Armenianizing Michelle Obama: The Journey of Four C Tr. Graduates

YEREVAN, Armenia ‒ The idea of translating the memoir of former United States first lady Michelle Obama was born in the Practicum in Translation course taught by Dr. Shushan Avagyan, assistant professor at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) of the American University of Armenia (AUA). While students were asked to select short pieces for their translation portfolio, Monika Kesoyan (BA EC ’18 and C Tr. ’19) ambitiously proposed to translate Becoming into Armenian. It was both an exercise and an experiment.

“I am usually open to experiments,” says Dr. Avagyan. “Student initiatives are often met with encouragement and support in my classes, because I know from my own experience that self-motivated projects are the best and most natural learning environments.”

Kesoyan pitched the idea to the publisher of Newmag, which is a publishing house known for its translations of bestsellers. Newmag was interested, but they insisted on a hard deadline—the book had to be translated in three months. Partnering up with three of her classmates, Nare Harutyunyan (C Tr. ’19), Gayane Grigoryan (C Tr. ’19), and Ani Sirekanyan (C Tr. ’19), Kesoyan dived in head first into something she had never tried before.

“Initially I thought that I would translate the book by myself and I thought I could finish it in just a couple of months. But then I realized that it could be accomplished only through teamwork. Now when I open the book and see our names there, I feel empowered, because I know that we jointly created something truly special. And I am immensely proud of our team, because in spite of all the hardships that came along, we completed the work without stepping back halfway,” remarks Kesoyan.

According to the publisher, this was the first time they were working with four translators, as opposed to just one. The most challenging aspect of such a translation is to preserve the unity of the language and the style of the author. The task of the book’s editor, Lianna Zakaryan, was to synchronize the four different voices of the translators and to create a coherent final text.

As Harutyunyan elaborates, “There were, of course, a number of problems during the work process, and we even came very close to terminating the project, but, in the end, we came through. I think the main reason was our dedication to the work and the incredible desire to create something of our own. And that’s what Michelle Obama’s book is about—resolve.”

According to Grigoryan, “The memoir is about eternal growth, including failures, disappointments, trials that build character, perseverance, and trust in yourself. And perhaps this was our—the translators’—own journey of becoming.”

“Always pursue what you love the most, despite the doubt and uncertainty,” concludes Sirekanyan, “because the reward is worth the risk.”

Founded in 1991, the American University of Armenia (AUA) is a private, independent university located in Yerevan, Armenia, affiliated with the University of California, and accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission in the United States. AUA provides local and international students with Western-style education through top-quality undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs, promotes research and innovation, encourages civic engagement and community service, and fosters democratic values.

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