BY KAREN JALLATYAN
Two translations in two years. Two translations of Krikor Beledian’s monumental Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France, 1922-1972, From the Same to the Other (Cinquante ans de littérature arménienne en France, 1922-1972, Du Même à L’Autre, 2001, CNRS) were published in the past two years: the English version translated by Christopher Atamian in 2016; the Armenian version a year later, translated by Arpi Totoyan. Growing out of Beledian’s second dissertation, defended in 1995, this meticulously researched volume analyzes the Armenian Catastrophe and diasporic exile by presenting the literary milieu and the literature of the “Menk” (We) generation whose authors – among them Shahnour, Sarafian, and Vorpouni – started publishing in the 1920s and were active well into the 1970s. Here, I will focus on the essay “The Bilingual Net” (“Yerglezou Tsantsuh,” 5-39) with which Beledian introduces his work’s Armenian translation. True to its title, this text attempts to think diasporic multilingualism from the prism of reading (hence writing) literature. Before delving into the essay, I invite you to take a brief excursion through Beledian’s literary criticism to see what this author might mean by “thinking” (theorizing) and “reading” (writing).
Beledian the Literary Critic: An Incomplete Outline
Krikor Beledian has theorized about the nature of diaspora for decades, mainly occasioned by analyzing diasporan Armenian literature. . His first series of essays appeared in the journal Ahegan (Beirut, 1966-1970). These and others were later published in the collected volume Discourse (Dram, Beirut, 1980). The brief preface “Leap” (“Vosdoum”) and the introductory essay “Discourse and Reading” (“Dram yev Entertsoum”) to this volume mark the beginning of a series of publications on what it means to read (hence write “about”) literature. These two texts conceive of reading as a decisive event (the “leap”) that puts to test the literary work, actively shaping its past and future, in contrast to conventional understanding of literary criticism as expressing and/or communicating pre-made and stable truths “about” literature. Framed in this way, the rest of the book analyzes the works of Misak Metsarents, Indra/Diran Chraqian, Daniel Varoujan, Nigoghos Sarafian and ends with a letter to Zareh Vorpouni. With the publication of the volume Battle (Mard, Antelias, 1997), which analyzes the literature of Yeghia Demirjibashian, H. Oshagan, Zabel Yessayan, and Levon Shant, Beledian as it were settles his accounts with the main pre-diasporic Western Armenian authors. The opening brief essay, “Two Centers,” sets out to wage battle against sterile academic literary criticism which mutes the “living bodies” of literary creations. (10)
With Flock (Darm, Yerevan, 2015) the anagrammatically linked trilogy comes to a close. This volume collects readings of Terian, Charents, H. Oshagan, Garbis Janjigyan, V. Oshagan – all on poetry – and diverse essays, including one with the title “Identity-Diaspora” (431-464). (How many of thousands of Armenians who love to talk about diaspora know about or have actually read this piece?) Before turning to it, a note on the introductory essay “The Literary Concept” (2009). It opens with the image of a flock of birds to help the author and the reader comprehend the formation and deformation of literary thinking across languages, intellectual developments, and catastrophes. What about the essay “Identity-Diaspora”? There, Beledian theorizes diasporic life as undergoing three phases, illustrating each through examples from Armenian literature written in France. Phase one, rejection of the other (see, for instance, Retreat Without Song (1929) by Shahan Shahnour); phase two, a contradictory state of in-between-ness, pregnant with the opportunity to embrace the profound crisis of identity as a creative state of being (e.g. the poetry of Nigoghos Sarafian); phase three, the unexpected independence of Armenia which leads to further attempts to undermine the legitimacy and dignity of the diasporic experience. Make no mistake, Beledian is not against independent Armenia; what he is, perhaps, against is the indifference towards diasporic reality as such and the refusal, if not the inability, to live authentically and creatively this exile. Engaging in dialogue with Claude Lévi-Strauss and Paul Ricoeur – major European thinkers of the past century – Beledian in this essay thinks of exile as essential to identity since the latter is not a positively given, self-standing thing but always forms through an essential encounter with its other.
“The Bilingual Net”
Now that you and I have made it through the above excursus only partially intact, let’s turn to the essay “The Bilingual Net.” The occasion is Beledian’s reworking of Totoyan’s translation, which makes him meditate on partial auto-translation. The work itself – Fifty Years of Armenian Literature in France – as Beledian notes, is the result of an encounter between Armenian and French cultures, since it is written in French in Paris and studies Armenian literature written in Armenian in France. Beledian opens this essay by first taking issue with literary criticism that erases the active agency of the literary critic. By contrast, he emphasizes his role as first of all experiencing and putting to trial the works analyzed through a transformative act of thinking. This consists not so much in interpreting but arranging and shaping the material. (See pp. 5-13 as well as p. 30.) This echoes, doesn’t it, the reading approaches that, as I suggest above, Beledian develops earlier? Having restored his active role, Beledian turns towards the problematic that is the central concern of the essay. What is it like to live and write literature in a bilingual environment? Usually, bilingualism is analyzed in translation studies, linguistics, and anthropology, and rarely occasions speculations forming out of literary criticism. But is not language writers and literary critics’ primary “material,” too? This is where the significance of Beledian’s essay most strikingly lies and is the reason why I focus more on this section of his essay.
Now, how does Beledian link and think the bilingual with the literary? Meditating about auto-translation, he begins by recalling that identity is not a given; instead, it is essentially conditioned by difference. (17) The reader here, too, should recognize an echo with his earlier essays. Beledian writes: “The foreigner (the others), that is, my one difference, one of my others; the alterity forming its essence obviously and in an undeniable manner had a formative role from the beginning, I would say.” (17) Having reminded of the essential lack in identity, Beledian sets out to think what this might be in a bilingual setting. He claims that the “man of in-between” (18), living in and between two languages, lives in a state of “lasting tension,” wherein the languages are always seen from outside and found an exilic consciousness. (18) The exilic writer by definition discovers that “literature begins with the loss of innocence, immediacy, ties, and perhaps ends with their later invention.” (18) The mind dwelling in and between two languages experiences the irreducible and interrogative strive between the different grammars of the two languages; this reality at any given moment forces the mind to choose between one or the other, and bars it from the possibility of arriving at a “single imaginary focal point” beyond the two languages. Why? Because any call for such a unified horizon beyond language, if it exists, has to come in a particular language, which not only excludes the other language but with it also any hope for such a horizon. Beledian then adds: “And perhaps it is thanks to that state of in-between-ness that one-ness, monolingualism becomes possible.” (19) In other words, exile is profoundly multilingual, or, what is more accurate, hetero-lingual.
Under such circumstances, the existence of one language is more than ever conditioned by its lasting encounter with another. This reveals the “essence” of language which the monolingual prejudice and the ideologies built on and feeding it had forgotten and tend to forget. Beledian writes: “Languages tatter each other, of course, but also each one of them recognizes its own lack thanks to the other’s interposition. It looks at the other, gazes in it, as that which lacks the other. Because languages come to be what they are by excluding the others which form them. And so, they lack with each other.” (21) Beledian conceives translation accordingly, not as a process of transposition of ready-made expressions from one sphere of positively existing meaning to another but as the doubly abysmal encounter between languages. (23) Doubly because both (all) parties of the encounter are themselves essentially groundless. Beledian wonders: “But how to guard the position of the other, if not by calling for an other, which not being entirely different would succeed saying the same with its different words and different glossology, which would not be mine, while being it partially. This is the role of the translator. A kind of intermediary between the writer’s two I’s, to writerly consciousnesses, between two cultures or worlds.” (17) In other words, Beledian conceives of the translator as a “third” other which mediates between the two I’s of the bilingual writer. This “third” other is only “partially” different from either of them since were it “entirely” different, there would be no way of relating to it.
Yet, the danger in theorizing the essential lack of language as “interposed” by another language lies in the easiness with which we can slide back into the gravitational field of monolingual plenitude, obscuring and making us forget the essential lack in another language’s other-ness, a lack that our usual models and practices of translation can hardly represent or inscribe. To begin with, is not translation ordinarily conceived as an act of explanation from “one” language to “an”-other? What would translation look like, read like, if it were to try to give the essential multiplicity of “each” language? To avoid this danger, perhaps it will help to first emphasize that the multiplicity of multilingualism is not a mathematical multiplicity of identically different units; rather, such multiplicity is the living porosity of heterogeneous and irreducible auto-differentiating formations called languages.
The lack (exile) as multilingualism should also be combined with the lack as mute visuality and as the untraceable boundary between voice and sound. Beledian’s literature has consistently and masterfully explored these aspects of lack by collaborating with the Paris-based visual artist Assadour and by meditating on image and voice both through his prose and poetry. To continue being creatively vigilant regarding these issues, perhaps we should keep in mind the following questions: What potential forms can multilingual culture take? How is diasporan Armenian art intrinsically conditioned by multilingualism? In what ways does it come to be in tension with pre-existing ideologies? How to reconfigure – through experimentation, of course – diaspora Armenian socio-cultural institutions that open up to this essential multilingualism and facilitate cultural emergence that could be adequate to the complexities and opportunities of diasporic life? We would have to proceed by singular examples, perhaps first of all turning to a volume of bilingual poetry by Beledian himself, Objets & Débris (1978, Paris), again, in collaboration with Assadour. Here, I also have in mind Hrayr Anmahouni’s work. With this review, my hope is that Armenian and non-Armenian artists – especially writers – would be inspired by Beledian to not see multiple languages as a matter of constraint but would strive to live in the in-between space opened by their encounter, treating it as a space of creation. Only thus can we hope for truly multilingual times to come.
Karen Jallatyan is completing a doctorate in Comparative Literature at University of California, Irvine. He studies the emergence of diasporan Armenian culture through literature and film. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at email@example.com. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for an electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.