic form as a means of lyrical, philosophical “re-remembrance” of missing literary voices, and Deanna Cachoian-Schanz’s “Translator’s Afterword,” in which she describes her personal encounter with the text she is translating and persuasively theorises authorship and translation in terms of collectivity and polyphony, are eloquent proof of translation’s future possibilities, as well as its millennial power to elevate words, to liberate the human voice. As the writer/translator imagines the voice of Zabel Yesayan expressing it in A Book, Untitled, as she recites from her prison cell an imagined elegy to her friend, writer Vahan Totovents (1894-1938), another victim of the purges: “when the cool wind came down from the mountains and played with our skirts and / when the bards recited poems in celebration of the Day of the Holy Translators, words were worshiped and given heavenly power, taking flight with superhuman breath.”