The last of the dragomans: Andrew Ryan, a Cork man in Constaninople
Dragomans acted as interpreters, translators and guides between East and West
The Dragoman works as a translator, interpreter and guide. Photograph: Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Until the beginning of the 19th century, few Muslims in the Ottoman empire knew any languages other than Ottoman, Persian and Arabic. The Ottomans communicated with Europe through dragomans, whose job – like that of present-day translators and interpreters – involved much more than conveying ready messages.
They translated, orally and in writing, but also drafted notes and negotiated deals, ran errands and sold secrets. When translating, they intervened, adding and cutting, sometimes changing the meaning, often reframing the source, glossing cultural aspects or contextualising political demands, rephrasing the author’s wording or rewriting their introduction. They were intermediaries crossing cultural, religious, ethnic, political and, of course, linguistic boundaries between the East and the West. That liberty brought some of them real power.
Alexander Mavrocordato was once described as “one of the best actors in Europe”. Born in Constantinople in 1641, a descendant of affluent Greeks (a class known as Phanariots), he studied medicine in Italy, writing a thesis on blood circulation. What circulated through his life, professional, political and private, was a fast-flowing stream of information.
After returning home, in 1673 he became the grand dragoman; a post combining the duties of chief government interpreter and deputy foreign minister. His career was interrupted by the Great Turkish War, and in 1683, following the Ottoman defeat at Vienna, he was taken to prison in chains and fined an enormous sum. Still, his knowledge of European languages and customs made him indispensable, and he was soon reinstated.
In 1699, Mavrocordato helped to negotiate the Peace of Carlowitz between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs, making each party believe that the initiative came from the other. For his success in this mission he was appointed “minister of the secrets”; his associates, meanwhile, awarded him various epithets, from “un bel homme fort discret et civil” to “instruit en tout et sage et pratique” to “Judas”.
A grandee and a schemer, a rich man whose private library was famous across Europe, a polyglot who knew Ottoman, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Latin, French, Italian and probably German and Romanian too, an eminent figure in Eastern and Western politics, Alexander Mavrocordato was also the founder of a dynasty of dragomans. Their story reflects in many ways the history of Greeks in the Ottoman empire. Christians in the midst of Islamic civilisation, they retained their religious and ethnic identity while being part of that culture, a feat achieved partly through language.
The Phanariots continued to benefit from their loyalty to the Ottoman empire until the 19th century, when they were suspected of supporting the Greek War of Independence. In 1821, Stavrachi Aristarchi, the last Phanariot dragoman, was accused of high treason, exiled and killed. Over the following decades, a different kind of translator emerged in the newly independent Greece.
On April 11th, 1870, a party of seven Britons and two Italians set off from Athens to visit the historic battlefield of Marathon. They were accompanied by a Greek guide named Alexander Anemoyannis. On the way back, the tourists met a detachment sent out to escort them, but pressed ahead without the guards. A band of brigands captured them; the women were released, the men held. Anemoyannis tried to slip away but the abductors caught him, shouting, “The dragoman too!”
Negotiations ensued, conducted partly through Anemoyannis. The robbers demanded a ransom plus amnesty for themselves and their imprisoned associates. The British, suspecting the Greek government of being in cahoots with the klephts, were prepared to pay the requested sum, but instead a rescue expedition was organised. It didn’t go to plan. Pursued by soldiers, the bandits sent the guide to talk to their commander, who told the messenger to inform the criminals that “they could receive the money and go out of the state on the conditions of safety”. Anemoyannis failed to convey this reply to the brigands. As they fled, the remaining four captives couldn’t keep up with the gang and were killed.
Anemoyannis was charged with general complicity with the bandits, including wilful negligence throughout the negotiations. During the inquiry, one of the guards testified that he had warned the tourists several times, urging them not to proceed on their own, but they paid no heed. Anemoyannis’ statement that he had translated the warning was contested. Nevertheless, he was cleared of all blame and managed to return to his trade, accompanying foreign tourists on country trips for years afterwards.
Word must have spread of his questionable track record, but in those days, as indeed much later, many travellers expected their guides to be cheats, projecting their worst suspicions about the local population onto the profession.
Seen through the prism of language, the Anglo-Greek relations of that period reflect more general policies. Some 19th-century British sources linked Ireland and Greece. The “unruly districts” of Ireland were often called “Grecian”; the Telegraph called brigands “Fenians after the continental fashion”; the Standard suggested that “Greek” was colonial slang for “Irish”. Politicians frequently referred to Greek brigands as banditti, a word that was also applied to the Ribbonmen, a secret society that operated in rural Ireland. British imperial attitudes crossed borders with ease, even if that meant travelling in the company of unreliable guides.
Native linguists in the Near East were often – sometimes unjustly – criticised for their disloyalty or incompetence, and so in 1877 Britain set up the Levant Consular Service to fill diplomatic posts with its own cadre. Andrew Ryan’s decision to apply for a student interpretership was a safe career option. “My inclination would have been for the Bar,” he wrote in his memoir, The Last of the Dragomans, “but it seemed too chancy a profession.”
Born in Cork in 1876, Ryan chose the civil service, “which then attracted many lads in Ireland”, and graduated from Cambridge with “a fair knowledge of Turkish, a little Arabic, hardly any Persian, the soon-forgotten rudiments of Russian and a tincture of law”. That was the baggage he brought with him to Constantinople in 1899.
As a junior dragoman at the embassy, Ryan attended court hearings that concerned British subjects, acting as an interpreter-cum-solicitor. When judges questioned defendants, he had to “reduce their answers to the decorous language suited to an official record”. Sometimes the language of his fellow Brits proved irreducible: for instance, when “a most disreputable old woman” shouted “Darling!” to the blushing young man, or when he did his best “to mitigate the treatment of a very ordinary drunk and disorderly, who in his cups had not only assaulted the police, but had impartially vilified the Prophet, the Sultan and Queen Victoria”. There was nothing Ryan could do about the Prophet, for such abuse was too serious to be dealt with on the spot. “I suggested that I might be left to look after Queen Victoria, but the man got nine months.”
Ryan’s responsibilities also included dealing with customs declarations (imported goods ranged from toy rifles to lion cubs to New Testaments, which prompted an official to ask, “Who is this writing to the people of Galata?”), conversions to Islam, slaves taking refuge in the embassy, and much else. When a production of The Merchant of Venice was banned in Constantinople, Ryan’s protest that “the play was a work of a British subject named Shakespeare, whom we had never regarded as undesirable, but on the contrary as a credit to the country” didn’t work: the authorities replied that “the treatment of Shylock was calculated to create discord among the Sultan’s subjects”.
An experienced player of word games, Ryan approached translation as an exact art. In 1924, when the young Republic of Turkey abolished the caliphate, he translated the constitution, making it sound “sufficiently subtle to suggest perhaps to wishful thinkers that the old Caliphate was in some sense preserved in the personality of the Republic”, though the new government had rejected such suggestions.
Like many translators today, Ryan often had to choose between taking sides and remaining neutral. In another familiar scenario, his job came with a degree of uncertainty. Back when being a dragoman felt more secure than being a barrister, Ryan already had reservations about the prospects for his trade: “We are bound to disappear sooner or later, as no civilized European Government would tolerate a class of foreign officials whose business it was to meddle directly in all their public offices.”
Indeed, the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, put an end to the title. Dragomans had to go – to give way to progress.
Anna Aslanyan is a journalist and translator. Her popular history of translation, Dancing on Ropes: Translators and the Balance of History, is published by Profile Book