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'Pagan Songs': The first full, uncensored English translation of Varoujan's once taboo masterpiece

December 06, 2019

Stories

By Hratch Demiurge

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'Pagan Songs': The first full, uncensored English translation of Varoujan's once taboo masterpiece

“Condemned as pornography for its eroticism, criticized by feminists for ‘objectifying women,’ and denounced by the Church as anti-Christian—Daniel Varoujan’s Pagan Songs survived a tumultuous reception when it was published in 1912 to begrudgingly become a classic of Armenian poetry.”

Famed Armenian poet Daniel Varoujan’s notorious work has finally been translated—in its entirety—into English, thanks to Hratch Demiurge. The volume also includes an extensive introduction, helpful notes, and appendices.

Now, if the opening of the book’s synopsis up top piqued your interest, be sure to read our exclusive piece by Demiurge, derived from the preface of his translation of Varoujan’s Pagan Songs («Հեթանոս երգեր» | “Hetanos Yerger”). 

Then, check out the trailer of "Taniel" («Դանիէլ»), a 2018 multi-award-winning arthouse short film by British writer and director Garo Berberian, which tells the story of the last months of the poet's life before his murder during the Armenian Genocide at the age of 31. You can find it in our video section below!

A portrait of Daniel Varoujan, which was published in 1919 in Constantinople's Arkadz newspaper. (Photo: Public domain)A portrait of Daniel Varoujan, which was published in 1919 in Constantinople's Arkadz newspaper. (Photo: Public domain)

A very great work of a very great poet deserving international recognition, Daniel Varoujan’s «Հեթանոս երգեր» (“Hetanos Yerger” | Pagan Songs) is almost as unknown to the general Armenian reader as it is to the world at large. For the latter, the obstacle is the Armenian language. The relatively small number of Armenian speakers and the unique, non-Latin Armenian alphabet make the language inaccessible to most. Despite one early observer who commented, “It is worth learning Armenian to read Varoujan,” no one has done so because quality translations have not been produced to show non-Armenian speakers that it might be worth learning the language to read the original. Most Armenians have the ability to read Pagan Songs, but other barriers stand in their way.

From the 4th century A.D. onward, the culture of Armenia has been under the umbrella of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a branch of oriental orthodox Christianity. As the title suggests, Pagan Songs glorifies Armenia’s pre-Christian past, hindering its acceptance in Armenia’s Christian present. Most Armenians pride themselves above all on the fact that Armenia was the first nation to institute Christianity as its state religion in 301 A.D. As a state religion, the church has played not only a spiritual, but also a significant civil role, including promoting culture and sponsoring schools, especially in the Armenian diaspora. The works most frequently promoted in these schools at present are those imbued with patriotic spirit. In the latter half of the 19th and the first decade of the 20th century, the longing for national independence from the longstanding Ottoman yoke, and the bloody massacres of Armenians in response, formed the subject matter of most Armenian books. Varoujan himself wrote such works; indeed, it was impossible not to. His most frequently cited poems today are of this sort, for example, “The Red Soil,” from the collection The Heart of the Race, an eloquent meditation on a recent massacre of Armenians and a deeply felt expression of righteous but impotent anger.

Varoujan’s «Հեթանոս երգեր» (“Hetanos Yerger” | Varoujan’s «Հեթանոս երգեր» (“Hetanos Yerger” | "Pagan Songs") was published in Constantinople in 1912.

But with his next poetry collection, Pagan Songs, Varoujan chose a different path, marking the beginning of a movement in Armenian literature called the pagan movement (Հեթանոսական շարժում | “Hetanosakan sharzhum” in Armenian). No longer satisfied chronicling suffering and sorrow; no longer invoking Armenia’s more glorious past without specifying what made it so, the pagan movement consciously sought “to revive the spirit of the pre-Christian era, when strength, bravery, and beauty were idolized.”  Some suggest its purpose was simply aesthetic, to make the hellish present more beautiful and bearable; but it also had a definite ethical aim: to revive the downtrodden Armenian spirit by returning it to its origins, to Nature, and thereby arming it in the great struggle against death. At least one contemporary, the poet Eduard Kolanjian, saw Pagan Songs as an antidote to the petty literature of the day:

"Varoujan, with one stroke of the pen, was able to bring to an end that old dreary school which still only a quarter of a century ago, under the pretext of patriotism, only offered us uniformly crybaby, dull, hopeless songs, putting to sleep and benumbing our forefathers’ pagan blood and creative passion."

With the genocide of 1915, which also consumed Varoujan’s sparkling genius, “crybaby”, “dull,” and “hopeless” are all words that could be used to describe the character of contemporary Armenian letters. Varoujan’s Pagan Songs is now more urgent than ever.

But another reason for the neglect of what would become an epoch making masterpiece by the very nation that produced it has to do with a lamentable national trait of the Armenian people. Pagan Songs is ignored and unlauded by Armenians due to the fact that non-Armenians have not lauded it. The problem is circular: Foreigners do not praise it because it is unknown to them, and to most Armenians it is unknown because foreigners do not praise it.

Daniel Varoujan's memorial at the Şişli Armenian Cemetery of Istanbul (Photo: Rupen JanbazianDaniel Varoujan's memorial at the Şişli Armenian Cemetery of Istanbul (Photo: Rupen Janbazian)


Now for the first time, Pagan Songs has been translated into English, literal where possible, loose where necessary, and always faithful to the original. It is now accessible to the international reading public, and thereby to the Armenian people, who only then will learn to appreciate it once acclaimed in foreign capitals.


Pagan Songs is available on Amazon and at Armenian bookstores across the U.S., including Sardarabad and Abril in Glendale!
 

Video

  • "Taniel" film trailer

    (Video: Taniel film YouTube page)

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