Three gems of Golden Age Armenian literature published by Sophene Books

Sophene Books and the Dawn of a New Era for Classical and Medieval Armenian Literature

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By Jesse S. Arlen

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

It’s an unusually chilly Friday evening in September. You put on the meditative piano music of George Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann, pour yourself a generous glass of Voskevaz Vanakan, and cozy up under a blanket to read Yeghishe’s History of Vartan and the Armenian War. You start with the Krapar (Գրաբար / Classical Armenian) text itself, falling headlong into the theologically and philosophically dense epistolary exchanges between the Zoroastrian magi of Sasanian Iran and the leading bishops of the Armenian church that comes near the opening of Yeghishe’s text. As you encounter unfamiliar words or get lost in the at times interminably long sentences, you turn to the right page to check the English translation, then return to Yeghishe’s eloquent Krapar on the left page. Before long, the glass has long been finished and several other albums of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann have been played. As the depths of night come upon you, you read of Shah Yazdegerd’s state policy to suppress services in the churches, plunder holy and costly objects from altars and church treasuries, and torture priests and people who resist. Reminded of the events of last year, you burn incense in the poorvar (բուրվառ / censer) you bought from the gift store at Ghazanchetsots cathedral in Shushi, and say a prayer for those departed, recently and long ago.

Five gems of medieval Armenian literature published by Sophene Books

It is only since December 2020 that such a scene could have taken place — that being the month in which Sophene Books released Five Gems of Medieval Armenian Literature (followed in March 2021 by Three Gems of Golden Age Literature), the first offerings in their “Dual Language Series,” which present the original Krapar Armenian text of authors like Yeghishe, Ghazar, Pʿawstos Buzand, and others, with facing page English translation.

For over a hundred years, dual language series have been a commonplace for other classical languages, like the Loeb Clasical Library for Greek and Latin texts, which come in beautiful, high quality, portable, and affordable bound volumes, and have been critical in disseminating classical texts to a broad and general — as well as a scholarly — readership. Modeled on the Loeb, similar series have been produced for periods of literature later than the ancient and classical (as well as for other languages), such as the I Tatti Renaissance Lirary and the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Such series are indispensable both for scholars and interested readers. Scholars, of course, rely on critical editions for their studies and publications. However, in order to orient themselves to a source and read extensively in the original language, it is generally better to work with such publications, which contain the original text and a translation on facing pages.

However, in order to orient themselves to a source and read extensively in the classical language, it is generally better to work with such publications, which contain the original text and a translation on facing pages. For general readers and students, such editions allow access to the original language in a convenient format. While reading primarily from the translation, the ability to quickly glance from one side to the next to check the original term for a striking word or phrase allows for a richer appreciation and experience of the text than the translation alone could offer. Conversely, when encountering a tricky word or phrase while reading from the original, one may easily check the translation on the facing page.

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Now at last such an experience is possible for classical and medieval Armenian texts, thanks to recent publications by Sophene (and their ambitious publishing agenda). Less than a year to date since the release of the first dual language volumes, the following titles have already appeared:

Thanks to Sophene, a growing library of classical and medieval Armenian texts are now available in beautiful bound editions that remain affordable (about $30 per volume). The interested student, scholar, or amateur may now recline and read at leisure from the Armenian premodern classics, something that until quite recently remained impossible for those who did not have access to one of the major university libraries housing Armenian collections (University of California, Los Angeles, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, etc.) or the private Armenian libraries and collections (National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, Zohrab Information Center, etc.). Most of the volumes also come with maps, a list of key Armenian terms, a brief introduction, brief bibliography, and index. With beautiful dust jackets featuring manuscript illuminations and high quality paper and print production, the volumes are pleasing to the reading eye, will hold up over much use, and look attractive on the shelf.

Sophene Pty Ltd is the work of two dedicated individuals, Dr. Beyon Miloyan and Dr. Kimberley McFarlane, two early career academics and colleagues in fields unrelated to Armenian studies, who formed a friendship over their mutual love of classical literature. Noting to their dismay the inaccessibility of classical Armenian texts, they took it upon themselves to found an independent publishing company that would make the treasures of old Armenian literature available to a modern audience. In addition to the dual language series, they have published translations of modern Armenian classics, like Raffi’s The Fool, as well as fascinating and out-of-print American-Armenian works, such as George Mardikian’s Dinner at Omar Khayyam’s, a cook book and then some, based on the recipes of the famous old Armenian restaurant in San Francisco.

Having become exposed to Armenian literature through her friendship with Beyon, Kimberley went on to learn Armenian as an adult, motivated by her desire to have a taste for the Armenian literary classics in their original language.

As for the principal translation work, a scan of the list above reveals most to be the work of Robert Bedrosian. Bedrosian earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1979, studying under Prof. Nina Garsoïan and Fr. Krikor Maksoudian, and mastering old Armenian and related fields, such as Persian and medieval Near Eastern history. Since there were no Armenian studies jobs available upon his graduation, he ended up pursuing a successful career in computer programming, maintaining his passion for old Armenian texts on the side. Along the way, he managed to marry his twin interests (old Armenian texts and computer science), becoming a pioneer in digital humanities avant la lettre.

Plumbing the depths of Armenian texts and preparing translations by night, Bedrosian over the years produced translation after translation, and made them all freely available online. An entire generation of scholars and students in medieval, Byzantine, and Near Eastern studies have relied on his translations (often without acknowledgment), which in many cases were the first or only accessible ones of key Armenian sources, readily available on his website (which has now migrated to a more permanent and stable location on archive.org). In addition to uploading his translations, Bedrosian has collected, digitized, and uploaded key primary and secondary sources, making Armenological resources more widely accessible than ever before. These resource guides, or “clickable syllabi” are linked to material on archive.org and provide a key starting point for the interested amateur or scholar to be able to dig deeper and discover more. While the bibliography in the Sophene publications themselves are scant, those looking for more may, for example, access Bedrosian’s resource guide to reference works about ancient and medieval Armenian literature.

The other principal translator is Beyon Miloyan, who has translated Yeghishe and several works of Raffi. Miloyan left a promising academic career in epidemiology to pursue full time his passion for Armenian language and literature. His case is a striking example of the possibilities afforded by the democratization and dissemination of knowledge made possible by the internet in the twenty-first century and a testament to what a dedicated individual may accomplish. Never having studied modern or classical Armenian at the university level or in the Armenian studies context, he gained his knowledge from his own independent initiative and by making use of materials freely available online. In addition to his translations, he has now even begun to publish free Classical Armenian lessons on his website and sentences from famous literary works translated into Krapar.

Miloyan now finds himself at the forefront of a contemporary resurgence of interest in Classical Armenian, and as the head of a company that is currently the most active publisher of old Armenian texts. It is notable that this resurgence is taking place outside of traditional Armenian academic centers and largely online. For example, the Armenian Institute in London offers lessons in Ancient Armenian (as well as multiple levels of Western and Eastern Armenian). Dumbarton Oaks, the famed Byzantine research library and collection in Washington D.C., has partnered with the equally renowned Hill Museum & Manuscript Library to offer a summer intensive course of Classical Armenian to professors and early career scholars, along with offerings in other Eastern Christian languages, such as Syriac and Coptic. A reading group called “Krapar & Kini (Classical Armenian & Wine),” organized by the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center, features texts and authors from the fifteen-hundred-year panoply of Krapar literature in a format designed to be accessible to all. Each session is led by a guest leader, including scholars, advanced students, priests, and dedicated laypeople. A recent series of eight presentation/close reading sessions, a collaboration between the Zohrab Center Vemkar, is available to watch on YouTube.

Such developments mark the dawn of a new era for classical Armenian in the twentieth-first century. By means of access made available through the digitization of books and texts, along with courses and reading groups now offered regularly by Zoom, this language and its literature is available to all who are interested and no longer confined just to scholars. And thanks to the tireless efforts and devotion of those at Sophene, one may still curl up on the couch with a real book in hand and get lost of an evening in the textual world of a bygone age.

Jesse S. Arlen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Fordham University and Director of the Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center.

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