THE MELANCHOLY TRANSLATOR: SIRAK WÄLDÄ SELLASSE HIRUYS AMHARIC TRANSLATION OF SAMUEL JOHNSON’S RASSELAS

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THE MELANCHOLY TRANSLATOR: SIRAK WÄLDÄ SELLASSE HIRUYS AMHARIC TRANSLATION OF SAMUEL JOHNSON’S RASSELAS


WENDY LAURA BELCHER AND BEKURE HEROUY academia.edu
  


WENDY LAURA BELCHER
AND BEKURE HEROUY

 

                                                    Every man is placed in his present condition by causes which

acted without his foresight, and with which he did not always

willingly cooperate.—Rasselas

 In 1733, a young Englishman with uncertain prospects translated a long book that discussed the tribulations of the seventeenth-century emperor of Abyssinia. This book took peculiar hold of his imagination and, twenty five years later, Samuel Johnson wrote a fiction titled The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia.  His tale describes the quest of a melancholy Amhara prince who travels from an idyllic mountain valley in Abyssinia into the bustle of the outside world only to conclude that the determined search for happiness is futile. The book was almost instantaneously a success, with dozens of editions and translations into more than twenty-five languages. It was not until two hundred years later, however, that the book was translated into the prince’s own language.

Although the character Rasselas had not yet returned to Abyssinia by the end of Rasselas, the book itself did return home, finding its way into the heart of the nation’s most famous literary family. One of the nobles who served the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie translated Rasselas into Amharic, the dominant language of Ethiopia.The translator’s name was Blatta Sirak Wäldä Sellasse Hiruy, a young Amhara of a melancholy bent.

Sirak published የራስሤላስ:መስፍነ:ኢትዮጵያ:ታሪክ (Yä-Rasïelas Mäsfˬnä ItyoPya Tarik, “The Rasselas, Prince of Ethiopia, History”) in December 1946. Some call it the first literary translation into Amharic. Within three years the emperor was giving it as a prize to top students. The book became a required text in Ethiopian secondary schools until 1974, and it was used in 1962 for the British O-level exams in Amharic. Those who attended school in Addis Abäba during this period remember Yä-Rasïelas Tarik vividly as an example of flawless Amharic prose and the inspiration of many passionate debates on its ultimate meaning. The book was so popular that more than one Ethiopian named a son after Rasselas. Although schools abandoned the book as antirevolutionary when Marxists deposed the emperor in 1974, some children discovered Yä-Rasïelas Tarik on their parents’ bookshelves or, in later decades, read it at university.

Despite its importance, few scholars have published about this translator or this translation. As a result, the uncanny resemblance between the Ethiopian translator and the Ethiopian titular character of Rasselas has gone unremarked. For both were Amhara (Abyssinia’s ruling ethnic group), sons of prominent nobles, committed to journeys of the imagination into distant lands men so brilliant, so curious, so creative that they pursued their education with a diligence that came at a tremendous cost—men too clever to be happy. Both left their countries to search for better ways of living. Both returned less enchanted with the outside world and hoping to aid their country’s progress. Both saw through hypocrisy, deplored the misuse of power, and had a tendency toward brooding and unsociability. Their powerful minds and troubling experiences seemed to drag them toward despondency. A seventeenth-century poem that Johnson admired warned that a person should be careful what he chooses to translate, for he would inevitably find himself taken over by the text: “choose an author as you choose a friend,” for as you translate, you will find that “your thoughts, your words, your styles, your souls agree / No longer his interpreter, but he.”15 In the case of Rasselas, it seems more that like was drawn to like and Sirak, only the second Ethiopian to receive a Western education, laid claim to this foreign product that depicted something then unavailable in Ethiopian literature, a man of the court disillusioned with the outside world and alienated from his own. Filling a gap in scholarship, we provide the first thorough biography of the translator Sirak, as well as a short history of the process of translation, a brief analysis of the Amharic translation of Rasselas, and a review of some of the critical reception. Exploring the peculiar bond between the character Rasselas and his Amharic interpreter Sirak also allows us to consider the melancholy of the exiled translator and the postcolonial subject.

Belcher learned of this surprising return of Rasselas to Ethiopia while conducting research about Samuel Johnson. Through the generosity of a stranger, Daniel Bekele, she met the translator’s family in April 2007, including Bekure Herouy, Sirak’s grandson, in Addis Abäba. Working as an international lawyer, Bekure had published an English newspaper article in the 1980s about his grandfather based on the extensive family archive he kept regarding the translation, along with Sirak’s daughter Askale Sirak. Belcher had already written a draft of the article based on material that was not in the family archive, so we decided to join strengths and publish this article together.

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WENDY LAURA BELCHER AND BEKURE HEROUY academia.edu
 
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