From dragomans to interpreters: A brief overview of the profession in Turkey

A history of interpreting in Turkey from the Ottoman Empire to the present day.

At a time when Turkey is about to start accession negotiations with the European Union it is interesting to note that Europe's first institutionalised effort to train interpreters goes back to the 17th century when France reached an agreement with the Ottoman Empire, then in its heyday, to set up an interpreting school in Istanbul.

Formally known as the Ecole de Péra, the school was run by Capuchin friars who had settled in the Ottoman capital. Their pupils arrived at the age of 9 or 10 from France and studied Turkish for three years before being recognised as dil oglani, literally ‘language boys’ in Turkish. A better known name for those interpreters in Europe was ‘dragoman’ or ‘drogman’. The term is in fact a deformation of tercüman (pronounced ‘terjuman’), the word translators and interpreters went by in the Ottoman era and which is still in use in present-day Turkish. It is also interesting to note, en passant, that the word truchement in French for go-between or spokesperson originally meant interpreter and is nothing else but another variation on tercüman.

This early enterprise laid the ground for what was later to become the prestigious Ecole de Langues Orientales, or Langues O’ in Paris. Under Louis XIV, Colbert undertook to create “a breeding ground for professional interpreters” with a view to enhancing France’s influence in the Orient. Given the economic importance of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Turkish was the first language to be taught there. It was only much later that Arabic was introduced, followed by Persian some time later. And it would take yet another century before the so-called “languages of Barbary” were added to the curriculum. The complete history of Langues O’ is available – in French – on the school’s website (www.inalco.fr)

The more recent past of interpreting in Turkey takes us back to 1959 when Nezih Neyzi, an enterprising Turkish economist organised the first course for conference interpreters at the Faculty of Economics of Istanbul University, with the backing of the Ford Foundation. A group of five young candidates followed this course and then went on to Geneva and took a summer course under the guidance of Mrs. Gloria Wagner, herself a conference interpreter. In the mid-1960s the Conference Council for Economic and Social Studies was set up by a group of Turkish businessmen in cooperation with the Ford Foundation. They published an advertisement in local newspapers to recruit “young people with a knowledge of languages to receive training in oral translation”. The first recruits were rushed through a fifteen-day crash course to prepare them for the Council’s annual meeting. It must be said that very few of those early budding interpreters work as professional interpreters today. For most of them this was an interesting source of pocket-money but a rather sporadic experience during their university years.

A name to remember from that period is that of our late colleague Hasan Akbelen, the first AIIC member in Turkey. Most colleagues who have embarked on a professional interpreting career agree that Hasan’s relentless efforts to have this “pastime” recognised as a profession gave the interpreter community but also conference organisers at large a much clearer understanding of what it takes to be an interpreter.

In 1969 Hasan Akbelen and a small group of interpreters set up the Association of Conference Interpreters in Istanbul. The founding members modelled their professional body on AIIC rules and regulations. One of the association’s primary activities was to organise in-house training courses for new recruits. In the absence of formal training opportunities, the trainers were more experienced local interpreters or experts from the then European Economic Community. Some courses were also organised abroad, mainly in Brussels and Geneva. Many of the senior colleagues still active today followed that path into the profession. For more than a decade, however, interpreting was not for most of them a full-time bread-winning activity. Many had another main job from which they took time off to do interpreting when and if the opportunity arose.

By the early 1980s the number of conferences held in Turkey began to increase and the need to institutionalise training became more urgent. The first interpreting school in Turkey was founded in 1983 as a department of Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. That school was and still is a breeding ground for many of the colleagues who work exclusively as conference interpreters today. Over the years, other interpreting schools have been opened by other universities, mainly in Ankara.

By the late 1980s interpreting had made great strides towards being recognised in Turkey, but its recognition as a profession in its own right came - not surprisingly - with the first Gulf War, when the wider public was exposed to simultaneous translation on live TV broadcasts.

The growing demand for interpreters in the 1990s created a more competitive environment and encouraged the emergence of sub-standard service providers. The answer was to foster more solidarity amongst interpreters in defence of professional standards. But at that time the local association had only a limited number of members and was not representative of the professional community at large. In a radical restructuring effort, the association then decided to reach out to a larger number of interpreters who had stayed at the margin of the movement.

Particular emphasis was put on the need to overcome special economic interests in order to create a strong professional body which would act in unison to uphold professional standards in the interest of all.

On the occasion of its General Assembly in 1998, the association welcomed its new members and officially became the United Conference Interpreters Association (BKTD). Since then the association has continued to increase its membership and contributed to the recognition of the profession on the market place. It will continue to do so to the extent that each and every member upholds professional standards as a common reference for all.

Major structural changes in recent years have further buoyed up the Turkish interpretation market. In December 2004 the European Union is poised to decide that accession negotiations with Turkey could start as early as 2005. While it is still early days to speculate about the likely consequences of a ‘yes’ vote for Turkish as a conference language it is fair to say that Turkey has a lot going for itself, including its geo-strategic position, its possible role as a mediator in regional conflicts, its vibrant domestic economic growth and its close ties with Caucasian and Central Asian countries.

Indeed, Turkish is not only a language spoken by the country’s 70 million inhabitants but is also on its way to become a kind of lingua franca in Central Asian countries where turkic languages in one form or another are spoken. Whether Turkish will eventually replace Russian as the main foreign language in these former Soviet-block countries remains to be seen. But the rise of Turkish as a regional language - due initially to flourishing economic exchanges between Turkey and its Central Asian neighbours - may be further enhanced by the growing presence of the Turkish press and media in those countries.

In view of the above AIIC has every reason to assume that Turkish will become an increasingly important language on the interpreting scene. And Turkish interpreters have everything to gain by becoming AIIC members.

The efforts made in the last four decades by members of the local association to promote their profession and uphold its standards can only be strengthened by parallel membership of the widely acclaimed international sister organisation.

This is why AIIC’s initiative to organise an enlarged meeting of the Private Market Sector in Istanbul in January 2005 should no doubt receive a warm welcome from Turkish interpreters.



Recommended citation format:
Nur DERIS OTTOMAN. "From dragomans to interpreters: A brief overview of the profession in Turkey". aiic.co.uk August 28, 2004. Accessed October 18, 2018. <http://aiic.co.uk/p/1525>.