The Life of an English Translator and Writer in Armenia: Aram Arsenyan

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By Aram Arkun
Mirror Spectator Staff

NEW YORK — There are only a handful of translators in Armenia of Armenian-American literature into Armenian. Aram Arsenyan is one of the most prolific of them. He has translated a wide range of works, primarily novels and short stories. He also has translated a number of non- Armenian classic authors from English into Armenian, and has published a number of his own literary creations. Yet he does all this as an avocation, while earning his living at other jobs.

Born in 1952 in the village of Talin, Armenia, Arsenyan as a child studied in a Yerevan school focusing on English during the Soviet period. This meant that he had classes in the English language in elementary school, and beginning in sixth grade took some other classes (e.g. geography, history, chemistry and English literature) in English. However, he pointed out, “it was not too efficient, because we did not have good English-speaking teachers then.” He already had some literary interests in school. In sixth grade, he became a member of the editorial staff of children of Shavigh [path or trail], which was a part of the newspaper Pioner kanch [Call of the Pioneer]. He wrote short articles and reviews and even then did translations, including literary ones.

Arsenyan’s father was a writer and journalist (member of the Journalists Union of Armenia), while his mother was a teacher of history. Despite his own literary interests and his father’s example, Arsenyan initially wanted to enter Yerevan Polytechnical Institute’s Department of Cybernetics after high school. This was a new profession in Armenia, and Arsenyan prepared for the entrance examination by intensively studying mathematics and physics. However, he quarreled with his math teacher, and suddenly changed his mind. He applied to Yerevan State University, and entered the Department of Romano-Germanic Languages to study English literature in 1969. Arsenyan attributes this return to literature in part as “genetic.”

At the university, students were very interested in science fiction, so they decided to create Solaris, a wall newspaper (meaning only one copy was prepared, and it was posted on a wall for all to read). Arsenyan translated short stories for it, as well as for the weekly Yerevani hamalsaran [University of Yerevan]. He primarily published works of Anglo-American writers in the latter publication. Arsenyan also as a student had translations published in the literary magazine Garun [Spring] and other publications like Avangard, Pioner kanch and Yerekoyan Yerevan [Evening Yerevan].

After graduating the university, like many others he had to decide how to make his living. He chose to enter the Ministry of Education, where he had already begun to work while a student as secretary of the Komsomol organization of the Yerevan State University Faculty of Philology in 1972. He stayed to work there for some thirty years. For the first ten years, he served as an inspector, examining the organization of the educational process, as well as teaching methodology. Then he was promoted to the head of the department coordinating the activities of educational institutions that were not in schools, such as Pioneer Palaces (where children could receive all types of education, including aesthetic, physical, ecological, and technical), sports schools, centers for technical education, centers for ecological education and centers for young tourists. These institutions existed in Yerevan, and all big cities and regions.

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Arsenyan then was appointed to run the department for social programs, collaborating with international organizations. After five years, this department was shut down in 1999. Social programs aimed at assuring the activity of orphanages and boarding schools for disabled children after the 1988 earthquake. The government had no financial means to support them, so they survived only thanks to humanitarian aid provided by international organizations.

Arsenyan was able to start a new job at the World Bank Center for Education Programs and participated in the implementation of a school improvement program for Armenia from 1999 to 2002, though he still was simultaneously considered to be an employee of the Ministry. From 2002 to 2009 he worked as a freelance translator, and in 2009 he began to work for the daily newspaper Hayastani hanrapetutyun [Republic of Armenia] as a translator. He provides the articles for its English-language Internet page.

During all these years of work, Arsenyan pursued his literary interests whenever possible, but was not able to publish as many short stories or translations as he would have liked. His short stories, perhaps a form of modern realism, have been compared with those of O. Henry, while Arsenyan said “my works are merely the responses of a writer to the realities of our contemporary life.” His works reflect both emotional experiences and the changes of society around him.

Both translating and creating original works are of equal value for Arsenyan. He said, “I think that every translator is a writer, and every writer is a translator.”

Until 2004, he primarily translated various non- Armenian authors into Armenian, but in the last seven years — in part, he said, influenced by the printed issues of Ararat quarterly of New York, he has been focusing on Armenian-American writers. Arsenyan’s father’s parents were originally from Erzerum or Karin, and his mother’s from Kars. This helps Arsenyan feel closer to Diasporan Armenian writers, for they are not only compatriots, but “I have experienced their fate, hearing all the stories told by my grandfathers and grandfathers, as well as by other relatives. I really feel myself one of them.” At the same time, he humbly adds, “It does not seem to me that I understand Armenians of the diaspora better, because to understand people you must live the same life.” Arsenyan has only had one opportunity to visit the United States.

Arsenyan usually chooses the works which he likes for translation, but occasionally he has also received requests from the Writers Union of Armenia to translate certain works (such as two works by Surmelian). Although Arsenyan feels that there is a demand for translated works in Armenia, publishing is not that easy. There are three basic ways. The state can allocate funds for a book when a publisher presents it to the state commission which makes such decisions. An organization, individual or publishing company can request a translation or a new work, and will pay you an honorarium in exchange. In either of these ways, the author or translator gives up all rights to his work. Only in the third way, when the latter pays out of his own means will all his rights be preserved. In any case, it is not a field in which great financial gain is to be expected.

Arsenyan feels that one great difficulty for translators like himself is actually getting hold of appropriate books and magazines. Another, perhaps even more daunting difficulty is the lack of good English-Armenian dictionaries.

There is no coordination of the activities of the small number of translators of Armenian- American works at any level, and Armenian literary critics do not seem to take translation-related issues seriously. They do not even usually write about new works of translation. Another part of the problem is that publishers in Armenia, aside from never paying authors or translators, make no effort to sell the books they issue.

Arsenyan has been an active member of the Writers Union. He helped organize the first and second Yerevan Conference of Armenian Writers Writing in Non-Armenian Languages in 2005 and 2007, and was a member of the delegation from Armenia at the third conference which took place at the University of California in Los Angeles in November 2009. Arsenyan’s seventeen volumes of translations into Armenian include Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (2006), and Joyce’s Dubliners (with A. Harutyunyan and G. Harutyunyan; 1978). Among the Armenian-American works he has translated are three Saroyan volumes, Levon Zaven Surmelian’s 98.6 (2005), Nancy Kricorian’s Zabelle (2007), Peter Najarian’s Voyages (2010) and Peter Sourian’s Supper Among Strangers (collected short stories, 2010). He has published Irakan horinvatzkner (Real Fiction), a volume of his own short stories and a play, in 2007. Arsenyan has translated two works into English from Armenian, though this is not his primary forte. He also wrote the scenario for “Pndrir parin amenur” (Seek Goodness Everywhere), a dramatic Armenian-language presentation of Saroyan’s works, with extracts from Saroyan’s writings and interviews. It was staged in 2008 by Armen Mazmanyan on the one hundredth anniversary of Saroyan’s birth, and many Armenian officials, relatives and specialists on Saroyan, and the American ambassador to Armenia were present.

Arsenyan was granted the Kantegh (Lamp) Award of Holy Echmiadzin and the Writers Union of Armenia in 2009. This is the only award for translators in Armenia. The same year he won a prize from the literary magazine Nartsis (Narcissus) for translations from English. In 2010, he won the William Saroyan Medal from Armenia’s Diaspora Ministry. This medal is granted for contributing to the dissemination of Armenian culture in the diaspora and strengthening relations between Armenia and the diaspora. In 2000, he won a prize for the best translation of the year (appearing in the magazine Garun) from the British Embassy in Armenia.

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