Dragomans were interpreters who mediated between diplomats and functionaries of the countries of the Middle East, and particularly the Ottoman Empire, and Western Europe, from about the 13th century to well into the 19th century. Modern-day interpreters take great pains to translate accurately and remain faithful to the original words and sentiments expressed, but dragomans, who were Ottoman subjects - often Greeks, or Jews, or so-called Levantines, who were European Christians, usually Italians, who had settled in the Ottoman Empire - tended to translate in a way that did not offend their Ottoman masters. The academic, Bernard Lewis, in his essay From Dragomans to Babel, gives an example of the style of a dragoman:
"Having bowed my head in submission, and rubbed my slavish brow in utter humility and complete abjection and supplication to the beneficent dust beneath the feet of my mighty, gracious, condescending, compassionate, merciful benefactor, my most generous-handed master, I pray that the peerless and almighty provider of remedies may bless your lofty person, the extremity of benefit, protect my benefactor from the vicissitudes and afflictions of time, prolong the days of his life, his might and his splendour and perpetuate the shadow of his pity and mercy upon this slave."
England's first resident ambassador to the Ottoman Empire took up his duties in 1583, and letters passed between Queen Elizabeth and the Sultan. The Queen's English was usually translated into Italian and then the Italian was translated into Turkish for the Sultan to read. Queen Elizabeth expressed good will and friendship in her letter, but when the Sultan read the Turkish translation this had become 'loyalty and humble submission'. In a friendly letter to the Queen, the Sultan wrote that he was happy to add her to the vassals of his imperial throne, and said that he hoped that she would 'continue to be firm-footed on the path of devotion and fidelity'. None of this appears in the English translation. The Sultan speaks of the Queen 'demonstrating her subservience and devotion and declares her servitude and attachment', but in the Italian translation this is rendered as 'sincera amicizia'.
By the 18th century Western ambassadors were beginning to realise that they were not getting the full story, and that their own words were often being misrepresented, and so they began training their own people in Eastern languages.
The word dragoman entered English via French, Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, when it was in the form meturgeman, or turgeman, meaning translator or interpreter (Spanish has the word trujaman, which is nearer to the original, and the word truchman, defined as interpreter is also in the OED). According to Bernard Lewis, the root of the word goes back to Assyrian, where ragamu means 'to speak' and rigmu is a word. The related word Targum, which is in the OED, means an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible. The OED notes that from the 14th century dragoman was often treated as a compound of the English word man, and so people formed the plural dragomen, but by the 19th century the more usual plural was dragomans.