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A dragoman was an interpreter, translator and official guide between Turkish, Arabic, and Persian-speaking countries and polities of the Middle East and European embassies, consulates, vice-consulates and trading posts. A dragoman had to have a knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and European languages.
The position took particular prominence in the Ottoman Empire, where demand for the mediation provided by dragomans is said to have been created by the resistance on the part of the Muslim Ottomans to learn the languages of non-Muslim nations. The office incorporated diplomatic as well as linguistic duties—namely, in the Porte's relation with Christian countries—and some dragomans thus came to play crucial roles in Ottoman politics. The profession tended to be dominated by ethnic Greeks, including the first Ottoman Grand Dragoman Panayotis Nicosias, and Alexander Mavrocordatos. But this dominance changed in 1821 with the start of the Greek insurrection and eventual independence; the last Greek grand dragoman, Stavraki Aristarchi, was charged—likely unjustly—with complicity with the rebels and executed. With unanswered correspondence accumulating, the chief naval instructor, one Hoca Ishak Efendi, took over the position and became a pioneer in translation of Western scientific literature into Turkish, a task for which he had to create an entirely new vocabulary. Following Hoca Ishak, the grand dragoman and his staff were Muslims, and the Translation Office, with its familiarity with things European, became a new major ladder to influence and power; this knowledge largely replaced the older ladders of the army, the bureaucracy, and the religious establishment in the mid- and late-19th century.
It became customary that most hospodars of the Phanariote rule (roughly 1711–1821) over the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) would previously have occupied this Ottoman office, a fact which did not prevent many of them from joining conspiracies that aimed to overthrow Turkish rule over the area.
In Arabic and Persian the word is ترجمان (tarjumān), in Turkish tercüman. Deriving from the Semitic quadriliteral root t-r-g-m, it appears in Akkadian as "targumannu," and in Aramaic as targemana. Hebrew makes a distinction between מתרגם (metargem)—referring to a translator of written texts—and מתורגמן (meturgeman) referring to an interpreter of spoken conversation or speeches. The latter is obviously more closely related to the other languages mentioned, though both are derived from the same Semitic root.
During the Middle Ages the word entered European languages: in Middle English as dragman, in Old French as drugeman, in Middle Latin as dragumannus, and in Middle Greek δραγομάνος. Later European variants include the German trutzelmann, the French trucheman or truchement (in modern French it is drogman), the Italian turcimanno, and the Spanish trujamán, trujimán and truchimán; these variants point to a Turkish or Arabic word "turjuman", with different vocalization. Webster's Dictionary of 1828 lists dragoman as well as the variants drogman and truchman in English.
Consequently the plural, in English, is "dragomans" (not "dragomen").
In the Turkish tradition, the dragoman position is recorded in the pre-Ottoman Sultanate of Rum during the 13th-century reign of Keykubad I when two dragomans and two translator clerks were appointed.
These men were instrumental in spreading a wide ranging curiosity about Islamic culture throughout the Latin parts of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. The dragomans had scholarly language training in Persian, Arabic and Turkish since they were translators, interpreters, authors and were very open to the material and fashionable intricacies of the Ottoman culture.
Many dragomans focused on works of literature and art which were remarkable for the West, which had a horrible view of the 'Mohammedan' and even worse view of the Turk. Some Europeans viewed, with favour, the politeness of the Persians and the high cultivation in the sciences of the Arabs. The first French translation of the Quran was done by André du Ryer, in 1647. He was from the French consulate in Egypt. Another, Cosmo of Carbognano, from the Naples embassy, published in Latin: The Principles of Turkish Grammar for The Use of Apostolic Missionaries in Constantinople (Rome 1794).
As a highly trained group of diplomatic professionals, they were employed by embassies, consuls and travelled in diplomatic circles, hence their need to know the culture very well.
There was huge success from the published translation of Thousand And One Nights, by Antoine Galland (1646-1715). He was attached to the embassy of Charles Marie François Olier, marquis de Nointel, a Parisian who was a councilor to the Parlement de Paris, and a French ambassador to the Ottoman court, 1670 to 1679.
One who created a large European interest in the history of Islam, with his published History of the Ottoman Empire was Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall of Austria, a student at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna (the academy was initially established by Empress Maria Theresa in 1754 as "The Oriental Academy" to train young diplomats to represent the Hapsburg Empire abroad).