YEREVAN — Dutch translator Anna Maria Mattaar speaks Armenian without any effort and without a foreign accent. She is one of those rare Armenian-speaking non Armenians, who translates not only from Armenian into their native languages, but also from other languages (in this case, from Dutch and English) into Armenian. In the person of Anna Maria, we have a tireless devotee to Armenian literature and culture in the Netherlands.
Mattaar lives in Hellevoetsluis and visits Armenia every year. My conversation with her took place during her last visit to Armenia last October.
Anna jan, welcome to Armenia again. Surely you no longer know how many times you have been to Armenia.
I really do not know, Artsvi jan. I first came to Armenia in 1999 with my Armenian husband and three children. At that time, I only knew a few words in Armenian. Gradually I learned on my own and then started translating into Armenian. Before that I was translating from Spanish to Dutch.
How many books have you translated from Armenian so far?
I have only three Dutch translated Armenian books. The first one was Nairi Zaryan’s David of Sassoun, which was republished five years after its publication. This is how my activity started. After that, a collection of poems by contemporary Armenian poet Vahe Arsen and recently Hovhannes Tumanyan’s fairy tales with illustrations by a Dutch artist were published in my Dutch translation. It is a very nice book and it sells well.
I have translated a book on the history of Armenian printing from English into Armenian. A few years ago, I translated a children’s book called Iep! from Dutch into Armenian. Two years ago, Vernatun Publishing House of Yerevan published The Diary of Anne Frank in my Armenian translation. There was a translation from the 1960s from Russian from an abbreviated version. In connection with this book, together with the Dutch Embassy in Armenia and the Civil Society Institute, we developed a program that we implemented in small libraries in different regions of Armenia, during which young people talked about human rights based on Anne Frank’s diary. I also translated into Armenian the 500-page knightly novel The Letter for the King by Dutch writer Tonke Dragt, which was recognized as the best children’s book of the 20th century in the Netherlands. It was published by Zangak publishing house last year. Now I am translating another 900-page novel from Dutch into Armenian, which I hope I will finish by the end of the year.
It is rare that translators translate from their native language into a newly-learned language. That is a big challenge for you.
Really, very big. When I was translating Iep!, it seemed to everyone that it would be easy, because it is for children, but there were a lot of word games, verses, which was still a challenge. I hope it did not turn out badly. Of course, I always cooperate with Armenian editors. Now I translate more into Armenian, because there is more demand in Dutch literature here in Armenia than that of Armenian literature in the Netherlands. There are no other translators of Armenian fiction in the Netherlands. The biggest problem there is the publishing houses that do not want to publish Armenian literature. I have offered many books to different publishers, but I have always been told that publishing Armenian literature is a financial risk: no one will buy books by unknown writers, so they do not want to. I always think of finding an Armenian bestseller, after which Dutch publishers might be interested in publishing Armenian literature.
Apart from the translation, you have implemented many other Armenian initiatives in the Netherlands.
In 2011, I accidentally met the then Deputy Minister of Culture Davit Muradyan, who spoke about the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing and offered to organize an exhibition on that topic in the Netherlands. I tried and succeeded. At the University of Amsterdam, I organized a rather large exhibition on the history of Armenian printing, from there my interest in antique Armenian books arose. I began to study all the medieval Armenian books in the Netherlands. The University of Amsterdam has more than 100 old Armenian books, and the Royal Library of the Hague has about 15․ There are also at the University of Leiden, where I have not finished my studies yet because of COVID. Many of those books have handwritten colophons; I want to write a book about it.
I remember, years ago you said that in the Dutch archives you had found the first Dutchman interested in Armenian, Dionysios Vossius (1612-1633). Upon my request you wrote an article on that topic in Armenian, which was published in Azg newspaper. How did you find Vossius, and are there any other archival materials related to Armenians?
What I found was a handwritten notebook. Vossius was born into a scholarly family with a keen interest in languages. He studied Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic. Vossius published his first Arabic dictionary at the age of 16. It is a pity that he lived for a very short time as he died at the age of 21, otherwise he would have been the first Dutch Armenologist at that time. In the notebook I have mentioned he had copied excerpts from the Bible, in Latin on one side and in Armenian on the other, thus comparing and learning Armenian.
I also found other interesting things. At the beginning of the 18th century, after 17th century printer Voskan Yerevantsi, the second Armenian printing house was established in Amsterdam, where a German has worked there. He learned the Armenian language from the Armenian employees of this printing house and published a textbook of Armenian. At the University of Leiden, I found the first version of that book, which was defective. Seeing that this version is not good, they modified it and a few years later they published the complete version. But nobody in Armenia knows about that first version, so I am going to write an article about it.
Besides, I have an idea to compile a book summarizing the episodes about the Armenians in Dutch literature. There are Dutch novels, in which suddenly an Armenian character appears.
At the moment I am cooperating with the embassies of Armenia in the Netherlands and the Netherlands in Armenia. 2022 will mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Netherlands, and we want to organize events within the framework of that occasion. Next year we plan to organize an exhibition of Dutch paintings in the National Gallery of Armenia, an exhibition of books related to the Netherlands in the National Library in Yerevan, and an exhibition of books printed and written in the Netherlands in Matenadaran. And in Netherlands everything is much more difficult to organize. Let me tell you a story. Together with the Armenian Ambassador to the Netherlands, we were thinking of organizing an exhibition of books related to Armenia at the Hague Book Museum, which wanted to show the ties between the Netherlands and Armenia from the 4th century until today. [4th Century refers to the patron saint of the city of Maastricht, Servatius, an Armenian, who died in 384 – A. B.] I sent the program to the museum, talked on the phone, they were very interested, telling me they would discuss and contact us. I waited, I wrote them a month later and received an answer they had decided do not organize such an exhibition. I wanted to know the reason, they wrote something from which it was clear that it was an excuse. I called them and it turned out that next to that museum was the Turkish embassy, which they were afraid of.
I thought so. Is the Turkish-Azerbaijani lobby also strong in the Netherlands, is there a lot of pressure?
It seems that it is not so much, but in general they are afraid of the Turks.
Anna, being a non-Armenian, unlike many of my compatriots, you speak Armenian like an Armenian. Can you tell me why you learned Armenian?
Armenian is a very rich language, the Armenian nation has a very rich literature from ancient times to the present, it has very interesting writers, a very rich history, which when you read, you understand that the Armenian nation is very resilient, there have survived so many catastrophes, disasters and difficulties, but they remained. That is a very big issue.
Another catastrophe happened a year ago; in those days you were in Armenia again.
Yes, I came to Armenia to work on The Diary of Anne Frank. I came to Armenia on September 26 and the next morning the war started. Then, when I returned to Netherlands, it was very sad that they either did not know about the war at all, or they were saying: well, Armenians and Azeris always fight. I tried to explain that the Armenians are not fighting, but defending themselves, the Azeris attacked Armenia with the help of the Turks and others. But they do not understand or do not want to understand, which is very painful.
What do Armenians have to learn from the Dutch and vice versa?
The Dutch can learn patriotism towards their own nation from the Armenians, because it seems that there is no concept of nationality for the Dutch. The Dutch do not like their nation, their history, what other nations have written about them. And Armenians may learn from the Dutch to accept people as they are. In Netherlands you go out in strange clothes and no one looks at you, they do not say anything, they accept you as you are. I think that is a good thing.
You used to come to Armenia with your family, and for several years now you have been coming without your children.
Yes, I come twice a year, on business, for my cooperation with the embassies and for my studies. It is true that I was divorced from my Yerevan-born husband, but after that my connection with Armenia has become even stronger. When I came to Armenia with my ex-husband, I paid more family visits, but after the divorce I am more free to do my own job, that’s why my workload has increased here. I am constantly trying to establish contacts between Armenian and Dutch institutions. Once we went to Amberd, where I accidentally met the staff of the Aragats Cosmic Ray Research Station. I connected them with their colleagues in the Netherlands, and I am glad that they cooperate now. My children still understand Armenian (although they say they do not), they even speak a little. And my daughter, who did not want to hear about Armenia for several years for obvious reasons, recently said that one day my children and I will definitely go to Armenia again to rediscover the country together…