Translation is the medium in which different cultures and contexts merge with one another, conveying new meanings and themes. A CSR and social entrepreneurship professional by day and a literary translator by night, Nazareth Seferian told the Regional Post about the peculiarities of translating Armenian literature and his personal views on the field.

Interview : Margarit Mirzoyan

What does it mean to translate texts written in your native language?

I’m not a professional literary translator. In fact, my background is in a completely different area, but this is something I greatly enjoy. I used to live in India and moved to Armenia when I was 18, which means that I learned Hindi but, growing up there, my whole schooling and social life was in English, so I consider the latter as my first language. I also consider Armenian as my native language as we kept practicing it at home in Delhi, but I hadn’t read a single book in another language other than English before I moved to Armenia. Consequently, I translate pieces from one native language of mine to another.


How do you translate the language thinking that is specific to the Armenian language and context?

I think, when it comes to translation into English, first of all, it’s extremely important that the specialist is a native speaker. English is not as complex as Armenian, but it has some nuances and details that should be taken into consideration, and literature has a lot of fine details.
I grew up with the language thinking of an English speaker, but as we spoke Western Armenian in our family, I have the language thinking of this side too. When I moved to Armenia, I also learned Eastern Armenian and developed my language thinking in this branch of Armenian as well.
When you have an insight into how the native speaker thinks, both in Armenian and English, it makes it easier to overcome any translation difficulties. You understand the word the author has used, which implies a way of thinking that is common in Armenia, and try to find an English word or a phrase or an approach which, at least to a large extent, will be equivalent to that thinking. So, it’s not only about translating literally, it’s about transmitting the sense of how the person thinks from Armenian into English.


What are the difficulties when translating Armenian authors in particular?

From a technical perspective, Armenian texts tend to have very long sentences compared to English. Even in literature, English authors prefer writing in short sentences. In some cases, I choose to leave it the way it is, but sometimes I break them down. The way we Armenians construct paragraphs with long sentences might be a huge turn-off, driving the English- speaking reader away from that text. The important part here is to understand what the author tries to convey and translate accordingly.


Which writers are harder to translate, the contemporary ones or the classics?

I’ve mentioned the technical difficulties but we also have context and delivery-based issues.
I think contemporary authors are harder to translate. I’ve had only one difficulty with the classics. For example, the author writes in Western Armenian and uses Turkish words; these words, in turn, no longer exist in contemporary Turkish, so understanding that word alone is already an issue.


And with contemporaries?

Firstly, contemporary authors tend to be much more layered and complex in their thinking and delivery. When they say something, there are often several layers of meaning. Authors like Aram Pachyan, Armen Hayastantsi, they refer to events and ideas that sometimes make sense only to Armenians. The references they make in their sentences and language are hard to translate in a way that would make sense in English as well, especially if the reader has no idea or knowledge about the relevant context, history, and culture. The other difficulty is that contemporary writers tend to mix Russian words with the Armenian. I know Russian, I learned it when I first came to Armenia, but the difficulty is conveying the purpose behind these words into English. I say this, because the author intentionally chose to make a character use more Russian words – that tells the reader of the original text something about that character, as opposed to one that uses pure Armenian. Conveying this “hidden message” is a bigger challenge than simply translating the Russian words into English. Quite interestingly, modern authors do this more often than the ones who wrote during the Soviet period.
The modern Armenian authors I’ve translated so far have all been very inwardly focused, they have all been Armenia-centered. The themes of their books are sometimes broader, but the context is very deeply Armenian. In contrast, the Eastern European and South American authors, whose works are familiar to the Armenian reader through their Russian or English versions, feature themes and messages that are very universal, even if the contexts are within their own countries. Being Armenia-focused means that many foreign readers will not relate to our literature the same way that they have to the Eastern European or South American authors that are addressing universal themes with only a light focus on their own context.
But there are also benefits to the inward focus of our authors. Anyone reading these books in English might get interested in and attracted by Armenia and want to learn more about it. The message will be an invitation to explore the Armenian context, but in order to get to it and understand it better, one will have to dig deeper.
Of course, none of these authors had intended to target a global audience when they were writing in Armenian. Perhaps the main target for an English translation in such cases will consist of Armenians that don’t speak their native language, and that’s fine as well.


How did you begin translating?

When I moved to Armenia in 1998, I was a student and a couple of years later, I had the opportunity of earning extra money by translating some reports. In 2001, I made my first steps in translation, and this continued as a side job for 10 years. So, I already had this experience under my belt and a certain expertise in translation when, in 2011, Arevik Ashkharoyan approached me and asked me to translate Gurgen Khanjyan’s novel Yenok’s Eye. It was an interesting challenge for me because I had done a lot of translation but I had never tried literature.


What do you think about translation in Armenia?

I’m very happy to see the large amount of foreign literature being translated into Armenian, both modern classics and brand-new writers. The quality in most cases is quite good. We’ve already had access to these books in their Russian translations but, unfortunately, the new generation is feeling less and less comfortable reading in Russian. The field of translating Armenian literature to other languages is very small, and although quality-wise it is good, and the translators I know are very good, too, there’s a quantity issue. If you want to do a substantial amount of translations, it will definitely take time.


And what about literature? Do you track new books, new authors here in Armenia?

I’m very happy to see how literature is developing in Armenia right now. I think there are very good Armenian authors out there, I’ve already mentioned some of them. The sphere is getting better and I think that the emphasis on the Armenian context is understandable for the time being. But we already need authors exploring newer genres, such as fantasy, or other areas that are more universal and suited for a wider audience. I’m not a literary critic and I don’t want to judge literature in any way; these are just my views as a reader. I think this area of work requires a lot of patience, and we have great agents working in this area like Arevik Ashkharoyan, who has put in a lot of work to promote Armenian literature abroad. This is not something you do overnight. I believe that in the near future, there will be a breakthrough book that will become popular and will bring more attention towards Armenian authors.


And If one day you decide to take up writing a book, what language would it be?

I’m very comfortable with Armenian, but I feel like there are many other authors who could do a better job than me in this language. I have this Armenian background, the history and my different life experience, but my ability to express my ideas in English is still on a much higher level.

Related Articles