A performance at the Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan

Tumanyan in the Land of the Brothers Grimm

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BERLIN/YEREVAN — This year Armenians in the Republic and in the diaspora are celebrating the 150th birthday of Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869-1923), a beloved national poet. Known for his vast literary output including ballads, poems, fables and essays, he is best remembered for his fairy tales. One first encounters such magical stories in childhood, but the vivid memories remain through adulthood, and in later years may be shared with children and grandchildren.

Tumanyan searched through the legends and sagas, fables, humorous tales, allegories and anecdotes of his native Armenia and unearthed an immense literary treasure. But he looked into the traditions of other cultures as well, and translated Russian, Indian, Japanese, Irish, Italian and Persian fairy tales into Armenian. The genre of fairy tales thus became a vehicle for cultural dialogue.

His relationship to German literature was very special. In the Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan one can find works by the Grimm brothers, Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), the groundbreaking philologists who assembled and published the authoritative collection of German folklore, as well as works collected by Ludwig Bechstein. Tumanyan not only translated several of Grimms’ fairy tales, but also picked up themes from them that he developed in his own works; for example, the sly fox in “King Chach-Chah” is a kindred spirit of the “Puss in Boots,” “The Girl without Arms” reminds us of Grimm’s “Girl without Hands,” and in “Kadj Nazar” we recall “The Valiant Little Tailor.”

Now a new volume of 20 fairy tales has appeared in German translation by writer and translator Agapi Mkrtchian and professor Helmuth R. Malonek. The book, Armenische Märchen – Howhannes Tumanjan, was released in May, published by the Wolfgang-Hager-Verlag in Austria. It is 100 pages long and contains 20 color illustrations, paintings done by Armenian and German schoolchildren on themes from the fairy tales.

Why Fairy Tales?

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The translators chose to issue a new edition of the fairy tales because it represents a genre that knows no borders, whether geographical or political. The themes treated are universal, even though each language culture may elaborate them in utterly different forms.

As in all the tales by Tumanyan, those selected by Mkrtchian and Malonek display a clear moral; they show the triumph of Good and Justice, and were written at a time, on the eve of World War I, when animosity, violence and oppression ruled. Tumanyan’s tales are intended here to continue building a bridge between the people of Germany and Armenia. In the translators’ view, “strength and weakness, honesty and cunning, cleverness and stupidity as well as the yearning for requited love and esteem — none of these acknowledges any borders or nationalities. They are universal human characteristics and desires; this implies, however, that we are the ones responsible for determining which of these characteristics and desires in and around us shape our actions and deeds.”

Fairy tales teach morality, just as they provide the material for children to learn to read. And they have the ability to stimulate the imagination and nourish artistic talent. The illustrations reproduced in the book are the creations of school children in Germany and Armenia who have read Tumanyan’s tales and been inspired. A traveling exhibition of their works has been accompanying presentations of the new volume in Armenia and Georgia. In early July, the book was presented in the Tumanyan Museum in Yerevan, in Gyumri, in Tumanyan’s birthplace in Dsegh and in the Gegashen junior high school, as well as in Hajordats Tun in Tiflis. The pupils in Dsegh and Gegashen performed some of the tales as complete theatrical pieces, and in fluent German. Several German and Austrian cities will host further presentations of the book and the travelling exhibition over the coming months.

 

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