Friday, 1 May 2015

Some Fragments About Genocide, Translating, and Ghosts by Arto Vaun

The idea of ghosts in literature and art is ancient, seemingly present from the first sparks of human civilization. Being the only animal aware of its own existence and mortality, it makes sense that we would need to find a way to wrap our minds around our own inevitable absence and the absence of others. Transforming absence into a sort of presence helps alleviate the incomprehensible nature of death and time. It keeps us stumbling forward instead of dwelling on the absurdity of life and history. 

In the past few years, I have used the word ghost more than a few times in my poetry and music. But as this month is the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, I have been wondering about this word and my relationship to it, and in turn, my relationship to Armenianness, whatever that might be.

What do these ghosts rummaging around my poems and songs represent? Why do they inhabit my thoughts so effortlessly?

The answer has to do with the echoes of historical trauma emitting from my great-grandparents, passed from generation to generation, reverberating in the fact that although I was born and raised in the United States, Armenian is almost as much my native tongue as English. But not quite. And that space of not quite is where my ghosts are restless.

All ghosts want something. It turns out, my ghosts have been wanting me to face the duality of language and culture within myself. As a poet writing in English but who often speaks Armenian, I have unknowingly been playing out the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide not so much in my published work, but in the creative process itself. For a while now I have been frustrated at the disconnect between my artistic drive and the slowness of my output. At first, I chalked it up to the usual obstacles writers deal with: procrastination, depression, or just plain old laziness. But these never seemed to add up.

Nigoghos Sarafian
Then in 2008 I began translating the Armenian poet Nigoghos Sarafian, and last year I moved to Armenia (where I’d never been before). Slowly, sometimes painfully, I began to catch glimpses of the narrow corridor between English and Armenian within myself, crowded with voices speaking over each other in both languages, sometimes making sense, sometimes making noise.

The immense strength of poetry comes from the poet’s mastery of two essential currents of a language: high and low diction. Although I grew up speaking English and Armenian equally, my level of reading and writing Armenian has remained far below what is useful for literary work. Of course, there are many literary translators who do not know the original language but work from literal translations and so forth. But in my case, speaking Armenian is part of who I am, and yet it has remained difficult to use on a poetic level, where it is uncannily familiar and remote all at once.

Ultimately, I have realized that my limited knowledge of literary Armenian has actually been hindering my output as an English language poet and further complicating my understanding of who I am as an American and an Armenian. Translating Armenian poetry has been my way of prying open my own work, giving it context, and exploring my identity as an English language poet who often feels that Armenian expresses certain ideas better.


One hundred years ago, an entire race vanished from its ancestral lands almost completely. The Armenian population in Turkey went from over 2 million down to approximately 300,000. Those who somehow survived the slaughter and death marches through the Syrian desert ended up scattered everywhere from California to London to Brazil to Lebanon. One of the traumatic outcomes of Ottoman Turkey’s crime was the stunting of a burgeoning Armenian modernism, based mostly in Constantinople (Istanbul).

In the decade or so before the catastrophic events of 1915, a number of Armenian poets were trying to incorporate concepts from European symbolists and modernists. When one understands the steep contrast between Armenian and English (or other European languages), these poets’ undertaking is all the more admirable and reveals much about the mindset of many Armenian artists and intellectuals within the Ottoman Empire at the time. Poets like Siamanto, Daniel Varoujan, Ruben Sevak, and Levon Larents, to name a few. Until these writers appeared, Armenian poetry was stuck in romanticized nationalist or religious cliches for the most part. But starting around 1900, topics like sexuality, secularism, and the underclass started appearing in these poets’ work. They did not totally do away with the cliches and romanticism, but it was a very big step forward.

Daniel Varoujan

Most Armenians, like other minorities, were second class citizens in the Ottoman Empire. The vitality and innovations of modernism provided these poets with the possibility to revitalize Armenian literature while giving voice to the urgency of their centuries old plight. To the authorities this was perceived as a threat.

So on April 24, 1915 these poets were rounded up, along with other Armenian intellectuals, revolutionaries, clergy, politicians, and businessmen. Most of them were never seen again.

It is well known that WWI took the lives of important poets such as Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg, but their work not only remained, it went on to influence English poetry and culture going forward. As individuals, they were cut down by mass violence, but their poems helped the momentum and progress of English poetry stay intact. The Armenian case is the exact opposite. A newly blossoming trajectory of Armenian literature, which was just starting to reawaken, empower and energize Armenian culture after years of oppression, was systematically wiped out. And an argument could be made that it has not truly recovered ever since. This is not so much because of the genocide alone. Rather, it is more due to the continued psychic decimation caused by the revisionist history and continuous denial of the Turkish government.

Ruben Sevak
Nonetheless, there have been a handful of poets post-1915 in the Armenian diaspora who deserve a larger readership. What is so admirable and important about these few is that they had to navigate a number of difficult obstacles both from within the usually conservative Armenian community and the jarring, overwhelming host countries where they ended up. They committed to modernism, even though it meant most Armenians would not understand or care for their work.

In 2011 I appeared on BBC 3’s The Verb to discuss one such poet, Nigoghos Sarafian. Born in 1902 on a boat between Turkey and Bulgaria, Sarafian grew up in Bulgaria and moved to Istanbul, but then had to flee in 1923 during the Turkish Republic’s founding. He ended up in Paris, where he lived the rest of his life, dying in 1972. He worked as a printer, editor, and journalist, staying mostly away from academia and the literati, although he was active in a small circle of other Armenian writers in France. He wrote in Armenian and French. In over five books of poetry, one finds a voice that grapples with the newfound condition of the post-genocide generation: loneliness, nostalgia, loss, multilingualism, and coming to terms with a new identity in a new country.

Levon Larents
These are common ailments of most immigrants, especially those who have suffered through a collective catastrophe. But what Sarafian does that most other Armenian writers do not, is to face this reality head on by subverting and manipulating language in a way that distances him and creates an alternate space from which he can explore his inbetweenness without leaning on the same old cliches and tropes found in much Armenian literature before the genocide (and after). He plays with melancholy and rootlessness instead of relying on romanticized, overly dramatic rhetoric. By creating compound words, toying with syntax, and combining high and low diction, Sarafian is one of the first and important cosmopolitan Armenian poets.


It is difficult enough to create lasting, high quality literature. It is another thing to do so when a collective trauma is denied, denigrated, and dismissed year after year. The original wound of the trauma stays a festering, painful wound passed from generation to generation. And if you are an artist raised both Armenian and whatever identity of your host country (American, Lebanese, French, Australian, etc) then you live daily with tremendous cognitive dissonance.

By slowly translating Nigoghos Sarafian, a poet who bravely incorporated modernism into a language far removed from Latinate or Romance languages, I am translating myself. Being stuck between two languages is a complicated blessing, but it’s only now that I’m beginning to see that I was never stuck at all, just as ghosts are not as stuck as we think they are. 

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