Thursday, April 10, 2008


I'm reading Bernard Lewis' collection of essays From Babel to Dragomans at the moment, and the title essay throws an interesting light on Anglo-Ottoman relations in the sixteenth century. Lewis explains how a letter written in English would be translated into Italian, then translated into Turkish, there being no Turkish-speaking civil servants in London. The reverse process also occurred.

A neat sidelight on the Jerry Brotton affair, too.

"We do not have the letters from the Queen of England which reached the Sultan in their Turkish form; we have originals in English and translations in Italian but not the final form. We do have the successive versions the other way round, and they show systematic mistranslation right through ...

The letters themselves reveal the same sort of approach, so that when the Sultan writes a friendly letter to the Queen of England, the purport of what he says is that he is happy to add her to the vassals of his imperial throne and hopes, in the formal phrase, that she will 'continue to be firm-footed on the path of devotion and fidelity'. None of this appears in the translation, which was made for the English Ambassador in Italian and communicated by him to London in English. In these, the language is one of equal negotiations between sovereigns.

Thus, for example, in the berat (diploma) granted by Murad III to Queen Elizabeth authorising English merchants to trade in the Ottoman lands, the Sultan speaks of the Queen as having 'demonstrated her subservience and devotion and declared her servitude and attachment'. The contemporary Italian translation renders this 'sincera amicizia'.

It was, it seems, the general practice for the dragomans discreetly to modify the language, making it less imperious and more polite. One may safely assume that they were doing the same thing the other way round, and that when, for example, the Queen wrote to the Sultan expressing good will and friendship, in the Turkish version which reached the Sultan this became loyalty and humble submission.

UPDATE - what happens without the skilfully mistranslated version (from the essay 'Monarchy in the Middle East') :

Tabari tells a revealing story about an exchange of diplomatic messages between the Byzantine emperor Nikephorus and the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Nikephorus addressed the caliph as 'Harun, king of the Arabs'. From the point of view of the emperor this was no doubt a correct title, since he himself used the title king (basileus) and was king of the Romans. He was doing the caliph the honour of giving him the same kind of title as he used himself.

But for the caliph, 'the commander of the faithful', to be called 'king of the Arabs' was a double insult. It implied that he was only a king - and only of the Arabs ! He expressed his anger in his reply to the emperor, headed "From Harun, Commander of the Faithful, to Nikephorus, Dog of the Romans".

1 comment:

yellerKat said...

Oh Come on, I bet QEI went: "OI! Musselman! Give us all your slaves for our new plantations (and no you can't have any dividends)".

Q: Where would you have rather spent the late 16thC: London or Constantinople?