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Dragomans Become Promoters of Intangible Cultural Heritage

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This is the journey of dragomans becoming promoters of intangible cultural heritage in honor of the World Translation Day 2019.

As also pointed out in the TAUS Translators in the Algorithmic Age Report, the search for a better name that combines the many roles translators take on these days has been going on. Translator, language specialist, storyteller, transcreator, post-editor, reviewer, language professional, and the list goes on.

Back in the 8th century translators were also known as “dragomans”. Dragomans first appeared in the 8th century at the time of the Abbasids. They also existed under the Mamluks in Egypt and the Seljuqs in Anatolia. The Ottoman Empire carried on in the same tradition and became highly associated with dragomans.

So what exactly are dragomans? The Ottoman Empire needed people fluent in Western and Oriental languages. Who better than young boys who were selected from the invaded Western territories and brought to the Sultan’s Divan where they were taught about oriental cultures and languages? They were raised almost as bilingual as they were naturally familiar with Western culture and languages and were at the same time brought up with oriental culture learning these languages from a young age. Perhaps we could say that a dragoman was the first official role that translators took on as mediators of cultures between nations and governments.

On 24 May 2017, the United Nations recognized 30 September as the International Translation Day. The International Federation of Translators (FIT) chose the theme of 2018 as Translation: Promoting Cultural Heritage in Changing Times in alignment with the UN declaration of 2019 being the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Despite the level of advancement in our age, we still maintain a very dull definition of translation and are often neglecting the cultural and intangible elements that come with it. Languages are many times simply defined as tools for communication, leaving out the crucial and unique heritage that languages bear within. Languages play a crucial role as “a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory”. Furthermore, the notion of cultural heritage does not only refer to monuments or a collection of objects, but also includes knowledge, beliefs, practices about people, nature and the universe as UNESCO puts it under the description of intangible cultural heritage. With the ever-more globalized communities, previously distant cultures are now establishing direct contact Translators, the modern dragomans, are the storytellers and transcreators and enable smooth transfer of knowledge, provide a better understanding of the newly contacted culture as well as defining intangible cultural heritage of one community to the other and thus play a vital role.

At TAUS, we hope that International Translation Day can be a day where we highlight the role of the translators as a promoter and introducer of intangible cultural heritage of distant communities to encourage mutual respect.

Happy International Translation Day!

To learn more on the changing role of the translators in the age of artificial intelligence, download TAUS report: Translators in the Algorithmic Age.

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Şölen Aslan

Şölen has studied Translation Studies as well as Brand Communication at Istanbul University and completed her master’s degree in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Previously, she worked at various positions as a translator, post-editor and marketing specialist. She is familiar with the translation and transcreation industry and enthusiastic about languages, cultures and communication. Currently, she is responsible for content marketing activities at TAUS.
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