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Shakespeare in Armenian, part II

To mark the occasion of the Armenian Independence Day, today's blog comes from Naneh, an Armenian journalist. Her blog explores Armenian translations held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library and sheds light on the fascinating history behind them.

Naneh V H

Background history

Anyone who self-identifies as Armenian will clarify which they are: Eastern or Western. Same goes for language, no Armenian-speaker will be surprised if you ask them which Armenian they speak. The history of Shakespeare in Armenian reflects this. There have been translations in both dialects, tracing the history of the language of a people divided by conflicting empires for centuries.

Western half of historic Armenia (otherwise known as Eastern Turkey or Anatolia), was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and its population – speakers of Western Armenian – was either massacred or fled to Europe, Middle East and the US.

Until 1917, the year the Tsarist regime collapsed, the Russian Empire ruled over Eastern parts of historic Armenia. It declared independence on the 28th of May 1918, and for the first time in roughly 600 years, at least a part of Armenians re-claimed their statehood. Armenians call this 'the 1st independence’ (the 2nd being current independent republic founded after the collapse of the USSR). This territory is what is known as modern Armenia. Those who live there are custodians of the Eastern Armenian language.

Independence was tragically short-lived, as the leaders of the nascent Republic succumbed to the advancing Bolsheviks in 1920. As a result, it was back under Russian control, this time as a Soviet Socialist republic.

Armenian translations 1890s
Earliest copies held at the Trust: 1892 Macbeth, 1898 King Lear, 1896 Romeo and Juliet.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collection of over 15 Armenian-language items includes copies owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (called Shakespeare Memorial Theatre until 1961). In 1964 the Trust and Theatre collections merged and are stored together to this day.

The earliest printed copy is the 1892 translation of Macbeth by S. Malkhaseants. Thereafter come HamletRomeo and Juliet, and King Lear, published in 1894, 1896 and 1898 respectively. They were all printed in Tsarist Tbilisi and translated by Hovhannes Massehian (1864-1932).

He remains the most prolific among Armenian translators of Shakespeare to date. Born in Iran, he was fluent in Persian, French, Russian, German, Arabic and Turkish, in addition to English and Armenian. Remarkably, at one point in his career in government, he served as Iran’s ambassador to London and Germany.

Armenian translations 1902s
Adorned by Shakespeare’s coat-of-arms, these are scarlet covers of three plays translated by H. Massehian, published in Vienna in 1921-1922)

There is a copy of Antony and Cleopatra, published in Paris in 1911, and the three plays published on the 'Armenian’ island near Venice.

The Soviet Era

One can almost trace the history of the 20th century in this part of the world through the collection. Publishing, like all other sectors, was owned and regulated by the state. This means that the Ministry of Culture would, in true fashion of command economy, decide which authors and in what numbers to commission and publish.

The collection also tells the story of how wider political context dictated the frequency of translating and printing. For example, there is nothing from 1940s – a time of war and strife.

From 1930s, the Trust holds The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth.

Between 1953 and 1955, we see three volumes of Selected Works of Shakespeare translated by Khachik Dashtents, himself a famous Soviet Armenian writer.

From 1966, we have Hamlet, and then in 1972-73 there is another collection in Dashtents’ translation.

Armenian translations 1950s
K. Dashtents volumes 1953-55. Inscription reads ‘the Russian-language dedication on volumes of Armenian translations of Shakespeare

Discovering who donated the books is another fascinating treasure hunt. Copies of K. Dashtents’ 1953-1955 translations, for example, found their way to the UK in 1956 via “a group of Soviet Union students in memory of their visit at great English playwright’s house’’, as it’s signed in RussianThe cold war was at its height and only authorised persons travelled outside the USSR, so secret agents or informers would have been both inside and accompanying the group.

inscription Armenian translation
Russian inscription

There is nothing from the 1980s. We can deduce that it wasn’t a time to publish or translate Shakespeare. In the early 1980s the Soviet Union was undergoing an economic and financial crisis. After Gorbachev came to power in 1985 to fix the problem of food and consumer goods shortages, the country unravelled.

Hamlet in Armenian
Hamlet, Antares Publishing House

Between 1990s and 2000s, post-Soviet Armenia revived the art or translation. Modern and classic authors became available in direct translation from English, Italian, Czech and Turkish, among others. Independent publishing houses like Antares emerge and adopt market economics models of book publishing and selling. Their important work includes the 2012 publication of Massehian’s Hamlet translation, edited by Zaven Boyajian. It's the latest Shakespeare in Armenian, and the first in the 21st century. However, given the momentum in translation and publishing, this welcome addition may be followed by a new string of the Bard’s plays in the ancient language.

Fun Facts

  • Armenians honour the art of translation with a public holiday, Translators' Day, every year on February 8.
  • The most celebrated Shakespearian actor of the 20th century was Vahram Papazian who is said to have played Othello 3,000 times in the Armenian, Russian and French languages.
  • In 1902, actress Siranush performed the role of Hamlet, and periodically repeated it throughout her thirty-year theatrical career in Soviet Armenia as the nation’s sweetheart.

by Naneh V H (@Naneh_V_H,

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