Perspectives Daily

AHA Member Spotlight: E. Natalie Rothman

Matthew Keough | Jul 2, 2020

E. Natalie Rothman is an associate professor at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto, Canada, and has been a member since 2004. This interview was conducted on May 13, 2019, and has only been edited slightly for factual updates in June 2020. It does not reflect Rothman's current perspective on the world under global pandemic and ongoing anti-racist struggles.


E. Natalie Rothman

Alma maters: MA (culture research), Tel Aviv University, 1999; PhD (anthropology and history), University of Michigan, 2006

Fields of interest: early modern Mediterranean, cultural mediation, translation studies, historical anthropology, Orientalism, archives, digital scholarship

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

Serendipity, profoundly inspiring teachers, and my desire to understand the durabilities of imperialism and colonialism in the part of the world I grew up in, Israel/Palestine, and beyond.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

I love living and working in Toronto. I love that so many people come from somewhere else. Yet being from elsewhere brings with it challenges, especially how to effectively participate in Canada’s very partial attempt to reconcile with the indigenous people of the land.

What projects are you currently working on? 

I just finished a book manuscript, The Dragoman Renaissance: Diplomatic Interpreters and the Routes of Orientalism (Cornell University Press, forthcoming). It tells the story of how a small caste of Istanbul-based Catholics played an outsized role in brokering knowledge between the Ottomans and various European metropoles in the 17th century, and makes an argument for the importance of studying interpreters’ kinship as well as textual practices and regimes of circulation. It also underscores how the knowledge that these interpreters helped mediate was very much shaped by Ottoman elites’ own understandings of language, history, and empire. I am now starting a new collaborative project on early modern diplomatic archives. The project considers the mobilities of personnel, documents, and genres between Venetian and Ottoman chanceries as a way of thinking about trans-imperial archival formations and their digital remediation.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? 

I am still fascinated by the lifeworlds of early modern people on the move, but in a sense my work has taken me away from Venice to Istanbul and to other contemporary metropoles. Methodologically, I continue to draw on the rich toolkit of historical anthropology. These days I am particularly excited about that field’s many intersections with science and technology studies, book history, and linguistic anthropology.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

Hard to choose just one, but probably stumbling upon the personal archives of the 18th-century descendent of a long dynasty of diplomatic interpreters from Istanbul. After writing about this dynasty it was exciting to find these materials in a tiny research institute in Germany. These archives contain beautiful genealogical charts, an intriguing narrative about what diplomatic interpreters do, along with reference letters from many diplomats in Istanbul for a Habsburg interpreter, the father of the archives’ creator. These materials really helped me understand the importance of kinship practices among interpreter dynasties.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? 

My favorite, easily, is the Ottoman History Podcast. It is an amazingly rich set of conversations across fields, regions, and periods (and languages) and should be required listening to anyone who aspires to understand the deep history of the modern Middle East and its entanglements with other world regions. That it is run by a small group of volunteers on a shoestring budget makes it all the more special.

What do you value most about the history discipline? 

The multi-perspectival lens on the present, that is: both the ability to account for how we got ourselves into this mess and the nuanced understanding that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the current predicament. To put it differently: to practice history is to realize (and act upon) the fact that revolutions can and have upset even the most entrenched and unequal power structures. 

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? 

Because, as part of a relatively privileged group of professionals in the Global North, I believe in our collective responsibility to share our knowledge, call out simplistic histories, and advocate for better public policies, including funding for critical, excellent education for all.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

My most memorable annual meeting anecdote is from 2006, when I interviewed for jobs, and eventually landed my position in Toronto. I was fortunate to share my room with grad school friends who were also on the job market that year. The chance to unwind after all our stressful interviews was priceless. I always tell this story to grad students because it goes counter to the narrative of secrecy and individualism that continues to plague graduate training. There is nothing like the comradery of poking fun at senior professors when out of earshot!

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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