How I came to know Saroyan
The story of a poster
Published: Saturday November 01, 2008
Nevertheless, we had enough reason to feel gratified. The point, after all, was to spread Saroyan's words, and we had succeeded in doing that. Profit margins were irrelevant.
Eventually a number of new Saroyan posters, with the same textual content but different portraits of the author, were designed. One was the work of Los Angeles artist Arpiar Janoyan; others were produced by the William Saroyan Society.
In December 1986, I received a letter from Robert Setrakian, president of the William Saroyan Society. Up to that point, I had been unaware of the existence of the organization, which had been founded by Saroyan himself, in 1966.
In his letter, Setrakian informed me that the William Saroyan Society held all rights to the works of the author and advised me to at once cease "exploitation" of his saying.
My correspondence with Setrakian continued until April 1987. In the process, I detailed to him all the steps which Wizmen Enterprises had taken to ensure that there was no copyright infringement. While Setrakian took me to task for not having obtained written permission from Random House to produce the posters, he nonetheless suggested that our respective organizations sign a contract for sharing future profits from the sale of the poster. At that point, however, five years into the enterprise, I decided that my work was done, and consequently stopped marketing the poster.
I must confess that I had never read Saroyan's "The Armenian and the Armenian," the story which contains his arguably most famous saying. Then, in 1987, while revisiting my antique collection of the literary journal Nayiri, published in Lebanon by the late author and journalist Antranig Dzarougian, I stumbled on a story by Saroyan that was translated into Armenian and published in the very first issue of the journal, in November 1941! As I read the piece, titled "The Armenian," I quickly realized that it was the story of Saroyan's 1935 meeting with a fellow Armenian, in a Rostov pub - hence the actual source of the now-famed Saroyan poster's words.
But there was still another surprise: the conclusion of the saying on the poster did not correspond to the original's. Thus, in the original, absent was the reference to the creation of a new Armenia.
How could this be? A victim of translation? Was it possible that we had distorted the author's words all these years? There was one way to find out. With the help of a friend, I obtained a copy of Inhale and Exhale from the UCLA library and read the book's last story, "The Armenian and the Armenian" (pages 437-38).
Of the three differences between the texts of the poster and the book, the following was the main one: in the original, Saroyan writes: "When two of them meet in a beer parlor twenty years after, and laugh and speak in their tongue..." The poster says: "When two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia."
I was taken aback. How was I supposed to feel? Had the divergent wording of the Saroyan poster, started by Nakashian, unwittingly reproduced by myself, and copied by everyone else, including the William Saroyan Society, been a falsification? Had we betrayed the great author?
I ultimately came to terms with the snafu by weighing intentions, the damage, if any, and the results. Was the poster wording not quite a faithful reproduction of the original? Yes. But was the spirit of Saroyan's idea compromised by the poster version? Not at all. It is clear to me that whereas it was indisputably wrong to tweak Saroyan's original text, it was done only with the intention of making it even more powerful by the inclusion of the word "Armenia," and also securing non-time-specific resonance to the author's image. Within this context, Nakashian had thought that mention of the beer parlor was not a critical component of the image, and that the productive meeting of two Armenians did not hinge on the chronological proximity of an event like the Genocide.
Today I believe that Saroyan's story, "The Armenian and the Armenian," must be read by everyone, especially the young generation. It must be studied not only in the context of Saroyan's state of mind at 27, when he wrote the story, but its relevance to modern Armenian history and the Armenian people's astonishing capacity for self-renewal.