Regretting the Language You Write in.

Rober Koptaş writes for T24 about Zaven Biberyan and his novel «Մրջիւններու Վերջալոյսը» [Sunset of the Ants], first translated into Turkish as Babam Aşkale’ye Gitmedi [My Father Didn’t Go to Aşkale]. He starts by describing the novel and Biberyan’s life, then continues:

In the letter he wrote to Paluyan in 1962, Biberyan would say “If I honestly had to admit it, I regret writing in Armenian.” He had begun writing in French but had thought “Since I am Armenian I should write in Armenian”. The result were books each worthy of being masterpieces he published in a language nearly no one read anymore, no one would see, no one would discuss. Although he worked as hard as an ant his modest output contradicted his talent. Through his attachment to his country, his political struggle, his refusal to migrate, and his translations into Turkish, it is possible to discern a desire, at any cost, to find a channel of dialogue with Turkey and Turks. No matter how well he wrote, his milieu was not ready to listen to an Armenian writer, writing in Armenian, or the themes he wished to tackle. The reason for this lay primarily in his identity. Just as he says about Baret towards the end of the novel, for Biberyan, even if he began to write in French, later to return to Armenian and later yet to regret his decision, “Even though he realized was better not to be Armenian …It was impossible not to be Armenian.”

Despite being in this circle without exit, Biberyan’s stubborn perseverance to write and to struggle politically is as precious jewel in my eyes. Not imprisoning himself in the Armenian circles with whom he naturally quarreled, he insisted on positioning himself side by side with the Turkish intelligentsia and the Left-wing movement. His translations, his friendship with publishing circles in Cağaoğlu, his insistence on staying in İstanbul, all of these things made him more than a mere writer, it made him a stubborn resistor; an insurgent. Yet in the milieu he was involved with, was there anyone aware that he was writing novels in Armenian? Or was there anyone who was curious about what he wrote? Wanting to create, to speak, to not be silent, to show solidarity to him to end his silence? Unfortunately, we know that many of the answers to similar questions were not in the affirmative.

Those who knew him, describe Biberyan as a bad-tempered person who was difficult to communicate with.

I’ll bet; how could he not be? Koptaş writes at length about the effort to get a better Turkish translation published:

After the Turkish translation was published, a friend of ours who knew well the background of the story, pointed out the differences, the censorship between the serialized text and the printed Armenian book. Although we were surprised and upset, I can’t say that it came as a big shock. For all Armenians, including ourselves, throughout the history of the Republic boundaries have always been present as to what could be said and how it could be said. But the times had gradually changed and Turkey had moved towards a relative climate of freedom (damn it relative, always relative!) and both for this reason and in order to respect the memory of Biberyan, the Armenian edition we produced in 2007, the novel was published for the first time in its totality and in what I suppose I might describe as, a definitive version.

But the story doesn’t end there. Inasmuch as the Turkish edition was based on the original and should have been without omissions but, as a result of some sort of malfunction — or perhaps we should call it a lapsus — only four out of six of the passages that had been removed from the book were added to the Turkish text. […] To cut a long story short, translating this quote from the Armenian text for the first time, we published it in the preface of Penniless Lovers and during the editorial department meetings we had in those days, we decided to put together the next Turkish edition, by thoroughly comparing the serialized text with the Armenian text. Eventually, we realized the book that is now available in bookstores and we hope that this time it is finally truly complete.

It’s quite a tale, and Koptaş’s modesty is attractive (“I didn’t explain all of this for it only to be self-criticism of my editorial incompetence – although the necessity of this is obvious”). Thanks, Trevor!


  1. This vaguely reminds me of Malek Haddad, who decided to stop writing in French after Algeria’s independence – and ended up stopping writing novels altogether as a result. I think I like Biberyan’s approach better.

  2. Me too. I’m reminded of the émigré poet Boris Poplavsky, “who seemed predestined by all objective factors (age, linguistic training, and literary tastes) to become a French writer, but who instead insisted on writing only in Russian” (see this post).

Speak Your Mind