April 24 is the day when arrests of notable Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople 105 years ago marked the beginning of one of the gravest episodes in the history of the 20th century. Later, the fate of the Armenian people was shared by some other peoples and nations. The subsequent tragic events might be one of the reasons why the Armenian Genocide is less well-known, why we can still discover and learn a great deal about it, not in the last place thanks to the medium of literature. One of the most impressive literary works about this subject is Franz Werfel’s novel with a somehow mysterious title “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” recently translated into Latvian and published by “Jāņa Rozes apgāds”.
The novel was translated by Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana who is mainly known as the translator of works by such Japanese authors as Natsume Soseki, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, and Akutagawa Ryunosuke. She has translated into Latvian also fiction and non-fiction from English, Russian and German. We might add that Ilze is the spouse of Tigran Mkrtchyan, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Therefore one should not wonder why many of her translations are works with Armenian themes.
Ilva Skulte: Let’s begin with a very simple question – what was so interesting and important in Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” that you decided to tackle such a mammoth project?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: You are right ‒ I really wanted to translate this novel and now I would like to seize the opportunity and thank the editors of the publishing house “Jāņa Rozes apgāds” who saw the grandiosity of the project very well, yet were willing to try and solve the practical problems which arose in the process of its realization. As for me, I can only say that for more than 15 years my life has been closely linked to Armenia and that is why I am trying to do what I can to deepen the mutual understanding and respect between Latvians and Armenians.
I think ultimately it was also a wish to repay my debt of gratitude – to Latvia where I was born and bred and to Armenia which is my home now.
At the same time, there was at least one more important factor at play. I call it ‘my missionary inclinations’, my ever-present urge to introduce others to what I myself deem interesting and important. For a number of reasons my chosen field is literary translation therefore it is also a field, I can hope to make some difference. For example, I can advise my Armenian colleagues to pay attention to this or that work of Latvian literature which, to my mind, should be translated into Armenian. And, of course, I can also do something myself, i. e. introduce my fellow Latvian readers to this or that important literary work about Armenia and Armenians. I don’t translate from Armenian which is why I have always looked for Armenian writers who write in other languages. There are many such authors, Narine Abgaryan and Chris Bohjalian are just two good examples. As for the Austrian writer Franz Werfel – his “Musa Dagh” is an absolutely classic work which often and quite fittingly has been called his “Armenian epos.” I am very delighted and very grateful that I was given the chance to translate it.
Ilva Skulte։ Now a very spring-like question. The novel begins with a contemplative episode on the mountaintop. Gabriel Bagradyan, one of the main characters, has returned to his ancestral home after years abroad and looks at the seemingly peaceful landscape. The background, however, is ever-present and increasing dread. Fear can be fought off if one chooses so but one can hardly hope to fully overcome it. There is no information and therefore no clear understanding. The enlightened rationality of a European mind commands one to think in terms of cause and effect, to trust that events will unfold in a predictable and civilized way… The author masterfully describes every character’s emotions, psychological mechanisms, and later also transformations of human relationships. Nowadays, we can perhaps better understand such feelings even if the context differs. How do people perceive a coming crisis which could eventually affect them? Does nature play a role in such times? How can the environment and place affect our emotions?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: I think your questions already encompass some answers. Yes, often we try to fight off fear and other unpleasant emotions choosing not to think about things that could very well happen. We try to ignore the possibility that we too could be affected by that slowly approaching but a dreadful threat. “I'll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day,” – yes, sometimes we tend to think along these lines. Such was also my own first and largely unconscious reaction to the global pandemic and the very real chance that our corner of the world won’t escape it either. Probably it is some kind of psychological defense mechanism… And nature… Yes, nature helps us relax, look around, and maybe transcend the given situation. In Werfel’s novel one can find several episodes where the author wonderfully describes how a person’s feelings change and transform when that person turns to nature, looks at the starry sky above them – just like Kant once did.
Ilva Skulte: The novel has a somewhat mysterious title, at least it could be mysterious for most Latvian readers who might fail to grasp what exactly is ‘Musa Dagh’. Should this place name evoke some biblical allusions, e.g. with the mountain of Moses, with forty years in the desert, etc? Can you tell us more about the history of the mountain and its symbolic meaning?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: At first, I would like to emphasize that we all who worked on this project realized that the book’s title in Latvian was going to be problematic. Several options were considered. Should we translate the toponym so that it would become ‘the mountain of Moses’? Should we alter the title of the novel so that it would become, say, “Forty days on Musa Dagh” thus helping the potential readers imagine what the book could be about? What is more, the etymology of the toponym ‘Musa Dagh’ is not clear – it could have initially meant ‘the mountain of Moses’, the mountain of Muses’ or maybe it was named so in honor of some local hero Musa. Unfortunately, nowadays nobody can tell with absolute certainty which etymology is correct. Werfel, of course, wanted to emphasize the biblical associations – Moses, the forty years in exile, forty days in the desert, or however one wants to interpret the deeper symbolic meaning of this novel’s title. Thus the Latvian edition acquired its title which may be slightly mystical or mysterious and allows plenty of interpretation.
Ilva Skulte: Many other toponyms in Werfel’s novel evoke turbulent times and events in the relatively recent past. What exactly did take place in Turkey’s inland provinces during World War I?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: Exactly what is described in the novel, up to the tiniest details. When I first started to contemplate this project I already knew that one of my tasks would be research - in order to understand what is definitely fiction and what might perhaps be closer to non-fiction in this novel. I was looking for and reading sources about events in Zeytun, Marash, Yoghonoluk, and many other places mentioned in “Musa Dagh.” Of course, the selection was somehow limited because only sources known to the author could be used. And what did I discover? Werfel who had very painstakingly and for a long time studied all available literature and sources on the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire and especially on the Armenian Genocide, which began but by no means ended in 1915, has incorporated in the text of his novel lengthy quotes from eyewitnesses accounts, letters, and other documents. Sometimes they are quite substantial fragments, studiously reproduced and with minimal alterations. It was an amazing discovery which also helped to understand some other things too.
For example, I can say with the utmost certainty that “Musa Dagh” is one of those historical novels which can be called almost perfect. The imagination of the author and the known accounts of the events are ideally balanced. So ideally that sometimes even curious things might happen. I happened to read an article written by a retired American officer, a military historian who certainly couldn’t be accused of pro-Armenian bias. Well, in this article he concludes that battles and skirmishes around Musa Dagh described in Werfel’s novel correspond quite beautifully with official reports written by… Ottoman military men who were involved in them in reality.
Ilva Skulte: Is this particular theme popular in Armenian literature? I mean, Armenian Genocide and events around Musa Dagh? Are there any interesting literary works published recently? Any differences in interpretation from what Werfel wrote more than 80 years ago, before World War II?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: Yes, of course. There is a vast segment of literature about the 1915 Genocide. For Armenians, the Genocide is a historic trauma of such dimensions that one cannot even begin to imagine. More than a million people were killed and perished, what is more, the Armenians lost most of their historic homeland where they had been living for hundreds, even for thousands of years. Many of those who survived went into exile – nowadays, one can find Armenian diaspora almost in any given country and many of these people will tell you that their ancestors went into exile after 1915. Literature, i.e. multiple genres of fiction and non-fiction tries to reflect upon this tragedy but it is by no means easy. In Armenian literature this theme started to appear relatively recently - people needed time to be able to speak about such experience. Or about the experiences of their ancestors. Nowadays there is a number of literary works that touch upon the theme of the Armenian Genocide and most of them have been written since the second half of the 20th century. Some are good or very good, some are perhaps not quite excellent. It is interesting to note that recently this theme appears also in Turkish and Kurdish literature. Armenian-language works have been analyzed by Rubina Peroomian (UCLA) who has written an excellent monograph about this subject. There are also articles about literary works written in other languages.
But even in this context, Werfel’s novel “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” is unique. First of all, it was the first major novel that focused exclusively on the Armenian Genocide. Secondly, the novel wasn’t written by an ethnic Armenian but by an Austrian writer of Jewish origin who was able to feel the pain of people not his own. And, thirdly, the novel is quite unique because its main focus is not the tragedy of victims but an episode of armed resistance. Such episodes in 1915 were very unusual, therefore Werfel’s choice of the subject is even more admirable.
Ilva Skulte: How is Werfel’s novel perceived in Armenia? In Austria, Germany, other countries?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: This is an excellent question which relates to the recent discussion about the so-called “cultural appropriation” or, more precisely, how permissible it is.
You know, of course, that one of the most radical approaches demands that we write only about things we know inside and out. It would be ideal if we belonged to the culture in question and would have experienced everything we write about otherwise we can botch up everything. But Werfel, who wasn’t Armenian, describes events he didn’t participate in, events that had happened in faraway places he never visited. For such audacity Werfel was bitterly reproached by a fellow writer Armin Wegner, an eyewitness of Genocide, who like many modern writers was a staunch defender of the above mentioned thesis – one may not write about things one hasn’t experienced because it is impossible to understand them in depth. Well, it is interesting to note that Armenians never found any fault with Werfel’s work. Partly because even the details in “Musa Dagh” seem so authentic that even professionals in the field of history, not to mention laymen, can hardly find any inaccuracies. In Armenia Werfel’s novel has achieved an iconic status. It is not only a testimony about Genocide, but a very reliable, believable and very powerful testimony. As for German-speaking world, Werfel always has been and still remains a highly respected classic whose work still has its own devoted readership.
Ilva Skulte: Translation can be tricky if one has to deal with a text that describes different culture in different times. What was your biggest challenge? I myself noticed the rather strange usage of the word ‘race’. I can imagine where it comes from but how do you think should the Latvian readers perceive ‘race’ or maybe ‘racism’ in the context of this particular novel?
Ilze Paegle-Mkrtčjana: Oh, these are problems and challenges I could speak about for hours! Translating literary works written, say, fifty or more years ago, one always has to solve one specific problem. Namely, how far can we go in modernizing the text? Of course, a certain degree of modernization is inevitable – every translation is an interpretation authored by a person wh...