Diana Der Hovanessian
(Introduction to English translations of Derian's poems)
Vahan Derian is part of the education of every Armenian poet, and part of the adolescence of every educated Armenian youth. Quoting Derian—even misquoting him—is standard procedure for high school and college students. His use of alliteration, onomatopoeia, and musical phrase is problably unmatched in western literature, except by another Armenian poet, Missak Medzarentz.
Derian is often mimicked by writers of popular Armenian songs who out-Derian him by crossing from sentiment into sentimentality, which he did not do. His work, noted for its music and inventive diction, usually adheres to strict forms. Unlike the poets who were his western Armenian contemporaries, Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto, he does not use Homeric chants, and Narek-like cascading rhythms. Varoujan and Siamanto, known for political ideas, hidden political images, even polemic writing, were brilliant inheritors of Gregory of Narek's literary gifts.
However, like Varoujan, Siamanto and Vahan Tekeyan, Derian was also a man of ideas and convictions, a political being. But the striking thing about his poetry is its musicahty. In his poetry of love and loss, homesickness, death and transience, it is the diction and the echo of musical phrase after phrase that endear him to readers.
He was born (1885) and educated in Tiflis, attended the Lazarian Armenian College in Moscow, where he was introduced to the Symbolist movement. He continued his education at Moscow University, at which time he joined the Russian Social Democrats. During his student days he was arrested by the Czarist police for political activity. Suffering both suppression and oppression had made many Armenians of the time believers in socialism of some kind.
His first book, Dreams at Dusk, 1906, made him a celebrity. And Hovaness Toumanian, dean of Armenian poets, called him the most original lyric poet of the decade.
In 1913 he went to the city later called Leningrad to study Eastern languages at the University of St. Petersburg. Here his friendship with Maxim Gorky led to a collaboration and publication of an anthology of Armenian literature. (It was while he was a student that the Turks massacred two-thirds of the Armenian population.)
After the Russian Revolution Derian was in charge of the Armenian sector in the Ministry of the Nations (republics), and attended the conference at Brest-Litovsk with Trotsky. He died in 1920 of tuberculosis.
After Dreams at Dusk, he published Night Remembrance, The Golden Legend, The Return, The Golden Link, In the Land of Nayiri, and Cat's Heaven. He also left unpublished works subsequently collected in anthologies which are standard texts for high school students in Armenia. These add to our knowledge of his life and dark times. He evinces despair, but adds: "How can I complain when each neighbor's sorrow is greater?"
Lighter moments too are recorded in these formerly unpublished pieces, especially in excerpts from poems written most likely as gifts for his wife and friends, such as this one for Arpi (dawn) and Nevart (rose, his wife's name):
He who has never climbed the stairs
to Toumanian's house is unaware
of the real world and worldly wits
who exchange words and laughter there.
He who has never joined with those
where the wine flows as the story goes
has not enjoyed Tiflis decor:
lights of Dawn, flowers like Rose.
For a short time following his death, even while readers continued to esteem his work, critics denied Derian's poetry its pre-eminent place in Soviet Armenian hterature: "Social realism" was demanded by the authorities. The influence of the Futurists, Acmeists and the bellicose Mayakovsky on Armenian poets of the time (including Eghishe Charents) had them labeling lyric poetry decadent. But Charents's final judgment was that "Derian was not only a poetic genius, but the personification of poetic myth."
Currently Derian's work is highly regarded by Armenian Uterary critics. But for reasons only slightly different from those which make him popular with the general public. "His poems," I have been advised, "should be translated in their entirety and in chronological order. They are not only documents of the human condition, they record a national tragedy. First, poems of optimism and anticipation, followed by volumes more and more cynical and disillusioned. But always showing growth." Translating the complete poems I must leave to someone else. This collection is a sampling, a small bouquet, in his memory, for the English reader.
The translator of Derian's poetry faces two problems. The first and most difficult job is that of transferring music, repeated sounds, echoing rhymes, since his is not primarily a poetry of ideas and images. Images are easier to move from one language to another. Music is much more challenging, if not impossible, since Derian's music is written for the instrument of the Armenian language.
In his poem "Roses of Vartavar," the Armenian transliteration sounds like this, "Vartahvaree varteruh var. Yerkogh yerkchit yertvoum em yess."
Վարդավառի վարդերը վառ
Երգող երգչիդ երդվում եմ ես.
Չրդար երկրիս նըման պարտեզ-
Եվ սա ավե՛ր, չարին ավա՛ր…
Սրտի երգիչ , դու բոցավառ
Լուսե երգով ասա հրկեզ
Արդյոք “Հարյա՛վ” պիտի երգես,
Վառված ու որբ երկրիս Համար։
A translator must tell the English reader that the roses grown for the Feast of Transfiguration are red as flame. This is done in three words that roll off the tongue. The Armenian language is inflected and intrinsically musical, a treasury of built-in rhymes. The English language is varied, complex and a rich one to translate into, but it lacks musicality. A lot of alliteration and inner rhymes must compensate for this lack.
A second intimidating factor for the translator is knowing that Derian's poetry, so often quoted in the original, echoes in the minds of most Armenians. But this book, like any translation, is not intended for those readers who can enjoy the original, but was done to make available a beloved poet to those who do not read Armenian. It is for those readers like Anne Burnham who wrote about a program of translated poetry in Washington D.C.:* "Throughout the centuries there is beautiful love poetry, but if only the poem 'Fate' by Vahan Derian had been translated, Armenia's survival in the world's consciousness and the world's literature would be assured."
* Smithsonian Museum, International Poetry Forum program, "Secret of Survival, " with the translator and Michael Kermoyan.
Gregory of Narek, the poet/scholar/monk, wrote his mystical poetry in the year 1000 AD, meditations and chants of immense power and beauty which have influenced all Armenian writers.