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  • Literary Translation and the Expansion of the Ottoman Armenian Reading Public, 1853–1884
  • Jennifer Manoukian (bio)


In 1902, an Ottoman Armenian writer stood before a reception in Paris organized in honor of the centennial of Victor Hugo’s birth. This young man, Arshag Chobanian, had come as part of a delegation to pay tribute to the French writer and to describe the particular resonance of his work for Armenian readers in the Ottoman Empire. “All Armenians know the name Victor Hugo thanks to Les Misérables,” he said, “a delectable book that every last one of our peasants and the humblest of our village schoolteachers have read and reread and that has become like a second gospel for our people.”1 In hearing such a speech about impassioned Armenian readers and their love of French literature, the audience had little reason to suspect that the state of the Ottoman Armenian reading public was or ever had been any different. But, in reality, the concept of mass literacy—let alone an interest in reading as a form of entertainment—was still relatively new in 1902 and nowhere near as widespread as Chobanian suggested. Instilling the importance of reading and beginning the slow process of expanding the reading public were the work of a group of intellectuals who only sixty years earlier had intervened to change the general apathy toward reading and purposefully cultivate an appetite for literature among the general populace.

Translated literature played an important role in the expansion of this reading public in the second half of the nineteenth century. This article focuses on the agency of translators at a time when literary translation predominated in Ottoman Armenian popular print culture. The article begins with a look at the state of the reading public in the mid-nineteenth century and the formation of a top-down “love of reading” (ընթերցասիրութիւն) campaign that sought to “cure” Ottoman Armenians of their indifference toward reading. The work of the prolific Dedeyan Publishing House in [End Page 128] Smyrna (Izmir), and its network of translators, is examined as a case study, highlighting the particular strategies they used in support of this campaign. Both the literary works they chose and the particular form of Armenian they used were intended to facilitate the entry of new readers into the reading public. At the same time, these choices also defined the boundaries of the reading public and sought to model social values and language practices for the new national community, sometimes at the expense of reaching and appealing to the broadest range of readers. The article ends with a discussion of the limits of their reach and a preliminary look at the response of readers, allowing us to understand how these translations helped to bring into being avid readers like Chobanian and many other men and women of his generation.

This article strives to make three main contributions. First, it aims to add to the growing body of research that brings together book history and translation history.2 In recent years, the isolation of these two complementary fields has been called into question; in the wake of appeals for cross-polli-nation, certain translation historians have adopted and adapted approaches from book history to study the roles of translation within the context of print culture.3 This article builds on their work by examining the social impact of literary translation on the expansion of a reading public. It draws on the idea that translators and their publishers represent essential missing links in Robert Darnton’s classic communications circuit.4 As translation historians have shown, both have been critical agents whose subjectivities and decisions have had direct bearing on the texts that readers read.5 While these ideas have been circulating among translation historians for the past decade, they have not yet found resonance among book historians. This article therefore seeks to illustrate what an integrative approach can offer book historians and what can be learned about reading and readers when the focus is narrowed both onto translations and onto translators as critical agents in their production.

Second, this article sheds light on a reading public off the beaten path. The historiographies of reading and reading publics...


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pp. 128-171
Launched on MUSE
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