The Couplets of Nahapet Kuchak


In his introduction to Ewald Osers' translation of the 16th century Armenian troubadour Nahapet Kuchak's couplets (hayrens), William Saroyan wrote:

Hundreds of millions of poems are written every year in Soviet Armenia. Kuchak didn't start it, but the enormity of his talent certainly didn't stop it, either, by making the people feel they couldn't write that well, so why write at all? Armenian literacy is modest. Some poets don't mind if their manuscripts are not read by more than a few members of the family, and never published. 

Is it a good thing for a whole nation of three million souls to be writers of poems? It is awful, it is magnificent, it is unbelievable [...] When [I was invited] to write an Introduction to this book, I thought, No, this is not my territory at all, but perhaps that is all the more reason I ought to give it a go. And so I didn't refuse. Now the theory is that an Introduction by me would help sell the book. It is a false theory. An introduction, by Jesus, by God, by the Holy Ghost, by the Spirit of Nahapet Kuchak himself, would not help sell his book of poems in England and America - or for that matter any book of poems by any Armenian, any Englishman, any American, or anybody of any kind, anywhere, with an Introduction by a King, a President, or a Billionaire. I buy such books in my neighborhood of Paris for 50 centimes, or 12 cents, all the time.

The scholarship of Levon Mkrtchian is everlasting, thank God. The translating by Ewald Osers is heroic, thank God. Nahapet Kuchak is here to stay, now also in English, thank God. The rest is irrelevant, but at least in the spirit of fun and truth.

Here are two of Kuchak's hayrens translated by Oser:

O Prophet David, hear my prayer,
forgive my sins: you are wise.
I love a beautiful young girl
as I love the light of my eyes.
If such a girl came to your tent
- so beautiful a sight -
you'd let her in, read psalms by day
and lie with her by night.

The sun was brilliant in the sky,
the birds were chirruping their tunes:
I met a beautiful young maiden
like a thousand smiling moons.
"I love you," I burst out to her -
but she retorted with a pout:
"If you love me, keep it a secret.
Never bruit your love about!"

A decade before Osers' translation, the brilliant poet Diana Der Hovanessian (whom Saroyan had called "a rare and enormous talent") had also translated Kuchak's hayrens, in a book aptly titled Come Sit Beside Me and Listen to Kouchag

Here are three of Kuchak's hayrens translated by Der Hovanessian:

God made you comely and wise
and blessed your parents twice. 
Neither sun nor setting moon 
compare with your light. 
You are the morning star 
moving toward Rome
dividing dark from light, 
parting "foreign" from "home."

Your bosom is a white church,
your breasts, lamps and candles.
Let me be the sexton in charge
of lighting this chapel.
Presumptuous boy, don't you dare
speak about chapels.
You're just the type who'd go off
without lighting a single candle.

I am the wild lark who has to be free,
who hides in foreign flocks
if you try to trap me.

Dangle the gold cage and I fly, I roam.
Let the world join your pleading
I cannot return home.


YouTube has a modern arrangement of Tigran Mansurian's 1967 composition Four Hayrens, beginning with Kuchaks' Prophet David:

Դաւի՛թ մարգարէ, իմ յոյս
շատ մեղկունք ունիմ, թէ քողուս.
Եարուկ մը սիրեր եմ ես
պարապար հետ երկու լուսոյս,
Հընցկուն աղուորիկ եարուկ
Թէ ի խուցըդ գայ, նա թողուս.
Ցորեկըն սաղմոս ասես,
լօք քիշերն ի ծոցիկդ առնուս։



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