MESA Banner
Translation as Archive: Documenting Cross-Cultural Contact in Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean Histories

Panel II-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel aims to understand the workings of translation in the creation and mediation of Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean archives. We adhere to and expand on scholarly perspectives that approach the archive less as a static repository that channels "the past" into "the present" than a dynamic object that generates contact zones between agents, geographies, and histories—a process that is not dissimilar to the practice of translation, taken not as an unmediated transference between "source" and "host" languages but as the subversion of such delineations. Situated at this methodological juncture, our panel commits to investigating the question of translation in active and direct engagement with archival documents, objects, artifacts, and sites concerning Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean histories. Shifting attention to underexplored and connected modalities of knowledge production and communication, we ultimately hope to challenge nationalist and Eurocentric prisms of cultural isolation that have long governed the Middle East and Mediterranean studies. Rather than rely on temporal, geographical, and methodological divides, our panel brings together papers on various periods of Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean histories and from such disciplines as history, translation studies, literary studies, archival studies, and book history. The papers will explore the production, circulation, mediation, and reimagination of archival materials in translation from early modern Mediterranean to late Ottoman to (post)colonial Middle Eastern histories.
  • In the 1670s, the issue of the purchase of alcohol was brought up in two different Ottoman documents involving the Tarsias, an Istanbul-based dragoman (diplomatic interpreter) family. The first is an imperial order from the corpus of carte turche (Turkish Charters), granting the Venetians a license to purchase a certain amount of alcohol in Istanbul. Before sending it to Venice, one of the Tarsia dragomans translated the document into Italian in which he adhered to— what I discovered to be— a scribal convention by using the loanword "mitri" in Italian for the Ottoman "müdre," a term of liquid measurement. The second is a sicil (court register) in which another Tarsia dragoman appeared as a claimant at the Tophane court to have an extra müdre of alcohol registered after the ship carrying his order sank—an instance signaling to what extent an imperial order had everyday implications for dragomans. Based on such relationality between documents, my paper offers an everyday perspective on how inter-imperial bureaucracy, place-making, and mobility can be studied by looking at the translation, (re)production, and circulation of documents between the Ottoman and Venetian Empires. I argue that an inter-textual and inter-genre analysis of the paper trail between these empires reveals not only how documents were copied, translated, and mediated into/out of the Porte by dragomans but it also provides a window into the everyday lives of dragomans in early modern Istanbul. To this end, I put together archival materials that have yet to be studied together, namely, Ottoman sicils, registers of foreign states (ecnebi defterleri), and carte turche from the Ottoman and Venetian archives, respectively. I first explore the translation and scribal practices adhered to by dragomans. Here I look at the coupling of the Ottoman and Italian documents in carte turche to address how the sociolegal lexicon of everyday life of the Istanbulite dragomans was translated into Italian. I then add to this discussion corresponding and related documents from the corpora of the ecnebi and sicil defters to see how categories and nomenclature used to define the everyday matters of the dragomans were rendered across documents and genres. I conclude by pointing out how dragomans entangled themselves in the circulatory regime of paper that they mediated while also becoming the quotidian subjects of the documents that gave shape to the very same regime.
  • Against the backdrop of Eurocentric notions of modernization, recent scholarship has drawn attention to the interconnected nature of Ottoman modernities. In an attempt to contribute to this emerging body of work, my paper situates Turkish-Arabic contact in translation within the larger context of multilingual and multiscript interactions within the late Ottoman Empire and between the empire and Europe. In doing so, I draw on a set of archival finds: the 1869 edition of Ahmed Lutfi’s Arabic-to-Turkish translation of Robinson Crusoe, which is adorned with illustrations taken from a Greek translation of Crusoe, some of which contain words typeset in the Greek script; a copy of the 1880 edition of al-Jawaʾib’s Turkish-Arabic bilingual print of the Kanun-i Esasi (the first Ottoman constitution), in which Armenian-script annotations accompany the Turkish-Arabic print; and select issues of late 19th-century Turkish and Arabic periodicals (such as Servet-i Fünun and al-Muqtataf), in which Latin-script words appear along with their equivalents in the (Perso-)Arabic script. Embodying diverse translation practices at once, these documents reveal how Turkish-Arabic contact in the late empire was marked not only by European modernity but by a combination of internal and external factors, ranging from indigenous languages and scripts of the empire to European print materials and technologies, and the proliferation of new media, genres, and epistemologies that resulted from such interactions. Using the tools of translation studies, media studies, and book history to attend to the marks born by these documents—both conceptually, in their content, and materially, upon the page—I make a case for studying Ottoman modernity in its hegemonic and heterogeneous facets at once. In conclusion, I reflect on my own experience navigating physical and online archives, sharing insights into the often-overlooked ways critical translation scholars can employ archival research in their attempt to better understand Ottoman modernity.
  • Mahmut Efendi, a müftü working in Athens during the first half of the 18th century, composed a history of that city covering, ironically, the city’s classic, most brilliant period down to its conversion to Christianity in the first century A.D.. Mahmut writes in his introduction that he was helped by two priests, Kavallaris and Sotiris, who translated for him passages from various classic authors such as the fifth-century B.C. Thucydides. In fact the two priests were fooling Mahmut: they relied on a Greek-language History of Athens by another priest, Kontaris, published in Venice in 1675: it is in reality Kontaris who collected and synthesised the classic sources. Kontaris provides the basic scheme for Mahmut’s work: from time to time his informants amplify a given passage in Kontaris: on the other hand some sections of Kontaris have been cut, for example parts of the Peloponnesian War narrative. Beside the cuts and amplifications just mentioned, there are additions of completely new subject-matter, and notably the long passage concerning Alexander the Great. In Mahmut’s narrative it is a Greek tradition that is being followed; the version in Mahmut Efendi is one of a number of popular versions which were in circulation by word of mouth at the time. Mahmut then adds information from the Qur’anic and other Islamic sources. A further section of text purports to take the story of Athens up to Mehmet II’s capture of the city in 1456, then to the seizure of the Peloponnese in 1686 by Venetian forces and the attack on Athens in 1687: Mahmut was evidently shocked by the deliberate shelling of the Parthenon, then a mosque, which cost hundreds of lives. This further section of text presents Venice as a pirate state which seized the whole Byzantine empire: the whole section is based on popular tradition. I argue essentially that the version of Athenian history down to the first century A.D. which appears in Mahmut Efendi represents a wide-ranging metamorphosis of Kontaris on the part of Mahmut’s informants, which is then translated quite faithfully into Ottoman; secondly we argue that the further section of text is added to the principal narrative for the purpose of denigrating Venice for its perfidy, particularly in bombarding the Parthenon, and so for that of flattering the memory of Mehmet II and, no doubt, the whole Ottoman dynasty.