05/18/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

In Memoriam: Aris Sevag -- Making a Great City Greater

A dear friend to many and an unsung hero of New York's unique immigrant experience and culture passed away on April 28th from cancer. Like other immigrants from around the world, Sevag's family came to the United States to escape persecution and experience the freedom and relative prosperity that America offered diligent newcomers. From Everek in Western Armenia, they settled in Philadelphia where Aris was born and eventually made the short trip northward to make his home in New York. Over the years, Aris was the most humble of voices as he penned numerous articles, translations, commentaries and essays -- many devoted specifically to the lives of Armenian-Americans or their forefathers in the Ottoman Empire.

Aris was a gentle giant, a tall hulk of a man and an autodidact who learned Western Armenian as an adult. This did not stop him from making enormous contributions to Armenian culture. He worked for over twenty years as a respected and avuncular editor at The Armenian Reporter, one of the area's leading ethnic publications. In 2009, he took over as editor of the venerable publication Ararat magazine. For generations Ararat was the lifeblood of the Armenian-American literary scene, publishing works by upcoming and already famous writers such as William Saroyan and Michael Arlen, as well as leading historians and political scientists. Under Aris' tutelage, the magazine continued to publish a wide range of writers and historians, delivering a balanced selection of old and new.

In the three years that I turned in essays, short stories, reviews and translations to Aris, he was an exemplary editor, always constructive in his criticism and never uttering a harsh word to his writers. He gave me free reign as well to write on any topic that I chose, and only inserted an editor's comment or note when it was absolutely necessary. On one occasion, I handed in a short story to him, a tale partly inspired by Avetik Issahakian's orientalist tale Sahadi's Last Spring. Aris sat on it for a few weeks. After I had sent him several gentle reminders, he wrote back with two questions about the piece's plot and style. As with any other overly-sensitive writer, I was incensed: "How dare he?" I thought. "He just doesn't get it!" After a few weeks, I re-read his comments and decided to make the two changes that he had suggested -- both were innocuous and in truth, quite perceptive. A week later, I received an email from Aris: "Your piece, 'Mrs Zildjian and the Muslim Pendant,' is up!" I was elated, of course. It was typical Aris: no fuss, no muss.

Aris' contributions went far beyond the hundreds of articles that he contributed over the years. As a translator, he brought the world the English translation of Reverend Grigoris Balakian's harrowing Armenian Golgotha, a first-hand account of the infamous deportations which began on the night of April 24th, 1915 and marked the beginning of the Armenian genocide. Balakian was one of the 250 Armenian intellectuals who were rounded up in Constantinople and driven to Ayash, a concentration camp inland. Balakian miraculously escaped. His descriptions of what he witnessed will leave the reader shocked and dismayed; Aris' translation perfectly captures the victims' despair as well as the literary quality of the original Armenian.

Yet it is perhaps Aris' translations of Bedros Keljik's Armenian-American Sketches which I love the most and through which he may justifiably lay claim to being a true intellectual son of New York. These touching, colorful sketches of early 20th century immigrant life deserve their place, for example, next to Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), and Heny Roth's 1934 masterpiece Call it Sleep. Keljik's sketches were being serialized by Aris in the pages of Ararat since 2010. As his life neared its end, he never mentioned his illness or complained about his predicament: he kept on working as always and he was able to publish seven of the 21 short stories in the collection, seven precious gifts to old friends and new readers alike.

Read the first of Aris Sevag's translations of Bedros Keljik's "Armenian-American Sketches" in Ararat Magazine: