Interpreting the Interpreter’s Poem

A new piece on The Petrified Muse discusses an ‘interpreter‘ in a Roman verse inscription from Carthage.  Callistratus, the author, is an ‘interpreter’ in the sense that he engages in word-play.  Not an interpreter between foreign languages, alas for us, but nevertheless a nice opportunity to think about languages and literary culture in the North African provinces of the Roman Empire.

(Thanks to Prof. Peter Kruschwitz of the University of Reading for the link.)


Grand Hotels of Egypt

I haven’t posted in a while (busy finishing up a new book on Solomon N. Negima, a Syrian dragoman!), so here is a link to a wonderful blog on Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel.  If you’ve ever day-dreamed about being on a Thomas Cook tour to Egypt in the 1880s, this is the site for you.


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ATI cover

Archaeologists, Tourists, Interpreters

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, growing numbers of tourists and scholars from Europe and America, fascinated by new discoveries, visited the Near East and Egypt – attracted by the riches and mysteries of the Land of the Bible. Almost all such visitors, no matter how esoteric or academic their pursuits, had to deal with the local authorities and the native workforce for their archaeological excavations. The vast majority of these visitors had to rely on interpreters, dragomans, translators and local guides.This study, based on published and unpublished travel memoirs, guidebooks, personal papers and archaeological reports of the British and American archaeologists, deals with the socio-political status and multi-faceted role of interpreters at the time. Those bi- or multi-lingual individuals frequently took on (or were forced to take on) much more than just interpreting. They often played the role of go-betweens, servants, bodyguards, pimps, diplomats, spies, messengers, managers and overseers, and had to mediate, scheme and often improvise, whether in an official or unofficial capacity.

For the most part denied due credit and recognition, these interpreters are finally here given a new voice. An engrossing story emerges of how through their many and varied actions and roles, they had a crucial part to play in the introduction to Britain and America of these mysterious past cultures and civilizations.

– See more at:


“This book is a fascinating read from beginning to end. It comes at a time when a post-colonial approach has finally begun to be applied to early archaeological work and not only to non-professional travellers. This new interest, however, has never taken the linguistic issue into account, and thus this book comes to complement the work of scholars engaging with early archaeological colonialism.” –  Arietta Papaconstantinou, Associate Professor, University of Reading, UK.

“This interesting and accessible book presents both new and little-known information on the social history of dragomans and interpreters in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the late 19th to early 20th centuries and casts light on and the Anglo-American aversion to learning Arabic and Turkish that made them necessary. Mairs and Muratov excavate new archival sources: a diary and curated testimonial book to discover the voice and agency of two individuals who shaped westerners’ experience of the Holy Lands, thereby rescuing them from the anonymity of a client-based perspective.” –  Susan Heuck Allen, Visiting Scholar, Department of Classics, Brown University, USA.

The London Dragoman

London Dragoman

Few people (who don’t study nineteenth century diplomats and interpreters) now use the term ‘dragoman’.  In the 1920s, enough were still familiar with it – through the accounts of tourists in Egypt and the Middle East – that it could be used as a metaphor for another type of ‘guide’.

The London Dragoman was a monthly guidebook and listings magazine that ran from 1927-1928.  The cover of the July 1928 issue features the eponymous dragoman, in a turban and hoop earrings, with a pencil moustache above feminine lips, holding a collection of London’s most famous sights.  The image is more pantomime genie than professional tourist guide.  He has “London at his finger tips”.

The dragoman can “help you in any difficulty, from where to get your socks mended to advising you as to the best route to India.”  He can send messenger boys to wait in queues for theatre tickets.  London’s entertainments include the Zoo, with camel and elephant rides, and the opportunity to purchase “duplicate animals” (!).  The theatre listings offer all sorts of escapism: a production of Dracula, “frank” social dramas, and the notorious actress Tallulah Bankhead in “the adventures of a professional dancer in Monte Carlo.”  The advertisements include holidays in Sweden, the “original sea suit”, liqueur chocolates and a hairdressing salon.

Despite the testimonials printed in the magazine, the London Dragoman was wound up in January 1929, in debt.  My copies of the issues of July 1927 and 1928 have been well used by their owners, whoever they were.  One has ticked off sights to see, or which have been seen, such as the British Museum.  The other has written inside the back cover “Faire aux Puces [flea market], Petticoat Lane London”, suggesting a Francophone tourist.

More pictures here: London Dragoman

Ancient Egyptian Interpreters?


The relief above comes from the pyramid temple of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Sahure at Abusir, constructed in the mid-third millennium BC.  Beneath a text in praise of Sahure, we find the depiction of a boat full of foreigners from the Near East, including one man captioned in hieroglyphs as ‘a’.  (The arm sign representing ayin, with a kilt determinative.)  This term ‘a’ appears in several forms in ancient Egyptian: ‘Aaa’ (aleph, ayin, ayin) and ‘iaau’ are variants.  It comes from a root meaning to ‘babble’ or ‘bray’ like a donkey, and its meaning seems to have been widened to include incomprehensible or foreign speech.

So who are the people marked ‘a’ in the reliefs at Abusir?  Opinions vary.  They may be Egyptian officials in charge of relations with foreigners.  They may be interpreters (Egyptian or foreign).  Or – the suggestion which makes most sense to me – people who combined a linguistic role with a more general mediatory one, in trade and diplomacy

The most critical modern discussion of the term is Lanny Bell’s 1976 dissertation on Interpreters and Egyptianized Nubians, available here.

Rev. Anton Tien: Interpreter and Language Instructor

From Hermeneus to Dragoman

It’s interesting how often I come across language textbooks from over a hundred years ago which are in truly excellent condition.  I’ve just found a lovely little copy of the fifth edition of Anton Tien’s Manual of Colloquial Arabic, from the 1890s.  Its owner was a Captain in the British Army in Jerusalem in 1918, who seems to have opened it only to write his name, and then given up on the project.  Crisp pages, and not a dog-ear or an ink-blot in sight.  The road to learning Arabic is paved with good intentions.

For language nerds, there are also plenty of distractions before you even reach the title page of manuals like this: two tempting double page spreads of advertisements for other language books by the same publisher.


Perhaps our British Army Captain decided that Andamanese was more to his taste.

One name recurs among the authors of…

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The Tourist Gaze


Cabinet photographs of people and places were popular souvenirs from Egypt in the late nineteenth century.  These examples do not bear the name of the photographer, but Cairo in the 1880s and 90s boasted a number of photographic studios which catered to the European tourist market.

As can be seen from the handwriting, these cards were acquired by the same person.  They show two tourist sites – Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria and the Tombs of the Caliphs in Cairo – but also a man in eastern dress, leaning on a stick, annotated ‘Turkish Egyptian Dragoman or guide.’

This kind of objectification of local people in ‘picturesque’ garb is common in the European and American travel literature of the period.  It plays into wider and more pervasive patterns of western representation and domination of the east.  (I presume we’ve all read Said’s Orientalism?  Good, I’ll continue.)  This card is a complicated object in so many ways: produced by an imported western technology, in Egypt, representing an Egyptian, sold to a westerner, who had him/herself had Egypt represented to them by an Egyptian interpreter.  I got it on ebay.