Armenian Language Corner

About Dragomans and Tarkmans

If you read literature related to the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East in the modern and early contemporary period, you will probably come across the English word “dragoman.” It designated, like its equivalents in various Middle Eastern languages, an interpreter or translator who was required to have a knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and European languages.

The word apparently entered English via Old French drugemen or directly from Medieval Latin dragumanus, which came from late Greek dragoumanos. Other European languages, where the word started with t, point out to a direct loan from Arabic tarjumān or Turkish tercüman (the Turkish word was borrowed from Arabic).

In the Ottoman Empire, the profession tended to be dominated by Greeks until the trend was reverted following the independence of Greece (1821), when Turks, Jews, and Armenians took over. There were also Armenian dragomans serving the European powers from long before. One of the most famous was Ignatius Muradgea d’Ohsson (1740-1807), who was in the service of Sweden and wrote a two-volume description of the Ottoman Empire after becoming a Swedish baron.

If you know the Armenian for “translator,” թարգման (tarkman), you might think that there is also some kind of relation with the English word, or otherwise with the Arabic word tarjumān. The fact is that Arabic started influencing other languages after the Arab conquests in the seventh century A.D. The Armenian word tarkman already existed in the Golden Age (the fifth century), so it preceded the Arab expansion. However, it was also a borrowing from another Semitic language like Arabic. That language was Syriac, which was one of the two languages, the other being Greek, that influenced Armenian religious and cultural vocabulary in the period after the proclamation of Christianism as religion of state in the early fourth century.

By the fifth century, there was enough of a tradition in oral translation as to develop a strong school of translators that yielded the Armenian translation of the Bible and many other works in that century and the many centuries to come. The tradition started by Mesrop Mashtots and his disciples has continued strong until today with the tarkmans making new inroads into the Armenian language, but also making Armenian works known to the world.