DRAGOMAN (from the Arabic terjuman, an interpreter or translator; the same root occurs in the Hebrew word targum signifying translation, the title of the Chaldaean translation of the Bible), a comprehensive designation applied to all who act as intermediaries between Europeans and Orientals, from the hotel tout or travellers' guide, hired at a few shillings a day, to the chief dragoman of a foreign embassy whose functions include the carrying on of the most important political negotiations with the Ottoman government, or the dragoman of the imperial divan (the grand master of the ceremonies).
The original employment of dragomans by the Turkish government arose from its religious scruples to use any language save those of peoples which had adopted Islamism. The political relations between the Porte and the European states, more frequent in proportion as the Ottoman power declined, compelled the sultan's ministers to make use of interpreters, who rapidly acquired considerable influence. It soon became necessary to create the important post of chief dragoman at the Porte, and there was no choice save to appoint a Greek, as no other race in Turkey combined the requisite knowledge of languages with the tact and adroitness essential for conducting diplomatic negotiations. The first chief dragoman of the Porte was Panayot Nikousia, who held his office from 1665 to 1673. His successor, Alexander Mavrocordato, surnamed Exaporritos, was charged by the Turkish government with the delicate and arduous negotiation of the treaty of Carlowitz, and by his dexterity succeeded, in spite of his questionable fidelity to the interests of his employers, in gaining their entire confidence, and in becoming the factotum of Ottoman policy. From that time until 1821 the Greeks monopolized the management of Turkey's foreign relations, and soon established the regular system whereby the chief dragoman passed on as a matter of course to the dignity of hospodar of one of the Danubian principalities.
In the same way, the foreign representatives accredited to the Porte found it necessary, in the absence of duly qualified countrymen of their own, to engage the services of natives, Greek, Armenian, or Levantine, more or less thoroughly acquainted with the language, laws and administration of the country. Their duties were by no means confined to those of a mere translator, and they became the confidential and indispensable go-betweens of the foreign missions and the Porte. Though such dragomans enjoyed by treaty the protection of the country employing them, they were by local interests and family ties very intimately connected with the Turks, and the disadvantages of the system soon became apparent. Accordingly as early as 1669 the French government decided on the foundation of a school for French dragomans at Constantinople, for which in later years was substituted the Ecole des langues orientales in Paris; most of the great powers eventually took some similar step, England also adopting in 1877 a system, since modified, for the selection and tuition of a corps of British-born dragomans.
The duties of an embassy dragoman are extensive and not easily defined. They have been described as partaking at once of those of a diplomatist, a magistrate, a legal adviser and an administrator. The functions of the first dragoman are mainly political; he accompanies the ambassador or minister at his audiences of the sultan and usually of the ministers, and it is he who is charged with the bulk of diplomatic negotiations at the palace or the Porte. The subordinate dragomans transact the less important business, comprising routine matters such as requests for the recognition of consuls, the settlement of claims or furthering of other demands of their nationals, and in general all the various matters in which the interests of foreign subjects may be concerned. An important part of the dragoman's duties is to attend during any legal proceedings to which a subject of his nationality is a party, as failing his attendance and his concurrence in the judgment delivered such proceedings are null and void. Moreover, the dragoman is frequently enabled, through the close relations which he necessarily maintains with different classes of Turkish officials, to furnish valuable and confidential information not otherwise obtainable. The high estimation in which the dragomans are held by most foreign powers is shown by the fact that they are usually and in the regular course promoted to the most important diplomatic posts. This is the case in the Russian and Austrian services (where more than one ambassador began his career as a junior dragoman) and generally in the German service; the French chief dragoman usually attains the rank of minister plenipotentiary. The value of a tactful and efficient intermediary can hardly be over-estimated, and in the East a personal interview of a few minutes often results in the conclusion of some important matter which would otherwise require the exchange of a long and laborious correspondence. The more important consulates in the provinces of Turkey are also provided with one or more dragomans, whose duties, mutatis mutandis, are of a similar though less important nature. In the same way banks, railway companies and financial institutions employ dragomans for facilitating their business relations with Turkish officials.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)