Hayden's Ferry Review


Foreign Tongues: հայերէն (Armenian)

HFR publishes contributors from all over the world, in languages and from places that some people (we're not pointing fingers) have never heard of. This recurring post Foreign Tongues will give you a little culture and a little history, a way to better understand the background behind some not-so-familiar peoples and languages.

This time around I decided to tackle the Armenian language and culture with a little help from Diana Der-Hovanessian and the internet. In HFR #47, there are several poems by Armenian poet Vahe Arsen, translated by Diana Der-Hovanessian.

So, first things firstfirst things being a little bit of background on Armenia. Armenia is in the middle of things. It's in the middle of a juncture of the land masses of Western Asia, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe, in the Caucaus region, with a lot of countries surrounding it, including Turkey, Georgia, and Iran. For those of us who are image-oriented, there's a world map with Armenia marked on it in green to your right. It was part of the Soviet Union before that was dissolved. The language has a script unique to itself, which I find looks like English just enough to confuse me when I see it out of the corner of my eye (meaning it doesn't really look like English at all).

Looking around. I found some interesting people with either Armenian heritage, citizenship, or, of course, both. The band members of System of a Down all can lay claim to Armenian heritage. So can the guy who invented the color TV, the inventor of the MRI, and the one who invented the PET scan.

The list shows a painful de-emphasis of the arts in Armenia. Even Vahe Arsen has pointed out Armenia's lack of attention paid to literature. Why? It's not because what's been written is so horrible Godzilla would run away from it. Der-Hovanessian described the Armenian language as "a very musical language" when I asked, and she adds that the hardest part about translating Armenian poetry into English is that "the poem's music is easy to lose in a second language." Their language is beautiful, their poetry is musical. In the translation of Arsen's poem "Allegory," (one of the poems Der-Hoavnessian translated for HFR) the language gets your ears involved in the reading, like in the lines "The wind singing a ghost song/ is interrupted by a wheezing/radio whispering the allegory/ of rain that lasts/ a hundred years." The mystery then is why the lack of emphasis on literature, on the beauty of the language as it is written down? Der-Hovanessian also gave me some insight into this by telling me, "the third main [cultural] influence [on Armenian poetry] is the genocide of 1915 by the Ottoman Turks that removed three-fourths of the population (the entire readership) and that genocide started with the execution of 250 poets! Poets, who wrote in oblique ways to give hope to the people were the first to be jailed and killed. Then the entire population was uprooted...That would be a big influence on literature, don't you agree?"

Thankfully, poets and writers haven't been completely wiped out in Armenia (although is it really possible to kill art completely?), and even better, translators like Diana Der-Hovanessian bring that art to us, encouraging the Armenian writers even more.