Helping ‘Hands’ from Friends Bring Story to Life In 35 Languages


Elda Grin

By Magdalina Zatikyan

YEREVAN — Artsvi Bakhchinyan, an Armenian Studies scholar, researcher and translator based in Yerevan, brought to fruition a unique literary project. Zangak- 97 Publishing House recently printed a collection of 35 translations of one story. The name of the story is “The Hands,” written by Armenian writer and psychologist Elda Grin, well-known in intellectual circles of Armenia. The story was actually written in two languages: Armenian and Russian. Bakhchinyan arranged translations in 32 languages, including the European ones, as well as Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi and Hebrew. He prepared also a version in Western Armenian, included as an appendix. All are compiled in the book of the same name.

Grin, who holds a PhD in psychology, has taught for many years in the Department of Psychology at Yerevan State University. For more than a half century, she has been immersed in literary life as an author of small stories. Her stories are full of intimate lyricism, psychological depth and thoughtful observation. Anton Chekhov’s famous line, “Brevity is the sister of talent,” certainly applies to Grin, whose small literary products often provide compelling life stories.

Elda Grin (Grigoryan) was born in 1928 in Georgia. From 1943 to 1947, she studied at Foreign Language Faculty of Yerevan Russian Pedagogical Institute. She has published eight books of short stories, among them: A Night Sketch (1973), My Garden (1983), We Want to Live Beautifully (2000), Space of Dreams (2004), etc.

“The Hands” is just four pages long, yet it embraces the life of an Armenian woman from the time of her marriage until just before gaining the status of grandmother. This deeply philosophical, moving story has an unusual background. It was penned in 1984 in a difficult period in Grin’s life, overshadowed by her husband’s illness. She was sitting next to him and recorded the story of a young Armenian woman who falls among harsh in-laws. “The Hands” was greeted warmly by readers, but soon this simple story underwent censorship by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Armenia, where it was considered to be “not in conformity with party politics and government.”

But the fate of the story would be different. As Armenian writer Sero Khanzadyan had noted, “In literature there are many works on women’s hands. However, from this standpoint, Elda Grin was the first to tell the world about the beauty and strength of women’s hands and about the plight of Armenian women…” The story was translated into three languages in Soviet times. In 2007, Bakhchinyan received a proposal from the American journal Translation to submit a story from Armenian literature in English. Afterwards, he translated it into Swedish, in cooperation with his Swedish- Armenian friend, Aram Hellstadius. Then Bakhchinyan thought of collecting as many translations of the story as possible and publishing them all in one book. He wrote to many friends and acquaintances and asked them to participate in his project.

“I am proud to tell that all my friends were enthusiastic about my idea and all of them agreed to make the translation on an unpaid basis (well, the only exception was a poet from Lebanon, but we found a better translator). This is a book of translators, so that’s why I put their brief biographies at the end of the volume. There are people of different calibers among them: from experienced translators with extensive background like Vartan Matiossian (Spanish) or Madeleine Karakasian (Romanian) to beginners,” he said.

The colorful list of translators includes Armenians from Armenia (Maghvala Geurkova- Sahakyan, Georgian; Emma Begijanyan, Farsi), Diasporan Armenians (Harout Vartanian, Arabic; Maral Aktokmakian, Turkish; Arda Djelalian, Greek), Armenians from Armenia living abroad (Arousyak Bakhchinyan-Grino, French; Gohar Harutyunyan-Sekulich, Serbian; Armine Piloyan-Vrteska, Macedonian; Liana Yedigaryan, Chinese), people of Armenian origin (Eric Papazian, Norwegian; Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira, Portuguese; Kristiina Davidjants, Estonian; Kinga Kali, Hungarian), as well as non- Armenians living in Armenia (Konrad Siekierski, Polish; Inga Butrimait, Lithuanian; Santosh Kumari Arora, Hindi). Among non-Armenian translators there are people involved in Armenian Studies and translation (Heinrich Hördegen, German; Roberto Bigolin, Italian; Thomas Feider, Luxembourgish; Antoaneta Anguelova, Bulgarian; Takayuki Yoshimura, Japanese), or just people with certain or occasional interest in Armenia (Sini Tuomisalo, Finnish; Gerda Davidian, Danish; Ingibjörg Þórisdóttir, Icelandic; Liene Grunda, Latvian; Libor Dvo ák, Czech; Kateryna Botanova, Ukrainian; Schulamith Chava Halevy, Hebrew).

It is interesting that women from different countries who translated “The Hands” confessed that they saw themselves reflected in the story. This once again confirms the universality of Grin’s literature.

The story appears in its entirety below (in the English translation).

The Hands

By Elda Grin

When I was just married, my mother-in-law wondered and complained all the time: “Your hands are so gentle and small!” She even showed the gloves I had been wearing before my marriage to our entire neighborhood. “Look at these gloves! They’re like a doll’s. How will these hands work?”

The neighbor women were examining the gloves, sighing and laughing.

“Don’t worry!” they calmed my mother-in-law, “Your daughter-in-law is a beauty instead!”

“Beauty! Who cares about her beauty!” My mother-in-law retorted in irony, “We need working hands!”

The yard where we lived was large. There were divans in front of small houses. From early spring to late autumn women used to cook there, wash and thrash the wool, sew their blankets, patch and knit, and everything they did was in front of everybody’s eyes. They would always find an excuse to come to our couch and watch me work next to my mother-in-law, chopping potatoes or cutting greens.

“Oh, God,” they sighed, “Such beautiful hands! They almost look artificial! It would be a pity to damage them.”

“Work never damages anything,” my mother-in-law would scold them.

Once a Kurdish woman brought sheep yogurt to our yard. She was not beautiful: she had bushy eyebrows and hard, chapped hands. “Vardukh,” uncle Petros, my mother-in-law’s brother said, “If she were your daughter-in-law, she would have done all the work in a second.”

My mother-in-law kept silent, she neither agreed nor disagreed.

Uncle Petros was probably joking, but I couldn’t help it and cried in the woodshed for a long time.

A year passed, and I had a child. Once we were eating around the table. My mother-in-law had placed meat rissoles and fried eggplants on my plate. I ate it all and wanted some more, but felt embarrassed. I finally dared and directed my fork towards the plate with rissoles in the middle of the table.

“Maralo?” My mother-in-law exclaimed. Confused, I took my hand away. Everybody looked at me in astonishment, then at my mother-in-law. I turned red.

“Maralo,” my mother-in-law repeated more calmly, but also excited, “your hands seem to be bigger.”

Everyone looked at my hands.

“They really do,” my father-in-law said with a kind of joy. “They look much bigger, don’t they, Vardukh?”

My mother-in-law stood up, went to the wardrobe and came back with my famous gloves.

“Come, put them on,” she said.

My left hand hardly fit into the glove, but the right one… the delicate lace of the right glove stretched out and tore.

“I swear on this piece of bread!” My mother-in-law exclaimed victoriously. “They really did get

bigger!”

My father-in-law tapped my shoulder joyously.

“It’s true, knock on wood! Shall we drink to the occasion, Vardukh?”

He went to the cellar with firm steps and brought out a bottle of red wine.

“Here’s to my daughter-in-law, may she finally have proper hands,” he said raising his glass.

We clinked our glasses and drank the wine. I felt good.

Time passed. Now we don’t live in that old yard anymore; we live in a new four-story house. I have four children, and a few grandchildren. I save my “doll” gloves as relics that caused so much sorrow to my mother-in-law and amused the neighbors. My hands became hard, the joints swelled, manicure and creams have become useless…

“They have turned into worker’s hands,” my old mother reproached me once. “At least put some glycerin on them.”

But I am happy with my hands, even if sometimes I am forced to hide them from other people’s eyes. What would I do without them in this big family?

Every morning I plan out the hands’ jobs on paper. Finishing one job I move on to another. What else should I do? Then what? Anything else?

Sometimes while cleaning the floor or taking dust from the furniture, I stand in front of the photograph of my mother-in-law, now deceased, and show her my hands.

“Look,” I say calmly, “do you see what my hands turned into? Now they are the hands of a working woman! But you, being so conservative, woven completely of traditions, also being so well-off, never considered it worthy to put a weddingring on your young daughter-in-law’s finger, not even a simple one… Perhaps now you will consider me worthy of that?”

My mother-in-law keeps silent; my monolog lasts several minutes. A duster in my hand, I am passing from the dresser to the record-player, from there — to the bookshelves, forgetting the old, typical female adage, which seems so small among the big and deep wounds…

“Faster, faster!” I tell my hands to rush.

Then I compliment myself: “Well done!”

Shouldn’t someone praise them finally?