The Trials of Translation: Early Modern Interpreters, Courts, and Empires

AHA Session 92
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
E. Natalie Rothman, University of Toronto
Bhavani Raman, Princeton University

Session Abstract

Early modern states were inherently polyglot, both in their metropolitan and provincial institutions. How, then, were members of different ethnolinguistic groups able to interact with each other and with state institutions in the absence of a shared language and norms of communication? Who were the people who mediated these interactions and facilitated their objectification in textual artifacts? How were notions of self and other, and the very communicative practices that underwrote them, transformed by the intermediary work of translators and interpreters? And how were such intermediaries themselves informed by varying ideals of communication, eloquence, truth and evidence?  In order to address these questions, this panel examines the cultural work performed by interpreters and translators in a range of early modern judicial, courtly, diplomatic and commercial settings. E. Natalie Rothman’s paper, “Interpreters of the Turk: Venetian Dragomans and their Interlocutors in Seventeenth-Century Istanbul” considers the role of Venetian dragomans (diplomatic interpreters) as intermediaries between Ottoman courtly elites engaged in a project of imperial self-fashioning and an emerging European-wide Republic of Letters. It suggests how dragomans’ practices of knowledge production became part of the epistemological and institutional foundations of a late-humanist civilizational discourse about the Ottomans. Selma Zecevic’s paper, “Translating Ottoman Justice: Ragusan Dragomans as Experts in Ottoman Islamic Law” examines how dragomans could constitute their fields of expertise. She asks how Ragusan citizens, who could not speak or read Ottoman Turkish or Arabic, could successfully participate in Ottoman legal discourse in the eighteenth century. She shows that Ragusan dragomans served as experts on Ottoman Islamic law, and acted as intermediaries between Catholic Ragusans and Ottoman legal practitioners. Paul Cohen similarly examines the role of linguistic mediation in the French courts of law. His paper, “Judging a Multilingual Society: The Accommodation of Linguistic Diversity in French Law Courts, 15th-18th Centuries”, demonstrates that courts in France were an intensely multilingual site. Lawyers, judges, court scribes and notaries developed procedures or improvised ways to mediate between the world of text, writing, and the law, conjugated in Latin, French and Occitan, and the world of spoken discourse, cast in colloquial French or regional languages. Danna Agmon likewise examines how French courts coped with linguistic diversity, but in the context of the colony of Pondicherry, part of France’s empire in India. Her paper, “Signs of Confusion: Professional Interpreters and Perverted Signatures in Eighteenth Century French India,” shows how colonists relied on linguistic mediation provided by Indian go-betweens. The trial of one of these interpreters was also the setting for the eruption of anxiety about putting Tamil signatures to French texts, and other forms of judicial attestation. She argues that discomfort about practices of multi-lingual signing reflected a more general semiotic cacophony in the new colony.

Together, these papers engage the emergent field of historical translation studies, and develop an empirically-based, archivally-grounded new methodological and conceptual framework for addressing the place of linguistic mediation and its practitioners in processes of state- and empire-building in the early modern period and beyond.

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