by NOTIS Board Member Pinar Mertan
Until I was asked to do some research about two months ago for a seminar for court interpreters, I had no idea there was a semi-official job definition of interpreting under the name of 'dragoman' in Ottoman Empire-era Turkey. As a Turkish-born person and a recently registered interpreter, I was surprised that I had missed this information. So when I was asked to contribute to NOTIS’ upcoming newsletter, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to introduce our society (and myself) to this interesting topic.
What is a Dragoman?
"In the history of interpreting, a Dragoman was a man who acted as a guide and an interpreter in countries where Arabic, Turkish, or Persian was spoken” (Oxford Dictionary). The word dragomanis “tercüman” in Turkish, and the Ottomans used the word “tercüman” to refer to interpreters. This word originated from the Syriac language and passed into Arabic (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 119).
The Ottoman Empire and Its Subjects
The Ottoman Empire was a multiethnic, multireligious monarchy founded by the Turks in 1299 that lasted for over 600 years. The English word Ottomanis the Anglicized form of the Turkish Osmanlı, meaning 'associated with Osman’ (Teachmidest.org-Ottoman History With Resources). It survived until the end of World War I and was dissolved by the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Ottoman society was quite cosmopolitan. The Empire’s subjects came from many different ethnic and religious groups. At its height, the Ottoman Empire included modern-day Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, some of Arabia, Lebanon and a considerable amount of the North African coastal strip (BBC-Ottoman Empire, History.com-Ottoman Empire). The largest ethnic groups were Turks, Arabs, Greeks, Slovenians, Serbs, Albanians, Ruthenians, Wallachians, Moldavians, Croatians, Armenians, Laz, and Kurds. Ottomans dealt with minorities by letting them self-regulate. Non-Muslim religious groups were called milletsand had the autonomy to regulate their own affairs with fairly little interference from the Ottoman government. The main millets were the Jewish, Greek, and Armenian ones. By the 19th century, there were 14 millets. These groups were spread across the empire. Often, there was little contact between different millets (New World Encyclopedia).
The official language of the empire was Ottoman Turkish, an administrative language consisting largely of Turkish grammar, with Anatolian Turkish, Arabic, and some Persian vocabulary. Ottoman Turkish belongs to the Oghuz group of Turkic languages. Ottoman Turkish was written using Arabic script. Ottoman morphology and syntax was primarily Turkic, using the order of subject-object-verb. It was primarily a written language, and today, it is no longer spoken (Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, 322-323). After the Turkish Republic was founded, the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet.
Emergence of the Dragomans
In his article "The Role of Dragomans in the Ottoman Empire," Elvin Abbasbeyli writes that “the Sublime Porte and Western diplomatic missions in the Ottoman Empire needed individuals fluent in both Western and Oriental languages.” According to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies (p. 121-122), institutional efforts to educate interpreters began in the mid-16th century. The most significant dragoman in the Ottoman Empire was the dragoman of the Sublime Porte, also known as the Grand Dragoman. At first, bilingual converts were employed, and they were imperial civil servants. By the 17th century, Greek Orthodox families in the Fener District of Istanbul changed this. Greek dragomans had an advantage in education and understanding of Ottoman structures. In the Ottoman hierarchy dragomans ranked very highly, and the job had some advantages, such as tax exemption. The title of Dragoman of the Sublime Porte was passed from father to son. In 1821 a Translation Office was established where Muslims began to learn foreign languages, and the Greek families were expelled from this profession completely.
Western ambassadors and merchants also employed dragomans in their relations with the Ottomans. Those dragomans were chosen among the Latin Catholic families of the Galata area of Istanbul. But since these dragomans were Ottoman and were not fluent in Western languages, the European countries decided to teach and employ their own citizens. The Venetians led the way by sending young language students to Istanbul to learn Oriental languages. Those “Giovani della Lingua” or “Jeunes de Langues” became dragomans in relations with the Ottomans. The French followed suit by establishing a school named “L’Ecole des Enfants de Langues” in 1669. The graduates would be employed as missionaries or dragomans by their government (Gürçağlar, “The Diplomatic Trinity,” 3-5).
Dragomans' Role and Contributions
According to Professor Nathalie Rothman, “Dragomans are often known as diplomatic translators, but their responsibilities and roles went much further than being mere interpreters.” Dragomans had diplomatic, consular, and commercial roles and they even served as pilgrimage guides and spies (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 119).
Dragomans' importance to the Ottoman Empire peaked when the empire reached its widest territorial reach during the 15th and 16th centuries. They served as important intermediaries between the Palace and non-Turkish-speaking subjects well into the 19th century. Although most of them were the Empire’s own people, some of the imperial dragomans were from foreign countries (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 120-121).
Dragomans took assignments at different offices in many regions. They performed their job by interpreting in consecutive and in whispering modes, and they held a wide range of diplomatic, commercial, and consular duties in other Ottoman cities. It is known that Venetian dragomans served as official emissaries and recorded their diplomatic missions in writing. The Venetian dragomans in Istanbul were probably the largest group of these professionals, but by the 17th century, all foreign embassies in the Ottoman capital had at least one dragoman (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 120-121).
The dragomans enjoyed a legal status called beratlı, which means ‘holders of a patent'. Their numbers, privileges, and responsibilities were all listed in imperial charters granted by the Sultan to other countries (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 122).
As Professor Rothman notes, “Dragomans wrote some of the earliest works on the Ottoman-Turkish language.” Their contributions lasted through the 20th century, and their impact went far beyond diplomacy. Their writings about Ottoman society and culture were a huge contribution to the philological study of early Ottoman texts. They also translated several extended Ottoman chronicles. Their position in the Ottoman Empire and their connections with Ottomans and foreigners alike let them build strong ties with political elites. Having access to valuable knowledge allowed them to write about Ottoman language, history, arts, sciences, theology, music, and botany, to name a few (Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies, 123-124).
In 1821, the Translation Office was established and served more as a school by preparing young men to serve abroad as embassy secretaries. Some of these later became ambassadors, foreign ministers, and even grand viziers. The office became part of the Foreign Ministry when it was organized in 1836 (Encyclopedia.com) and became a channel of the intelligence network. Documents in foreign languages were translated and stored in the archives of the Translation Office before going to the higher offices. The Translation Office employed primarily Muslim officers, rather than non-Muslim or Greek dragomans, many of whom later became prominent statesmen (Kamay, Public Diplomacy and the Translation Office in the Ottoman Empire, 3-6).
For a generation, the Translation Office was one of the best sources of Western education in Istanbul. This office continued being an important place to begin a career, and it was in operation until the empire came to its end in 1922 (Encyclopedia.com).
Professor Nathalie Rothman’s works in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Interpreting Studies
Public Diplomacy and the Translation Office in the Ottoman Empireby Berna Kamay
The Diplomatic Trinityby Aykut Gürçağlar
“The Role of Dragomans in the Ottoman Empire” by Elvin Abbasbeyli
Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire
New World Encyclopedia