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E. Natalie Rothman

Dec 24, 2021

The Dragoman Renaissance

Diplomatic Interpreters and the Routes of Orientalism

Cornell University Press 2021

The Dragoman Renaissance: Diplomatic Interpreters and the Routes of Orientalism (Cornell UP, 2021) is a fascinating study of a crucial early modern cadre of "go-betweens:" the Istanbul-based diplomatic translator-interpreters, known as the dragomans. Blending a creative mix of quantitative methods, prosopography, and the systematic close reading of texts produced or translated by the dragomans, the book shows how, far from being simple intermediaries, the dragomans actively engaged Ottoman elites in the study of the Ottoman Empire, refracting the knowledge thus acquired across Europe.

The book takes a three-pronged approach: it first focuses on the dragomans themselves, exploring how, particularly Venetian dragomans, were recruited, trained, and eventually grew to create an influential cast of subordinate elites enmeshed in both Ottoman and Veneto-Habsburg patterns of representation and consumption. The book then delves into different texts translated or produced by dragomans (relationi, translations of Ottoman charters, grammar books, and even pictorial representations) to examine the self-representation and mediation strategies developed by this specialized cast of interpreters. The final chapters of the book explore the legacy of the dragomans, notably how they contributed to the definition, in Europe, of a Turkish canon of letters that would coalesce into the discipline known as Orientalism.

The Dragoman Renaissance offers two substantial contributions to our understanding of diplomacy, mediation, and even incipient Orientalism in the early modern Mediterranean. First, it challenges Eurocentric assumptions still pervasive in Renaissance studies by showing the centrality of Ottoman imperial culture to the articulation of European knowledge about the Ottomans. By studying the sustained interactions between dragomans and Ottoman courtiers in this period, Rothman, therefore, disrupts common ideas about a singular moment of "cultural encounter," as well as about a "docile" and "static" Orient, acted upon by extraneous imperial powers. Second, Rothman creatively uncovers how dragomans mediated Ottoman ethno-linguistic, political, and religious categories to European diplomats and scholars, showing how these intermediaries did not simply circulate fixed knowledge. Rather, their engagement of Ottoman imperial modes of inquiry and social reproduction shaped the discipline of Orientalism for centuries to come.

Thanks to the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, the e-book editions of The Dragoman Renaissance are available as Open Access volumes from Cornell Open and other repositories.

Natalie Rothman, associate professor at the University of Toronto, specializes in early modern Mediterranean history, the history of cultural mediation, genealogies of Orientalism, and the relationship between translation and empire. She is currently continuing her research on intermediaries on The Dragoman Renaissance research platform 

Ian F. Hathaway, a postdoctoral fellow at the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), focuses on mobility, identification, and cross-cultural diplomacy in the early modern Mediterranean.

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