Considered by some as the founding fathers of modern translation and interpretation, Dragomans played a vital role in the ancient Ottoman Empire and later in Turkey. But who were the Dragomans, and what essential roles did they play? Let’s dig into the topic…
The Role of Ottoman Empire Dragomans
During the Ottoman Empire Age, any state that wished to establish relationships with other states needed the assistance of linguists to accomplish their diplomatic missions. Historically, these language interpreters and translators were called dragomans. Their role within the Empire and later within the Turkish landscape was so impactful that their history is linked to regular relations between the Ottoman Empire and other Western countries.
The first recorded history of dragomans can be traced as far back as the 8th century in Muslim countries. These records date back to the Abbasids time. But dragomans were also used during the Mamluks in Egypt as well as the Seljuqs and Anatolia. Under the latter, a dragoman was known as a ‘firman.’
Within the Ottoman Empire, the history of these translators and interpreters is closely linked to diplomatic translation and interpretation, and the first history started with contacts and treaties signed with Western rulers.
Meaning of the Word ‘Dragoman’
There are many theories that relate to the meaning and origin of the name ‘dragoman.’ Essentially, the word originates from Syriac roots that were borrowed from Arabic and Turkish systems.
The oldest version of the word ‘dragoman’ is ‘targem,’ which made its way into the Latin (dragumanus), Italian (drogmano), German (dragoman), Bulgarian (драгоманин), Portuguese (turgeman), Serbian (terduman), Polish (turdzyman), Byzantine Greek (dragomanus), and Flemish (droogman) languages. The word was also used in Turkish languages and was known as dilmac.
The official word used in Ottoman documents to refer to dragomans, however, was “tercüman,” but they used the phrase dragoman in nearly all European languages.
The Role of a Dragoman
Diplomatic missions in the Ottoman Empire needed linguists fluent in Oriental languages as well as Western languages whenever official business was on the table. But far more than just language translators, they needed individuals who had mastered the cultural differences and ethic codes of the Westerners as well as the Ottomans.
The task of a dragoman was manifold. They were tasked with interpreting and translating political and commercial discussions between the Sublime Porte and the consuls of Western countries.
Two main categories of dragomans existed during the age of the Ottoman Empire:
The Sultan’s Imperial Divan Dragomans
Dragomans that rendered their services to the Sultan’s Imperial Divan were classed as civil servants of the Empire. Officially, they were referred to as Grand Drogmans in the West. These linguists held high positions that often were deemed very risky. Up until the Tanzimat period, these dragomans held the second most important positions after the Reis-ül küttâb.
In modern terms, these linguists were the head interpreters and translators in charge of overseeing a team of linguists, so they had the same responsibilities as modern translators working for ministries and presidents.
From interpreting the Grand Vizier’s meetings to translating letters sent from foreign missions to the Sultan, a Grand Dragoman had many responsibilities to attend to. They also participated in Ottoman delegations sent abroad and interpreted during bilateral negotiations.
The first Grand Dragoman of the Ottoman Empire was Ali Bey, appointed in 1502. It wasn’t until the 18th century that dragomans were allowed to participate in negotiations. After it became the rule, all Ottoman Empire diplomatic activities rested in the hands of the Grand Dragomans. And this is why they were the most important civil servants within the Empire.
Foreign Mission Dragomans
Any Western country that established a mission in the Ottoman Empire needed to employ individuals that spoke the Western language as well as Ottoman Turkish, which is the primary language that Ottoman authorities used. Initially, dragomans were recruited from the minority Christian communities in the Fener and Pera. But over time, Western countries started training their own dragomans to act as secretary-interpreters that were in charge of translating documents and meetings with Ottoman administration representatives.
As relationships between the Ottoman Empire and Western powers increased and improved, the demand for dragomans was much higher than the available supply of skills. This forced countries to start looking for alternative solutions.
In 1551, Venice sent children to Constantinople to be trained as dragomans. Poland, the Republic of Ragusa, and France followed suit, and a school teaching French, Turkish, Vulgar Greek, and Italian was set up in Constantinople in 1626. It was at this school that the first group of dragomans set to serve France was trained.
In 1669, a special school for dragomans was set up in Constantinople, and it was called the school for “Jeunes de langue.” The school’s goal was to avoid the need to recruit dragomans from local families, and tuition was free as it was funded by the Marseille Chamber of Commerce.
This also led to young children from Western countries and territories in the Ottoman Empire receiving an education and being taught Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. Once their training was complete, they were referred to as language children (dil oğlanı).
It’s clear to see why dragomans played such important roles throughout the Ottoman Empire era. It was through their deep knowledge of Muslim civilization and its language that they were able to transfer knowledge and ideas between officials from the Ottoman Empire and the Western world’s authorities.
They might have been known by another name during that age, but dragomans were essentially the founding fathers of modern translation and interpretation and set the stage for the variety of interpreting styles we encounter in our daily lives.
If you’re in need of modern-day interpreting or would like to learn more about the linguistic world, get in touch with Day Interpreting’s team of expert interpreters right now! We’re ready to help you bridge the language gap, regardless of what languages you’re looking to have translated or interpreted!