“Armenian folklore has it that three apples fell from Heaven: one for the teller of a story, one for the listener, and the third for the one who ‘took it to heart’. What a pity Heaven awarded no apple to the one who wrote the story down.” – Nancy Willard
Sophene Armeniaca (‘from Armenia’ in Latin) is the first endeavour of independent publisher, Sophene Pty Ltd, where we pay homage to the stories and storytellers from one of the oldest existing nations of the world. In order to revitalize Armenian literature for a new generation of readers in the English language, we are publishing original translations of the most notable works of literature that have been produced in the Armenian language. Interspersed with these, we occasionally publish works that feature Armenians or Armenian culture, such as cookbooks and language learning texts.
Our philosophy in translation is to allow our works to speak for themselves in their new language. We also aim to provide readers with the opportunity for a richer reading experience. As such, each of our works is accompanied by extensive additional materials that we encourage readers to use as self-directed reference material. Depending upon the book, this may range from maps of key locations to pronunciation guides, footnotes, and afterwords. We also encourage our readers to make use of the ‘Dig Deeper’ section of Sophene Armeniaca where we provide a variety of historical and literary blog posts that shed further light on the books in our catalog. Each of our editions also features original cover artwork carefully designed for the particular work.
Who We Are
“Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.” – George Steiner
Sophene is the work of two people, Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane, who discovered that they shared a mutual love of classic literature while working together in academia. The project was born when they discovered how difficult it was to obtain quality translations of Armenian classics in the English language. Combining their appreciation of the written word with their skills in translation, editing, graphic design, and research, the two friends embarked on a project that evolved into an independent publishing house with an ambitious mission: to illuminate and revitalize some of the finest works of literature from around the globe.
A Brief History of Armenia
Armenia is one of the oldest nations in the world. The 5th century Armenian historian, Moses of Chorene, tells the story of Noah’s great grandson Hayk (Armenians still call themselves Hye (pronounced “hi”), after Hayk), who settled with his people at the foot of Mount Ararat after leaving Babylon. The founder and King of Babylon, the demigod Belus, sent for his return but was refused. Furious, he marched with his troops toward Mount Ararat to conquer Hayk and his people, but Belus was killed in battle, and the nation of Armenia was established.
Although the story of Hayk’s defeat of Belus is one of folklore, the earliest known ancestor of the Armenian nation was the ancient Kingdom of Urartu (Urartu being the Hebrew word for Ararat). The Kingdom of Urartu was centered around Lake Van (in modern-day Eastern Turkey) and extended from the Lake Sevan (in modern-day Armenia) and Lake Urmia (in modern-day Iran) to the east, the Euphrates river to the west, and was bordered by the Tigris river to the south. At the height of its power, the Kingdom of Armenia under Tigranes the Great extended from the Mediterranean Sea on its western front to the Caspian Sea on its eastern front, and up to about the Black Sea to the north.
In the early 4th century, Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity. After over a millennium of resisting conversions to other religions, including attempts to convert Armenians to Zoroastrianism under Sassanid Persia in the 5th century, and various attempts to convert Armenians to Islam following Mongol and Seljuk invasions and during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Christianity remains the official religion of Armenia. Since the early 5th century, Armenians have had their own language and alphabet.
Today, the country of Armenia is situated in a small part of its original location, to the northeast of Mt Ararat and Lake Van in Turkey, south of Georgia, west of Azerbaijan, and north of Iran. The population of Armenia is approximately 3 million, and it is estimated that there are now two to three times as many Armenians living in the diaspora (i.e., in countries outside of Armenia). The large Armenian diaspora developed following the mass exterminations and deportations of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Armenian Literary Tradition
The earliest Armenian literary traditions originated with the church, with a translation of the Bible and other religious texts among the first works written in the Armenian language in the 5th century. Following the introduction of movable type in Europe, the first Armenian press was established in Venice in the 16th century, and the earliest works to be published included books of prayers, poems and songs, an astrological treatise, and the calendar. Over the centuries that followed, classical texts from “Golden Age” and medieval Armenian authors that exemplify the rich Armenian intellectual tradition were printed, alongside Armenian translations of Greek and Latin classics, and works of history such as Mikayel Chamchian’s monumental 2,760-page History of the Armenians.
Although the Armenian literary tradition had been active for centuries, the early works were published in grabar (classical Armenian), a form of the Armenian language that would eventually come to differ from the modern vernacular. By the 19th century, modern Armenian, with its numerous spoken dialects, had developed in such a way that few published works were intelligible to the general public. Even though attempts were made to revive classical Armenian, the growth and development of the modern Armenian language resulted in the need to develop a modern literary Armenian that was not based on any particular vernacular, and thus ashkharhabar (modern Armenian) was developed, along with two language branches, Western and Eastern Armenian, based on the Constantinople and Ararat dialects, respectively.
Thanks to such efforts, along with the Armenian educational revival of the 19th century, modern literary Armenian became popularized during this period. As described in The Heritage of Armenian Literature, Vol. III (p. 64), “When the public began to experience the joy of reading a comprehensible language, there were not enough books to print. Armenian authors could not keep up with the demand.” In consequence, a large amount of contemporary European literature, primarily French, was translated into Armenian.
At the same time, a cultural and intellectual revival was taking place in both Western and Eastern Armenia, the result of which was an Armenian “Age of Enlightenment” that would extend from the 18th to early 20th centuries. During this period, artistic literary expression in the form of poetry, theatre, and fiction developed. In addition to book publication, the second half of the 19th century also saw the rise of Armenian newspapers and periodicals that published literary works, such as Mshak. The rise of the great Armenian poets and writers by the late 19th century led to a decreased reliance on translations of foreign writers.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Armenian literary tradition was the rise of the historical novel in the 19th century; prior to this, there was no tradition of narrative or prose fiction in Armenian literature. Two of the greatest Armenian historical novelists include Khachatur Abovian, whose magnum opus, Wounds of Armenia (1858), is considered the first modern Eastern Armenian novel, and Hakob Melik Hakobian (Raffi), who wrote such epics as The Fool (1880), Davit Bek (1882), Sparks (1883-84), and Samuel (1886), and is considered one of the most influential Armenian novelists of all time.
The initial aim of Sophene is to pave the way for writers such as Abovian and Raffi to become as accessible to English speakers as the other great writers of the 19th century. As should be apparent from this brief history, however, the works of these authors only scratch the surface of the Armenian literary tradition. In time, we hope to publish translations of the numerous great Armenian writers from both the Western and Eastern language branches in the hope that classic Armenian literature will gain its rightful place in the world literary scene.
Hacikyan, A. J., Basmajian, G., Franchuk, E. S., & Ouzounian, N. (Eds.). (2005). The heritage of Armenian literature: From the oral tradition to the golden age (Vol. III). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.