THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
the Armenian National Education Committee (ANEC)
Death of Hovhannes Masehian (November 18, 1931)
Hovhannes Masehian (1864-1931) was a Persian Armenian diplomat and writer, who became the foremost translator of Shakespeare into Armenian. He was born in Tehran in 1864. His father, Dzeruni Khan Masehian, was the chief jeweler of Shah Naser al-Din (1848-1896). From 1870 to 1878 he studied at the newly opened Haigazian School in Tehran. Afterwards, he went to Tabriz to continue his studies with his maternal uncle, Andon Khan Yervandian, who was the tutor of the heir prince. After three years of studies, in 1881 he went to Paris where he studied philosophy, law, political economy, and literature at the College de France.
Masehian returned to Tehran in 1884, where he taught at the Haigazian School and was hired as a translator at the royal court. He traveled to London in 1897 as the chief translator for the Persian delegation sent to participate in the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation of Queen Victoria. Ten years later, he would be the first secretary of another delegation sent to London for the Queen’s sixtieth anniversary. Meanwhile, in 1895 he had been named head of office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Persia. He managed different positions in the ministry until 1901, when he was designated counselor to the Persian ambassador in Berlin. He became chargé d’affairs in 1906 and held the position until his return to Persia in 1911.
By that time, Masehian had also become a household name in Armenian letters. As the official translator of the Shah’s court (he knew some ten languages), he had translated around 30 books into Persian, of which there is no trace. In 1894 he published his first version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Tiflis. The famous Eastern Armenian poet, Hovhannes Hovhannisian, wrote, “This translation of Hamlet leaves a very beautiful impression on us; first, because . . . the translator knows his mother tongue very well and uses his knowledge with confidence, an advantage that many of our famous authors and translators may envy; second, because that language is rich and poetic, a necessary condition to translate authors such as Shakespeare.” Other translations followed: As You Like It, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Merchant of Venice. Masehian was unable, however, to publish his translations of Otello, Macbeth, and The Tempest. He continued his work until 1901, when he traveled to Europe as a diplomat; by 1909, he had translated nine Shakespearean plays and had translated anew his unpublished works.
In 1912, after spending a year in Tehran as chief of the secretariat of the Persian court, Masehian was faced with an unprecedented task. It was unheard of a Christian to represent diplomatically an Islamic country like Persia. However, disputes among the officers of young Ahmad Shah (1909-1925) ended when in 1912 the sovereign signed the decree that designated the Armenian diplomat as Ambassador of Persia in Germany. He held this position until March 1916, when he went to Paris, probably commissioned by the Shah. In 1919 he represented Persia in the Peace Conference at Versailles.
In the meantime, in 1916 Masehian had been officially invited to London as a speaker in the festivities of the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Between 1921 and 1923, he was able to publish several more of his translations in the presses of the Mekhitarist Congregation, in Vienna: Hamlet, Otello, Macbeth, and Merchant of Venice. Indeed, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice were published in new versions. In the 1910s he had also translated Antonio and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, Julius Caesar, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Between 1923 and 1931, the indefatigable translator finished new translations: Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, and Winter’s Tale. “I am convinced that the translation of Shakespeare’s works,” he wrote to his friend, the poet Avetik Isahakian, “will leave a deep influence on our literature. If the giants of German literature have been impacted by Shakespeare, how much more our writers need that impact? This is why I have devoted myself to that task with all my energy.” He also was a translator of works by other literary giants: Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Lord George Byron, Heinrich Heine, Omar Khayyam, and Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1927 Masehian was elected to the Persian Parliament. In the same year, he was designated as Ambassador to London. He held the position until 1929, when Persia established diplomatic relations with Japan and Masehian became the first ambassador to that country from 1929-1931. Because of illness, in 1931 he tended his resignation to Reza Shah (1925-1941) and left Tokyo to return to Persia. However, on his way he died in Harbin (China) on November 18, 1931. The efforts of the Armenian community of China and the special permission of Reza Shah allowed for his remains to be moved from China to Persia and be buried in Tehran on April 1, 1932.
A school of Shakespeare studies was developed in Soviet Armenia and several good translators appeared in the next decades. However, according to many specialists, Masehian’s translations remain unsurpassed.