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Shakespeare in Armenian, part III

On the occasion of Vartavar Day in Armenia, we explore the Armenian translations of Shakespeare held in our library.

Jasmine Seymour
Vardavar Day at Garni Temple (I century A.D.)
Vardavar Day at Garni Temple (I century A.D.)

Today is Vartavar Day in Armenia, celebrated since antiquity in the Armenian Kingdom, to worship the Goddess Astghik - the goddess of water, beauty, love and fertility. The tradition has endured for thousands of years, as after the adoption of Christianity, it was re-branded as the Feast of Transfiguration of Jesus.

According to today’s contributor, Jasmine Seymour, this is a jubilant holiday allowing children and adults have fun drenching each other with water, to cool down on an extremely hot summer day in July (counted 98 days after Easter). To mark the occasion of the Armenian summer holiday, Jasmine looks at the Armenian translations by Hovhaness Massehian held at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library for over 120 years and shares her findings with us.

Children having fun at Vardavar Holiday
Children having fun at Vardavar Holiday

1.    The Initial Armenian Translations of Shakespeare

My first encounter with the Armenian translations at The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust library was in autumn 2014, when Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson, Head of Research, enabled me to examine in Armenian translations held in the Trust's library. As they say, the rest became history for me - as all Shakespeare lovers will recognise - once you start studying Shakespeare, you cannot stop. Thanks to Paul’s wise decision, for the first time in Britain, I embarked on my doctoral research about Armenian heritage of Shakespeare. Yet Shakespearean investigation has been ongoing among Armenians since the early 1830s, systematically classified and studied after the opening of Shakespeare Library (1964) and Research Centre (1965) at the Institute of Arts of the Academy of Sciences in Yerevan.

The impact of the Armenian translations and performances of Shakespeare have been relevant not only for Armenians but other nationalities: in the nineteenth century. Shakespeare was introduced by Armenian translators and theatre groups in Asia Minor, Caucasus and many countries across the region.

Publications of the first Shakespearean translations into Classical Armenian (Grabar) of the 1820s in Armenian periodicals in India are guarded at Armenian libraries in Yerevan, Calcutta, Venice and Vienna. It would be worthwhile to investigate any enduring copies at British libraries, due to the links between England and Indo-Armenian editors in the 19th century. From the 1850s Shakespeare was translated into modern Armenian, aiming to reach the broader public: into Western Armenian (spoken in Western Armenia under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and currently across diasporas) and Eastern Armenian (spoken in Eastern Armenia, Caucasus, Persia, Russia and currently the official language of the Republic of Armenia).The first translations into modern Western Armenian were rendered by Aram Teteyan in Smyrna: The Comedy of Errors (1853), The Merchant of Venice (1862), Hamlet (1864), Romeo and Juliet (1866). 


Armenian translations 1890s
Armenian translations (1890s) published in Tiflis

2.   Hovhannes Massehian’s Landmark Translations of the 1890s and 1920s

I was particularly pleased to discover Hovhaness Massehian’s two landmark translations: published in Tiflis (1890s) and in Vienna (1920s).

Due to the popularity of Massehian’s Shakespearean translations among the Armenian public, the names Hamlet, Ophelia, Richard, Desdemona, Othello have been commonly given to the newborns in Armenia.  

Hovhannes Massehian (1846 – 1931) was born into an Armenian family in Tehran, who studied at Armenian schools in Tehran and Tabriz, afterwards at College de France in Paris. Being fluent in nine languages, he became the Shah’s personal interpreter, accompanying him to Queen Victoria’s 90th birthday celebration in London and the coronation of Tsar Nicolas II in Moscow. He was a prominent diplomat and the Persian Ambassador to Germany (1912-1916), London (1927-1929) and Persia’s first Ambassador to Japan (1929-1931). Massehian was equally gifted as a poet, writer and translator, translating European poets and authors from Italian, French, German and English into Armenian. However, today he is remembered for his unsurpassed translations of Shakespearean drama. While Massehian translated over 14 Shakespeare plays, during his lifetime, he managed to publish only four plays in Tiflis (1890s) and four revised editions at the Armenian Mekhitarist Monastery in Vienna (1920s).

The three early Massehian translations at the Trust library are: Hamlet (1894), As You Like It (1895) and Romeo and Juliet (1896), all printed in Tiflis, signed by the translator, and most probably donated in person during his recurrent visits to England. His initial efforts, influenced by Francois-Victor Hugo’s word by word approach, intended to stay truthful to “the Holy Book of Shakespeare” (Vienna 1921: 5). Nevertheless, even those first efforts were superior from previous French or Armenian versions: Massehian had succeeded to retain Shakespeare’s choice of rhymed and unrhymed verse, iambic pentameter, finding parallels within Armenian epic poetry of the early Middle Ages.

Armenian translations 1902s
Armenian translations (1920s)

Sir Sidney Lee - renowned English writer, critic and editor of Shakespeare and friend of Massehian - donated three of the 1920s Viennese editions to the Trust library, as his handwritten dedications testify.

Massehian spent several years between 1918 to 1926 in England editing and revising his earlier Shakespearean translations and working on new ones. Increasingly critical of the early French and Armenian translations, he argued that they did not convey the subtlety and the complexity of the original in the rigidness of the classical framework. In the introduction to Hamlet (Vienna 1921: 6) Massehian explained that he entirely revised his first edition, after studying Schlegel’s and other German translations:

“Good translators have been guided by utterly different principles, and have considered that literary translation sometimes requires certain deviation from the original phrasing in order to remain faithful to the meaning. The ideal translator, hence would succeed to remain as close as possible to the original phrasing, without compromising the soul and the meaning. Such a translation converts into a second creation, a task of extreme responsibility.” 

Illustration for Hamlet (1921) by Z.C.Boyajian
Illustration for Hamlet (1921) by Z.C.Boyajian

The Viennese edition of Hamlet (1921) is opulently illustrated by prominent Armenian-Irish artist, poet and writer Miss Zabel C. Boyajian (1873 – 1957), herself a passionate admirer of Shakespeare’s genius, who dedicated a poem to William Shakespeare’s tercentenary celebrations in London in 1916 (see Israel Gollancz, A Book of Homage to Shakespeare: 1916).

Following the recommendation of national poet Hovhannes Tumanian of his initial 1890s editions, Massehian made improvements in his second Viennese editions 20 years later to include introductions and footnotes. For example, in his introductory essay Hamlet’s Enigma, Massehian evaluated the scholarship of Henry Mackenzie, Edward Dowden, Andrew Cecil Brodley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and August Schlegel to disclose Hamlet’s mind-set (Vienna 1921: 16-30). Following the same code, The Merchant of Venice (1922) and Macbeth (1923), comprised extended introductions and footnotes. Whereas in Othello (1923), apart from introduction and annotations, Massehian – fluent equally in Italian – also included his full translation of Giraldi Cinthio’s story (1565-6) from the Italian original, considered the source for Shakespeare’s Othello.

Hovhaness Massehian died alone in a Chinese hospital in Harbin, on his way home from his final diplomatic assignment in Japan. He would have been certainly proud that 120 years after initial publications, unlike his eventful and restless life, his Armenian translations have found a safe sanctuary in the library dedicated to his venerated Bard.

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