Thursday, December 19, 2013

What I Choose It to Mean: On ‘Yeghern’ as the Armenian Translation of ‘Genocide’

“The term Yeghern, or Medz Yeghern, is the only word that really captures the essence of what happened in 1915. The survivors used that word. It is the only word that could really explain what happened in 1915. In a world without genocide denial, it would be the best word.”
–Khatchig Mouradian (2009)1

‘Medz Yeghern’: the Proper Name of the Genocide
In the concluding installment of this study on the semantics, history, and politics of the phrase Medz Yeghern, it is crucial to underscore that the exhausting search for recognition should not block the use of the words that our ancestors have bequeathed us. It has been argued that recognition has been sufficiently ensured by two resolutions of the House of Representatives, 3 federal court rulings, 42 state declarations by legislation or proclamation, a sentence in a document filed in 1951 by the U.S. government to the International Court of Justice and another sentence in Ronald Reagan’s proclamation,2 along with official declarations by 20 countries and statements of a host of scholars. “We don’t say that this is the end and the work of recognition has been done; simply, the emphasis should be put on reparation and the rights,” Giro Manoyan, the head of the ARF Bureau Armenian Cause office, declared recently.3
Armenians should not be obfuscated by denial, whether mainstream or from a lunatic fringe, which will probably be as lasting as affirmation. Another worrisome trend—misuse—should not obfuscate them either.
The systematic and premeditated annihilation of 1915-17 became one of the catalysts to Lemkin’s initial formulation of genocide—still without its name—in 1933. Thus, the particular (Medz Yeghern) gave birth to the general (tseghasbanutiun, “genocide”). However, I will allow myself to repeat that the common noun tseghasbanutiun is the legal term applied to any act of systematic and premeditated annihilation, from Namibia to Darfur and from Cambodia to Rwanda, and not the proper noun of the Armenian annihilation: in Armenian, the use of հրէական ցեղասպանութիւն (hreagan tseghasbanutiun, “Jewish genocide”), for instance, is as legitimate as հայկական ցեղասպանութիւն (haygagan tseghasbanutiun, “Armenian genocide”).
For instance, The French and Armenian inscriptions on the 1987 genocide memorial in Valence, France, read: “A la mémoire des 1.500.000 Armeniens victimes du genocide perpetré par l’état turc en 1915” / “Ի յիշատակ մէկ ու կէս միլիոն հայերու ցեղասպանութեան կատարուած 1915ի թուրք պետութեան կողմէ” (“In the memory of the 1,500,000 Armenians victims of the genocide perpetrated by the Turkish state in 1915”).
Clearly, “genocide” and tseghasbanutiun are the legal qualifiers of the act, not the actual name, a fact noticeable in both versions; the Armenian says: “In the memory of the genocide of one and a half million Armenians perpetrated by the Turkish state of 1915.” The proper noun is disclosed when tseghasbanutiun is paired with Medz Yeghern, as in the opening lines of the Armenian monolingual inscription beneath the khatchkar (cross-stone) in front of the Armenian Prelacy of Canada, in Montreal: «Կանգնեցաւ / “Կարմիր Աւետարան” խաչքար-յուշակոթողս / սրբազան նահատակաց հայոց /
Մեծ Եղեռնի ցեղասպանութեան 90-ամեակին առթիւ / 24 Ապրիլ, 2005… » (“This khachkar-memorial, ‘Red Gospel,’ was erected to the sacred martyrs of the Armenians on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the genocide [tseghasbanutiun] of the Medz Yeghern, April 24, 2005…”).
The legal term tseghasbanutiun qualifies the legal term Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime”) in the same way that “genocide” qualifies the (non-legal) term Shoah (“Catastrophe”) in the title of Zeev Garber’s book, Shoah, the Paradigmatic Genocide: Essays in Exegesis and Eisegesis (University Press of America, 1994). The capitalization of the common noun tseghasbanutiun does not turn it into a proper noun, and the capitalization of “genocide” does not make “Armenian Genocide” a proper noun either, in the same way that the capitalization of “holocaust” does not turn “Holocaust” into a proper noun. “Armenian Genocide” is, thus, a sobriquet: a common name that conceals our proper name. Borrowing the words of literary scholar Marc Nichanian, we have to acknowledge that “Today, they [Armenians] are using a common name as a proper name. They do not respect the identity of the Event that has shaped them for the past 80 years. They do not respect their own memory of the Event.”4
Medz Yeghern may be used legitimately and in good faith instead of or alongside “Armenian Genocide,” as Shoah is currently used legitimately and in good faith instead of or alongside “Jewish Holocaust” by any number of non-Jews. Indeed, neither Shoah nor Holodomor, neither Porrajmos nor Sayfo, make the experience of their original users any more unique than Medz Yeghern; all of them are proper nouns of an event in history—regardless of any metahistorical interpretation—like Glorious Revolution, Renaissance, Risorgimento or Reconquista.

Yeghern’ = Genocide from 1965 to 2013
It is worthy to remember that word meanings are not etched in stone (for example, English gay meant “merry, happy, carefree” before it dropped out of use after the incorporation of the slang meaning “homosexual”).5 An unprejudiced examination of linguistic facts shows that over the past 50 years, while tseghasbanutiun was becoming the automatic translation of the legal term “genocide,” with other calques like azkasbanutiun or zhoghovrtasbanutiun falling along the way, the road from the particular to the general was also widening the semantic perception of yeghern. During the past hundred years, Armenian-English dictionaries have crossed the realm of “crime,” passed by “massacre” (Medz Yeghern was translated as “Great Massacre,” for instance, in 1965),6 and even stopped by yeghern as “holocaust” in 2006.7 The translation “holocaust” is not just a whim of dictionary writers; we may note its use, for instance, in a bilingual booklet by writer Levon K. Daghlian (1976),8 an article by literary scholar Vahé Oshagan (1985),9 and a translation by Harvard professor James R. Russell (2012).10
Therefore, it is not surprising that yeghern has reached the meaning “genocide.” In a study written and published in 1965, survivor historian Hagop Dj. Siruni (1890-1973) combined yeghern and premeditation and, thus, showed to have adopted yeghern as a translation of “genocide”: “The Armenian-exterminating yeghern was neither the result of a casual inspiration nor the consequence of the pretexts that the Ittihad constantly put forward; there is a whole pile of proofs that reveals the terrible premeditation (կանխամտածութիւն, gankhamdadzutiun).”11
The meaning of “genocide” for yeghern was occasionally used over the years. For example, a section of Patma-banasirakan handes, the flagship publication of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, was devoted to the 60th anniversary of the genocide under the title, “Yeghern yev veradznunt. 1915-1975” (Russian: “Genotsid i vozrozhdeniye. 1915-1975”; English: “Genocide and Revival. 1915-1975”). In the same issue, a chronicle of an official homage at the monument to the victims of Tzitzernakaberd, entitled “Yegherni zoheri hushartzanum,” became “V pamyatnika zhertam genotsida” in Russian and “At the Memorial of the Victims to the Genocide” in English.12
Since the beginning of the Karabagh movement, the impact of the pogrom of Sumgait in February 1988 created the parallel with 1915. The synonymous character of yeghern and tseghasbanutiun as the Armenian term for “genocide” was underscored and reinforced in an unprecedented way. American anthropologist Nora Dudwick watched the process first-hand and noted, “It seemed that every social and political problem took on additional significance as containing a threat to the Armenians’ continued existence as a people.”13 The Armenian-language banners raised during the huge demonstrations in Yerevan reflected the perceived existential threat very explicitly. One asked “To Recognize the Medz Yeghern of 1915,” and another stated that “Sumgait is the Follow-Up to the Medz Yeghern.” Yet another made the link between both: “If the USSR Government Had Recognized the Genocide [tseghasbanutiun] of 1915, Sumgait Would Not Have Happened in 1988”.14
Dudwick referred to the use of “white genocide,” “cultural genocide,” and “ecological genocide” in the banners.15 The Armenian word chosen to rhetorically enlarge the concept of “genocide” to assess political and social events was not tseghasbanutiun, however, but yeghern, as in the ecological struggle against the chemical giant “Nayirit” (“Down with the Yeghern of Nayirit”), the diminishing utilization of the Armenian language (“To Betray the Language Is a White Yeghern”), or the destruction of Armenian historical monuments outside the borders of Soviet Armenia (“The Destruction of Historical Monuments Is a Spiritual [hokevor, figuratively “cultural”] Yeghern”). Any counterargument that yeghern equals “massacre” here should be regarded as a stretch of the truth; Dudwick’s would have hardly translated “genocide” without relying on local informants. Moreover, a banner that mocked the Soviet slogan of “peoples’ friendship” used yeghern as unequivocal synonym of tseghasbanutiun, “What Friendship after the Yeghern of 1915-1988,” the same as another that stressed the rights of the population of Mountainous Karabagh: “By Respecting the Inalienable Right to Self-Determination of the Karabaghis, We Prevent the New Yeghern [Nor Yegherne], Red and White.”16
Lawrence Sheets, currently the South Caucasus project director of the International Crisis Group, recently recounted his visit to Armenia as South Caucasus correspondent for Reuters in 1992. He described the mindset created by the Karabagh conflict: “In this woman’s mind (and those of many others), it was all part of the same pattern: The Karabagh war was just another Turkish effort to exterminate them, a logical extension of the almost-impossible-to-fathom Mets Yeghern (genocide) of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the dying Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) during World War I.”17 His use of “Mets Yeghern (genocide)” clarified the meaning of the word in the same way as “Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey).” He recorded the name of the event as it had been spelled to him, after many banners had already used yeghern to mean “genocide.”
In the 21st century, the Shoah (Holocaust) memorial installed in downtown Yerevan by the Jewish community of Armenia (2006) displays a bilingual inscription with two totally different texts in Hebrew and Armenian. The Hebrew writing declares: “Lihyot o Lishkoakh / Lizkor Korbanot ha-Shoah” (“To be or to forget / In memory of the victims of the Shoah”).
The members of the Jewish community, who are citizens of the republic and fluent in Armenian, had tactfully chosen to memorialize the victims of both genocides in the Armenian text: “Ապրել / Չմոռանալ / Հայ եւ հրեայ ժողովուրդների եղեռնի յիշատակին” (“To live / Not to forget / In memory of the yegherns of the Armenian and Jewish peoples”).
It would be unreasonable to assume that such homage downplayed the magnitude of both genocides and stated “crime” or even “massacre” (the word chart would have sufficed) in the heart of Yerevan. Here, yeghern could only mean “holocaust” or “genocide,” the same as Shoah, and each of those two meanings underscores their unique nature. The translation by confirmed it: “To live and not to forget: In the memory of the Armenian and Jewish peoples’ Genocide [Yeghern].”18
The identification of both concepts yeghern and tseghasbanutiun has evolved in fully unexpected ways. Residents of various streets in central Yerevan, who have seen their houses expropriated in recent years, staged a demonstration near the presidential residence in January 2012, when the French law draft against genocide denial was initially approved. A spokesperson for them stated: “The law draft approved by France has not made me happy at all, because today a white yeghern [spitak yeghern] is being carried in my homeland, while the authorities and the people are watching in silence. What do we do? Should we go and ask the French to recognize the white genocide [spitak genotsid] of today? How to be happy, when people are being expelled from their own homes and thrown to the street in our country? Let’s approve a law to establish criminal punishment to those who deny the ‘white genocide’ [spitak genotsid] in Armenia. What do you think, will it pass in Armenia?”19
The excerpt has the sole purpose of pointing out the abovementioned identification (spitak yeghern = spitak genotsid), regardless of the degree of hyperbole. Its echo, among many other examples, was found in an editorial entitled, “What Is Going on Today in Armenia Is a White Yeghern” of the Yerevan-based newspaper Haykakan Zhamanak (April 25, 2013): “People very frequently and easily claim that what is going on today in Armenia is a white Yeghern, an internal genocide [tseghasbanutiun], that the Turk massacred the Armenians in Western Armenia and the authorities of the Republic of Armenia are doing that in the Republic of Armenia…”20 The quotes show that the wording spitak yeghern identifies yeghern and genocide because its users claim that the situation was planned; as a matter of fact, it is not an Eastern Armenian adaptation of the expression spitak chart (“white massacre”), frequently used in Armenian rhetoric to symbolize assimilation in the diaspora.
References to yeghern = tseghasbanutiun = “genocide” going back to 1965 may provide a context to Armenian president Serge Sarkisian’s line on Feb. 5, 2013, that “those two words are the same for us.”21 Additionally, the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute’s website in Yerevan has entitled its section on the destruction of Armenian cultural monuments by the Turkish state, Mshakutayin Yeghern (in English, Cultural Genocide; Turkish, Kültürel Soykırım) and employs tseghasbanutiun six times in the text. Neither the demonstrators at Freedom Square in 1988 nor the Genocide Museum in 2013 may be suspected of exploiting yeghern with the aim of “undermining several decades of extensive lobbying efforts for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.”22
The advice to look it up in a dictionary23 seems equally moot. Linguist Ashot Sukiasyan (1922-2007) included tseghasbanutiun among synonyms of yeghern in the second edition of his monumental thesaurus of the Armenian language (2003, reprinted in 2009).24 Yeghern appears as “genocide” in an Armenian-English dictionary published in Yerevan in 2009; its five authors had also translated tseghasbanutiun as “genocide.”25The list is likely longer.
The use of yeghern and tseghasbanutiun as synonyms by current Armenian speakers should induce their Armenian American critics to hone their linguistic skills, as a pioneering Turkish denier in America, former ambassador and MP Mustafa Šükrü Elekdağ, had already done by 2009-10.

Levy, Davutoğlu, and their ‘Helpers’
Moreover, heads of state (Barack Obama) who use Medz Yeghern and, more times than not, couple it with genocide (Pope John Paul II, Stephen Harper) are probably showing the way for Armenian pundits, political operators, and the community at large to get thoroughly acquainted with their ancestral tongue. It is fair to say that setting the record straight with the legal term Great (Evil) Crime in late 2008 or early 2009 would have thwarted the “calamity” scenario installed by the Turkish “apology campaign.” Insistence on the synonymous character of Medz Yeghern and genocide—an insistence that should have been expected from, but not be limited to, the president of Armenia as the counterpart of the U.S. president—could have also made White House advisers and speechwriters desist from including Medz Yeghern in presidential statements between 2009 and 2013; as we already took note in a previous article, they used it since “one side” (e.g., the Turkish one) had admitted it as a “place marker.” Such insistence would have been crucial to avoid its worldwide banalization and deformation. Unfortunately, history can only be written in past tense and not in conditional mode.
Additionally, history seems to be written by the winners, as it happened, most recently, in Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung. After the successful appeal by the Armenian side on December 2010, the defendant appealed in January 2011 and argued that Medz Yeghern was not “the term for ‘Armenian Genocide’ in the Armenian language,” as the majority panel had declared, because it was “generally translated as ‘great calamity,’ not ‘genocide.’” The authority for this argument was Ben Schott’s blog entry in The New York Times, based on Turkish columnist Ali Bulaç’s view that the “best translation” of Medz Yeghern is “Great Calamity.”26 The defendant-appellant also transcribed samples of criticism against the term “by many in the Armenian community precisely because it does not mean ‘Armenian genocide.’” Citing the September 2009 amicus brief from the Armenian Bar Association and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), in which it was stated that President Barack Obama had used Medz Yeghern, “the Armenian name for the Armenian Genocide,” the defendant-appellant retorted: “That representation to the panel by the ANCA simply cannot be squared with its prior objection that the terms have fundamentally different meanings.”27
People not conversant in the Armenian language have been allowed to impose their ignorance over our half-baked knowledge, inadequately suited to engage the challenges posed by recently developed and more sophisticated mechanisms of soft-core relativism or denial.
In this regard, let us consider the following lines by political scientist Guenter Lewy on the genocide of the Native Americans: “In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. … To fling the charge of genocide at an entire society serves neither the interests of the Indians nor those of history.”28 The replacement of “America’s Indians” by “Ottoman Armenians” exposes the grounds for Lewy’s denial, couched in flawed academic methodology,29 in his book on the Armenian “disputed genocide”: the rejection of the malevolent design characteristic of crime, in favor of tragedy or “calamity” which may occur independently of such design.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently upheld the same rejection: “I would not call genocide what was lived through, but it is their choice for those who call it. We need to develop a new language on this issue. We are not denying your pain, we understand; whatever that needs to be done, let’s do it together. But this is not a unilateral declaration of a crime.”30 Since 2009, his ministry has routinely condemned “President Barack Obama’s standard ‘Medz Yeghern (Great Disaster)’ reference to the Armenian Genocide and criticized the U.S. for being prejudiced about 1915,” as noted by Turkish columnist Burak Bekdil, who did not refrain from using Medz Yeghern and genocide in the same sentence.31 Here is a sample from 2013: “Issued under the influence of domestic political considerations and interpreting controversial historical events on the basis of one-sided information and with a selective sense of justice, such statements damage both Turkish-American relations, and also render it more difficult for Turks and Armenians to reach a just memory.”32
On the other side of the divide, it is highly interesting that, in its February 2011 response, the plaintiff-appellee in Movsesian v. Victoria Versicherung had a moment of epiphany: It quoted the relevant paragraph of Senator Barack Obama’s 2006 letter to Condoleeza Rice about the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, including the use of these two words, to bring forward the noteworthy argument that “President Obama reasserted this view in 2009.”33 Unheard before or since, this is the same conclusion we arrived at quite independently in a previous article. Noticeably, even a misnamed “great disaster” with an additional attachment of “one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century” with “1.5 million Armenians massacred or marched to their deaths” is tantamount, for the Turkish government, to “a unilateral declaration of a crime” and “one-sided information.” An accurately named Great Crime would have an even a greater impact.
Gabriel Sanders recently ended his review of Raphael Lemkin’s autobiography with the following reflection: “Critics can argue that Lemkin accomplished nothing. Genocide marches on. But Rwanda and Srebrenica are not refutations of his legacy; they are affirmations of his prescience. Without Lemkin, they would have been atrocities. In the light of his Genocide Convention, they were crimes.”34 In the light of the Genocide Convention, one may ask, what would the Great (Evil) Crime of 1915 be?
As the “great calamity” hoax goes marching on, scholars like Lewy and politicians like Davutoğlu may enlist the logical support of Turkish sources to their thesis and, moreover, approvingly nod to those Armenian sources that continue to recycle statements such as, “at the end of the day, ‘Meds Yeghern’ is meaningless for most Americans, and does not have a judicial meaning.”35
Diplomat and political scientist Ara Papian has observed that “‘Medz Yeghern’ means genocide for us, but it doesn’t mean genocide to the rest of the world.”36 In this context, the well-known paragraph of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass deserves to be recalled once again: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
“‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
“‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’”37
Our words can only mean what we, the masters of the language, have chosen them to mean. An innocent mistranslation of Medz Yeghern may be a mistake, but a tendentious mistranslation is a violation of the Armenian language.
Medz Yeghern and its real and legal meaning of “Great (Evil) Crime” (as well as its contemporary meaning of “genocide”) are the only legitimate choice over the fictitious and non-legal meaning of “Great Calamity” and its variants “Great Catastrophe,” “Great Tragedy,” or even the linguistically inaccurate “Great Atrocity.” Relentless repetition installed “Medz Yeghern (Great Calamity)” within the international media; a barrage of the continuous use of “Medz Yeghern, the Armenian Genocide,” with or even without its literal translation of “Great (Evil) Crime,” should help install it anywhere.
In the end, any pretense of “denialist terminology” to refrain from calling things by their 90-plus-year-old Armenian proper name—as it has been misguidedly suggested following presidential statements of “Meds Yeghern” and Turkish mistranslations of “Great Calamity”—would be an act of self-censorship, playing straight into the hands of the denier. Moreover, it would be the most tragic irony in the ultimate stage of genocide: denial unwittingly self-imposed by those who are bound to fight against denial.

1 Quoted in The Armenian Reporter, June 26, 2009.
2 The Armenian Weekly, June 5, 2012.
3 Hayastani zrutsakits, April 19, 2013.
4 David Kazanjian and Marc Nichanian, “Between Genocide and Catastrophe,” in David Kazanjian and David Eng (eds.), Loss: the Politics of Mourning, Los Angeles and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, p. 127.
5 Mark Perlman, Conceptual Flux: Mental Representation, Misrepresentation, and Concept Change, Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000, p. 182.
6 From Catholicos Vazken I’s message: “Today, 50 years after the Great Massacre…” (“The Message of His Holiness the Catholicos of All Armenians in the Sad Anniversary,” Aregak, special issue, April 1965, p. 5).
7 Nicholas Awde and Vazken-Khatchig Davidian, Western Armenian Dictionary and Phrasebook, New York: Hippocrene Books, 2006, p. 58.
8 Levon K. Daghlian, Yegherni husher/Memories of the Holocaust, Boston: Haig H. Toumayan, 1976.
9 Vahe Oshagan, “The Theme of the Armenian Genocide in Diaspora Prose,” Armenian Review, Spring 1985, pp. 53-54.
10 James R. Russell, “The Bells: From Poe to Sardarapat,” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, vol. 21 (2012), p. 153.
11 H. Dj. Siruni, “Yeghern me yev ir patmutiune” (A Yeghern and Its History), Ejmiatzin, February-March-April 1965, p. 7.
12 Patma-banasirakan handes, 2, 1975, pp. 264, 267 (index of contents).
13 Quoted in Mark Malkhasian, Gha-ra-bagh! The Emergence of the National Democratic Movement in Armenia, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996, p. 56.
14 Harutiun Marutyan, “Tseghaspanutian hishoghutiune vorpes nor inknutian tsevavorich (1980 tvakanneri verj – 1990 tvakanneri skizb)” (The Memory of Genocide as Marker of New Identity: Late 1980s – Early 1990s), Patma-banasirakan handes, 1, 2005, p. 59.
15 Malkhasian, Gha-ra-bagh!, p. 56.
16 Marutyan, “Tseghaspanutian hishoghutiune,” pp. 61, 63.
17 Lawrence Scott Sheets, Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, New York: Crown Publishers, 2011, p. 131.
18 See, where it is mistakenly said that the inscription is the same in both Hebrew and Armenian.‎
19 See
20 See
21 See
22 The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 12, 2013.
23 Asbarez, Feb. 6, 2013.
24 Ashot Sukiasian, Hayots lezvi homanishneri batsatrakan bararan (Explanatory Dictionary of Synonyms of the Armenian Language), second edition, Yerevan: Yerevan State University Press, 2003, p. 264.
25 Sona Seferian et al., English-Armenian, Armenian English Dictionary, Yerevan: Areg, 2009, pp. 456, 569.
26 The New York Times, May 6, 2009.
27 See
28 Guenter Lewy, Essays on Genocide and Humanitarian Intervention, Salt Lake City: Utah University Press, 2012, p. 102.
29 See Taner Akçam, “Review Essay: Guenter Lewy’s The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, April 2008, pp. 111-145.
30 Milliyet, July 7, 2012.
31 Hurriyet Daily News, May 1, 2013.
32 Hurriyet Daily News, April 24, 2013.
33 See
34 The Forward, Aug. 2, 2013.
35 Haykaram Nahapetyan, “Obama vs Romney: Armenian American Community Pressures Candidates to Recognize 1915 Genocide by Ottoman Turkey,” PolicyMic, Sept. 29, 2012 (
36 The Armenian Weekly, Feb. 7, 2013.
37 Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, introduction and notes by Martin Gardner, New York: W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 213.

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