“Dar” by Christine Zeytounian-Belous

Christine Zeytounian-Belous Believes in Ancestral Memories


YEREVAN /PARIS – Translator, painter, poet Christine (Kristina) Zeytounian-Belous was born in 1960 in Moscow and has been living in Paris since the age of 6, where she graduated from the École Normale Supérieure and the University of Paris. She has translated from Russian into French more than 80 books (Andrey Bely, Andrey Bitov, Sergey Dovlatov, Anatoly Kim, Vladimir Makanin, Olga Slavnikova, Alexei Slapovsky, etc.) and many Russian poets, classics and contemporaries. She has compiled several anthologies of Russian contemporary poetry. She writes poetry in Russian and French; her poems are published in periodicals (Children of Ra, Zinziver, Neva, etc.). She has published the book of poetry Days of Predation (2000) in Paris. As an artist, Zeytounian-Belous regularly exhibits in France, Russia and other countries; she is an illustrator of more than 30 books. Christine is laureate of the Russophonie award for 2010 and 2019 for the best translation, recipient of Grant of the European literary award for translation 2012 and Bronze medal Renaissance française 2013, as well as David Burliuk International Mark 2018.

Christine Zeytounian-Belous

Dear Christine, I would like to discuss about translation issues and your roots. All my life I have been doing translations – large and small, artistic and academic, commissioned and as a volunteer, from different languages into Armenian and sometimes vice versa. As soon as I take on the translation of a large piece of text, I immediately get the feeling of a “pain in the neck,” I want to finish it as soon as possible, so I like to translate small texts (and mostly my own). What is your experience?

Translating short texts is, of course, easier and more enjoyable, but if it is valuable (and I always refused books that were not interesting to me), you can enter it  in its entirety and live there for some time. This is not only interesting and instructive, but also useful for the translator’s skill. True, sometimes the book begins to put pressure on the psyche and dream at night. In addition, it requires a lot of commitment and time. You get tired of this. I must say that last year I decided not to translate prose at all anymore. I will translate poetry exclusively and devote more time to my own creativity.

Once you gave some advice to beginner translators: “Don’t be afraid to deviate from the text.” Isn’t that dangerous? Especially in Russian translation literature, quite free deviations from the original are very common.

Everyone knows that Russian translations, especially the poetic ones, are often very different from the original. But in France, the tradition is quite different, on the contrary, they almost always translate very close to the text. But the translator should not convey the text literally, but the meaning and spirit of the work. My advice to young translators is due to the fact that they are sometimes so afraid to deviate from the original that they translate almost word for word, the quality of the translation from it suffers greatly. Always think about how the author would express it if he wrote in your language.

There are many thoughts about translations and translators, both positive and negative. My favorite aphorism on this topic is from Churchill: “Dictators should fear their translator and their dentist, as they are more powerful than themselves.” Do you have a favorite aphorism on this subject?

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For some reason, the Italian “Traduttore, traditore” (Translator – traitor) comes to my mind, but this is not a favorite, on the contrary, a very unpleasant aphorism. One should try as much as possible not to “trait” while translating, translate the thoughts and spirit, not just the words, not to be the “slave” of the author, but not to become also his “rival.”

Russian translator Lilianna Lungina once said: “Translating is great happiness. The art of translation I would compare only with musical performance. This is an interpretation.” Is this true for you?

This is certainly so in the translation of poetry and sometimes in the translation of prose. You need to catch the music of the text and convey it in your own way. When you stop experiencing the joy of translation, it is better to switch to something else. I will translate poetry if it is interesting to me and makes me happy.

“Sirine” by Christine Zeytounian-Belous

Although translating is not only an interpretative, but creative process, are you freer when you write and draw yourself? I would like rather write myself, than translate.

My own work is of course more important to me. But the artist, in order to earn a living, has to “betray” himself and “sell” himself. An artist who “sells well,” often paints the same thing to please potential buyers and spend more time wooing galleries and customers than behind an easel. Making money by translating and illustrating, I was always free to paint what I wanted and how I wanted, without focusing on the market or fashion. And the profession of translator is creative and interesting, I do not regret it. I have had several other professions, sometimes fleeting, sometimes longer, but always very interesting. Actually, it was my rule in life to be engaged only in interesting and exciting things: as soon as something stopped bringing joy, I gave it up. Now, as I said, I am going to translate only poetry, and I am going to devote a lot of my time to graphics and painting. And poems just “come” by “their own,” when they want “to come.”

Christine, because of your surname I see you among those French figures of Armenian origin who promoted Russian culture in France, as actor and director Georges Pitoëff (Pitoyan) and writer Henri Troyat (Torossian). Your father is a repatriate from France. It is interesting that some French Armenian repatriates, before returning to France in the 1960s, made a career in Moscow, such as pop singers Jacques Duvalian and Jean Tatlian, the artist René Hovivian. How did your father end up in Moscow?

My grandparents fled from Turkey to France. My father was born in Paris in 1928. In 1947, my father left for Soviet Armenia with his parents and one of his three brothers. He graduated from Yerevan State University, then went to Moscow to write a PhD thesis, where he met my mother, Natalia Belous. She is a painter. Recently we created some paintings together. My father is a renowned scientist in his field, theoretical hydromechanics, is the author of 15 books under the name Radyadour Kh. Zeytounian. Radyadour is actually Khachadour, but in the French maternity hospital his name was written improperly. His last book was published in 2017, when he was 89. Now, unfortunately, he is no longer able to engage in science, but he reads a lot.

Have you ever had personal “clashes” with Armenian culture and reality and have you ever visited Armenia?

I have friends and acquaintances among Armenians in Moscow. And among French Armenians there are friends and relatives from my father’s side. In the 1990s I took part in the evenings and exhibitions of the “Hyousisapail” (Aurelia Borealis) Society together with Moscow artists and poets of Armenian origin.

Unfortunately, I am not familiar with the Armenian language. My father learned it already in Armenia, and then forgot. I was lucky to visit Armenia only once and only a few days in 2010, when I was invited to a forum of translators and publishers. There were many interesting meetings, excursions to Geghard, Garni, Echmiadzin. Unforgettable impressions of people and nature. The Armenian scenery is breathtaking. Something has certainly responded to the soul: ancestral memory probably exists. I look forward to another visit to my historic homeland…

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