A Hungarian Armenologist struggles for perfection of the Armenian language
Benedek Zsigmond speaks of his passion for language
Published: Friday June 26, 2009
The first impression one gets when hearing the Hungarian Armenologist Benedek (Bence) Zsigmond speak Armenian is amazement at the fluency and grammatical correctness of his speech.
He never looks for words. He already thinks in Armenian. That is to say, learning a language and using it seems to be as easy as pie for him. Otherwise he would not write articles and even poems in Armenian. He expresses his poetical thoughts in Hungarian, Latin, German, French, English and Armenian.
"But I am not a poet," he says. "As regards my Armenian poems, I would call them verses. I try to make them poetic and write in rhyme, but a huge poem has a complex structure and multi-layer meanings."
When asked if his poems are about love, he gave an affirmative answer. Over the centuries, hundreds, if not thousands, of Armenians have composed poems in dozens of languages, and now this young Hungarian is writing poetry in Armenian. Moreover, Benedek expressed concern about the current state of the Armenian language.
"As a linguist, I try to describe various phenomena of modern Eastern Armenian and the language spoken in Yerevan without providing any guidance on whether they are right or wrong. A scientist describes rather than criticizes the subject of his study. Yet, as a person, I struggle against the use of unnecessary foreign words. In fact, spoken Eastern Armenian, in many fields – even literary Eastern Armenian – is full of foreign words, which stick out from the given writing by their sound and constitute a crime against style, and they also can be translated into Armenian so these words are not necessary. I am of the opinion that it is necessary to keep such a balance that foreign words will be used only as synonyms or in case of necessity."
Benedek is also concerned over contempt for the Armenian language.
"I cannot accept the attitude whereby, in many places of Armenia, correspondence, as well as conversations, between Armenia-born Armenians are in Russian. I first came to Armenia in 1999: my professor of Armenian, Prof. Edmond Schütz, had asked me to meet with editors of the Historical and Linguistic Review of the National Academy of Sciences. The Russian signboard of the editorial office immediately caught my eye; there was no sign in Armenian. I told them that was wrong. Later the Russian sign was replaced with an Armenian one."
Benedek Zsigmond began taking interest in Armenian in the labyrinth of his many and various interests, which include Latin, French, studies of India's languages (Sanskrit and Hindi), Buddhism and Korean, theoretical linguistics, the theory of sciences, philosophy, etc.
"So when Professor Schütz asked me if I intended to become an Armenologist, I gave a negative answer. I had not made a decision yet. I cultivated a close friendship with Schütz. After his death, his daughter told me that her father had said I was his best pupil. It was unbelievable that he considered me – the last pupil in his 50-year teaching activity – as the best."
Although Benedek modestly does not consider himself a poet, it is impossible to translate poems and not to be a poet. Armenian Anthology in Hungarian, which was compiled and translated by him, was published in Budapest in 2006. The collection contains 20 translations from Armenian poetry, including ten religious poems and ten secular ones – from Narekatsi to Paruyr Sevak.
"I like Charents and Sayat-Nova very much. ‘Like a Wanderer Firebird...,' a poem by Sayat-Nova, was my first translation from Armenian, which I have translated into Latin..."
It is a fascinating linguistic adventure to make translations into dead languages, but Benedek's attempts in this regard are not limited to pure experimentation as an end in itself. Based on Nerses Shnorhali's poems translated by Benedek from Armenian into Latin, the Armenian composer Vache Sharafian wrote the choral work "Canticum dolorosum et pacificum," which was performed for the first time in Yerevan in early June.
Benedek Zsigmond himself is not far from music. He studied Armenian religious music of Transylvania and published an article about a manuscript on this subject. In 2004 he organized "Saint John Chrysostom" choir in Budapest, led it for four years, and then entrusted this job to a professional musician. The choir performs the Armenian liturgy. For this purpose, Benedek published a bilingual (Armenian-Hungarian) book on liturgy singing. "Saint John Chrysostom" gave performances in Budapest and Prague, but has not yet toured Armenia.
"I have much work to do," Benedek says. "I am continuing to work on my Ph.D. thesis on the Holy Armenian Liturgy. I give Armenological lectures and teach Armenian in Budapest. My pupils are either Armenian Hungarians who settled in Hungary in the past or Hungarians taking interest in the Armenian language. I have two groups composed of adults and students. There is no chair of Armenology at my university – ELTE University in Budapest – but I do hope that it will open in the near future. At the present time I am working on an Armenian-Hungarian and Hungarian-Armenian dictionary. I am going to make new translations, write new articles. And, of course, keep visiting Armenia twice a year...."