The Upcoming Publication of Hagop Baronian’s My Ledger and the Revolutionary Translation Course that Produced It

Whether good or bad, every “first” is a cause for commemoration. If bad, it is commemorated so that it never happens a second time; if good, that it may be remembered and become a pattern to be repeated as often as possible. This year, Rose and Alex Pilibos Armenian School in Hollywood California, just had the kind of “first” which deserves to be commemorated and repeated again and again.

For the first time in the history of Armenian schools in the United States, and, to my knowledge, anywhere else in the world, Rose and Alex Pilibos offered a translation course in which a heretofore untranslated work of Armenian literature was collectively translated by high school students with the help and guidance of their instructor, all with the goal of publishing it as a book and making it available to the academic and literary world.

The course was developed from the ground up by myself based on my nearly ten years’ experience and interest in literature in translation. Over the course of nearly six years, I slowly and with great difficulty translated Hagop Baronian’s National Bigshots, a lengthy work which is considered his masterpiece. While it has not yet seen the light of day, the manuscript is essentially finished and only requires further editing. In the meantime, I translated and published the smaller and more manageable Pagan Songs of Daniel Varoujan in 2019, which made a moderate splash in the shallow pool of the Armenian literary scene, some of the reviews of which I recently reviewed.

The structure of this translation course, which is so unprecedented that it began and continued to appear in school records as “Hratch Class”, was as follows. In the first few weeks, students who had voluntarily signed up were introduced to some of the methods and philosophies of translation and engaged in translation exercises to establish a baseline of what a good translation should look like. While the approach of different translators can differ, I outline my philosophy of translation in an introduction to be included in the final publication. After establishing this foundation, the remainder of the year was occupied with translating our chosen text, Hagop Baronian’s My Ledger. Written in the form of a diary, each week students were assigned one or more diary entries to translate over the course of that same week using various online resources made available to them, including a freely accessible digitized text of the book itself, multiple online dictionaries, a concordance of classical Armenian, and all of humankind’s collected knowledge at their fingertips on the internet. The goal was to collectively translate the book into English and to publish it at the end of the year under the auspices of the school. For their work, the students would be credited as translators and I, their instructor, credited as editor. Students were graded on the quality and timeliness of their work as any other class, but with the added reward of getting their name on a published book, an achievement they could include on their college transcripts. In addition to this, I held out the promise of everlasting fame not only for creating a book that would be a possession for all time, but for being a part of the first group to do so. I frequently explained to them that this kind of fame-seeking was good because it meant gaining notoriety for one’s intellectual virtues as opposed to the shallow promise of fame paraded in the media of the gross material or vapid and ephemeral bodily kind. In other words, the Kim Kardashian/Andrew Tate kind, which unfortunately is quite pervasive among otherwise intelligent and conscientious youth.

But the course has more practical benefits than eternal fame. Translation provides a practical and concrete way of improving vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension in both Armenian and English by scrutinizing a literary work on a microscopic level the way students never have before. Translation builds a bridge between an individual’s dominant language and their potentially weaker language. For 99% percent of Armenian-Americans their dominant language is English and their weaker language is Armenian. If done right, translation improves the one through the other, the way that an athlete gets better when practicing with someone more skillful than they are. There is a lot to be said for language immersion, but sometimes being immersed in a language has the same effect as being immersed in water for too long, that is, in both cases, a person drowns. But by building a bridge over those choppy waters and repeatedly coming and going between two languages, they tend to equalize over time. This is not a replacement but a supplement to the language immersion they get in their Armenian classes.  In this translation course, they get the practical experience of putting what they learned in both their English and Armenian language classes to use, all while producing a useful, tangible result, a published book, which is good for them, good for their school, good for Armenian culture and literature, and good for the world.

Contrary to those who think both languages have to be equally strong to produce a translation, I know through my own experience that the proportion of one language to the other need only be 2 to 1, that is, the language that the work is being translated into needs to be twice as good as the original language, and the original language need only be half as good to translate out of it. What is more important than parity between the two languages is a high language proficiency in their dominant language, which indicates a high language proficiency in general, while the rest is supplied through hard work and research. If we listened to those who claim that both languages have to be coequal in order to translate properly and waited for the day to come where the Armenian language ability of the diaspora matched their ability in English, then we would be waiting until doomsday and nothing would ever get done; for, the Armenian language proficiency of each new generation is getting predictably worse, not better.

While it might sound strange, as the year progressed, I began to learn how to teach translation. I’ve never had to think about how to teach what I have always done instinctively and as a private, solitary pursuit. As the year went on, I developed a tier system in which only those who excelled and did the lion’s share of the work would be credited as translators, while all others would receive recognition as contributors only.

The book that was translated this year was Hagop Baronian’s My Ledger. I picked this book for the following reasons: first, it fit the criteria as being previously untranslated; second, its length was ideal for completing it within the time-frame of one school year; and third, its subject matter was especially relevant to current events in Armenian politics, culture, and international issues. My Ledger was written at the height of the Eastern Question, that is, concerns over the treatment and fate of minorities in the Ottoman Empire, which included the Bulgarian, Serbian, Greek and, of course, the Armenian Questions.  Indeed, in many cases, the timeless genius of Hagop Baronian, combined with the fact that the more things change the more they stay the same, makes My Ledger read as if it were written today.

Ultimately what makes this “first” so extraordinary is that translation holds such a high place in Armenian culture that the Armenian Church devotes a solemn religious holiday to it, namely, the Feast of the Holy Translators. The translators in question here are Mesrop Mashdots and his students who translated the Bible into the Armenian language for the benefit of Armenian students. But what makes this course so unique is that Mashdots and his students were translating foreign literature into the Armenian language, whereas me and my students translated native Armenian literature, which is animated with the spirit, concerns, and character of our own nation, into a foreign language for the benefit of the whole world, to, as it were, spread the gospel of Armenia. In this sense, I humbly say that what we have attempted to do with this undertaking was nobler than what Mashdots and his students undertook for the same reason that it is more noble to give than to receive gifts. Someone who is always receiving and never gives anything to others is a low, mean, beggarly person, whereas one who gives amply and generously is noble, virtuous and good.

After feeling our way through this first year, the experiment was successful. We produced a high-quality translation that we hope will bring to light the past and current struggles of the Armenian nation, explore the Armenian psyche in an honest and direct way, and even propose suggestions for positive reforms, beginning with the individual’s mind and then everything else later; for, according to Baronian, change will never come by changing heads of state, but only by changing our own heads.

The work will be published this Fall, 2023.

Comedian and teacher; translator of Daniel Varoujan's Pagan Songs and the forthcoming Armenian Big Shots of Hagop Baronian. What makes him so smart is that he is too stupid to understand nonsense.