Raffi Setian

American-Armenian Teacher, Poet and Translator Raffi (Ralph) Setian


By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

Mr. Setian, we first met a century ago (in 1990), while I was a third-year student at Yerevan State University (YSU). That was a difficult transitional time in the history of modern Armenia. The world around us was rapidly changing; and you were the first foreign professor who came to YSU to present lectures on American literature. Your classes were unprecedented for us because you utilized maps and other visual materials to enhance your lectures on literature. How was your experience in teaching at an Armenian university during the last years of the Soviet Union?

Well, first of all, on a personal level, it was a great satisfaction for me to finally be able to come to Armenia and teach at the university level. My position at YSU as a Senior Lecturer was the result of a teaching fellowship which I was awarded through the Fulbright-Hays program administered by the Department of State in America. Little did anyone know at that time that the USSR was going to collapse while I was in Soviet Armenia. In any case, it was a particularly challenging period in the life of our people in the homeland. However, I greatly enjoyed my contacts with hundreds of students and dozens of colleagues at YSU. I was particularly gratified that some students who were not even specializing in English would attend my lectures at the university. Living conditions were somewhat dark and grim; yet I always had good attendance in all my classes. I have fond memories from that period in my life, when I made new acquaintances and friends, like yourself, Artsvi.

Before meeting you, I was aware of you as an American-Armenian poet writing in English. But you were also writing poems in Armenian, which was unusual for the poets of your generation. This equal literary mastery of both languages is a rarity among American-Armenians. How did you manage to gain this ability?

The answer to this question of yours would require me to provide you with a mini-autobiography, which would be too lengthy for an interview of this sort, I think. But please allow me to present a few pertinent facts which might provide a sort of explanatory outline of my background. First of all, even though I was born in the USA (in the state of Massachusetts), I did not begin speaking English as a child. In our home Armenian was the only language spoken between children and parents. And this practice continued throughout my life. I NEVER spoke English with either my father or my mother. I began to learn English only after entering public school when our family relocated to California. (There were no regular Armenian schools anywhere in the USA at that time.) So I attended free American schools where all the instruction was conducted in English. But I always loved to speak Armenian. During my last year of study in senior high school in my hometown of Pasadena, California, all my American classmates were applying for admission to various universities all over the country; but I had heard about a Collège Arménien (Nichan Palandjian Jemaran) in Beirut, Lebanon, where it was possible to enroll at that time (1959) as a boarding student. The Armenian Relief Society (Հայ Օգնութեան Միութիւն) was offering special scholarships to young American citizens to go to that institution to master the Armenian literary language and become immersed in Western Armenian culture. Well, I applied for that scholarship; I was accepted; and thereafter I spent two very intense years of study at the Jemaran (the school which had been established by Levon Shant and Nikol Aghbalian decades before).

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Upon returning to the USA (1961), I continued my independent readings in modern Armenian literature. But later I enrolled as an undergraduate student at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles), majoring in English, but also doing a minor in Armenian. (In those years Dr. Avedis Sanjian was my teacher, the chair holder in Armenian Language and Literature.) Then several years later I matriculated as a graduate student in Armenian Studies at Columbia University in New York City, eventually earning an M.Phil. degree (Drs. Nina Garsoian and Krikor Maksoudian were my teachers.)

You have lectured all around the world: in North America, in the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia. Are there any peculiarities that you can explain about teaching the same subjects to university students in different cultures?

Indeed, there are differences! I have taught English, linguistics, and American literature in numerous foreign countries: France, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Kuwait, Gabon, China, and of course… Armenia! And the students everywhere are different — not only in their attitudes towards learning, but also in their varying degrees of initial knowledge of the English language. Arabs, for example, are very open and voluble in classroom situations; they like to talk, to joke, and to pose questions. Chinese students are, on the other hand, reluctant to speak out in class, but they are very attentive and diligent in performing the tasks required of them. One thing that I can assert with no hesitation is that I have enjoyed teaching everywhere that I have lived; and students have almost always been kind and helpful toward me, the foreign teacher!

We met again in 2005 as colleagues at the Intensive Summer Course in Armenian Language and Culture in Venice, Italy. And since that time we have been teaching every August in this city built on the water. You have been teaching Armenian language, literature, and history in this annual program for nearly a quarter of a century. How would you characterize your experiences over the past 25 years?

This teaching post has been, indubitably, the most gratifying pedagogical experience of my life. Even though I have lived and traveled in so many wonderful countries as a teacher of English, nevertheless, teaching Armenian language, literature, and history in Venice has been the most fulfilling job in my long academic career. This course is unique in so many ways. With 25 to 40 students every summer from nearly a dozen countries, one-third of whom are non-Armenian, it is a pleasure and a challenge to teach students from 18 to 80 years of age. It is like a mini-UN! And I have made so many new friendships over the years, with both students and colleagues. Indeed, I sometimes think that I have learned more from my students than they perhaps have learned from me!

On many different occasions you and I have had the pleasure of meeting each other in Armenia, France, Italy, and the USA. And I have always been delighted with your extensive knowledge of different countries and cultures. You seem to have been able to adapt to different life styles and adjust to new living conditions — no matter where your fate has taken you.

Yes, Artsvi, you are right. In many ways human beings are the same everywhere. But the differences are the most interesting! Some peoples are more open and hospitable than others. Some cultures encourage competition more than others. Some societies breed creativity and allow greater freedoms of all sorts to their citizens. The greater Family of Man is a wonderful mosaic.

You have translated several Armenian poets into English, for example, Zahrad and Krikor Beledian. The Armenian community in the USA is quite large and scattered all over the country; and there are many American-Armenian writers who create literature. But there is no longer any permanent platform — that is, a journal — where their work might be published. Raft disappeared long ago; and the Ararat quarterly (which was the oldest and most respected publication of its kind in English) has also ceased to appear, even in its Internet version. Don’t you think that our Armenian literature needs to be translated and better represented for readers in the English-speaking world?

Yes, I agree. But we must not be discouraged or pessimistic in this regard. Times are changing; media are not what they used to be. It is encouraging, however, to see that younger writers and scholars are translating and publishing entire books from Armenian into English. This is a trend that I expect will continue.

If I am not mistaken, you were one of the first diasporan Armenians to purchase a residence in Armenia, soon after the collapse of the USSR. You continue to visit Armenia regularly. And you lived in Yerevan during those dark and difficult years at the beginning of the third Armenian republic. Having lived in various countries, how would you characterize living in Armenia as compared to other places?

I purchased that apartment in Yerevan as a sort of personal commitment to myself–to affirm my ties to the land and its people. It is an ineffable pleasure to stroll in the streets of the capital and hear my maternal tongue spoken all around me. Each time I arrive in Yerevan I feel like I am coming home.

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