The British Empire Library

The Persian Interpreter: The Life and Career of Turner Macan

by Keith Haines

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The author's blurb states that his 'primary interest is biographical research into individuals who have achieved something worthwhile or of interest but who remain little known or have been ignored by historians'. Turner Macan fits that, and his scholarly rescue of the great Persian epic Shahnameh is certainly an achievement. But with such individuals neglected by history there is often little in the way of personal biographical material on which to base a full-scale biography. Cyril Connolly said 'Inside every fat man is a thin one signalling to be let out.' Inside this fat book (nearly 500 pages), is a much slimmer work on Turner Macan. The book is rambling and repetitive, and much of it is not biography but biography's evil twin, family history. Over 20 pages are devoted to transcribed Wills.

Chapter 1 detects an affinity between Ireland and India, with discursions on prominent Irishmen in India (astonishingly no mention of William Hickey). Then we have an extensive family history of the Irish Macans generally, which I found difficult to follow. Only slightly easier is a chapter on Anglo-Irish relations in the run-up to the Act of Union. The Macans were from Armagh — border country as it has become now. So only about half the book is about Turner Macan. Only on pi33 does he arrive in India aged 15 and the book gets going. His career was certainly unusual: a British Army cavalry regiment (16* Lancers), but rapid secondment to act as Persian Interpreter for the Commander in Chief - Lord Combermere, later Sir Edward Paget and Sir Henry Fane. Macan had a front seat at the Barrackpore Mutiny of 1824 and the second siege of Bhurtpore (Bharatpur) 1825-6.

The importance of accurate translation is obvious, but the floridity and hyperbole used by Persian speakers in diplomatic exchanges were particularly ill-suited to rendering in spare and bracing English. The interpreter had somehow to be faithful to the original while conveying the nuances of the original language - more like translating poetry than prose. At Barrackpore it seems the Mutineers believed their grievances would carry more weight if expressed in Persian rather than their native Hindustani, but the result was 'barbarous and unintelligible' and contributed to the series of misunderstandings that precipitated the full scale mutiny. At the same time Macan pursued doggedly his aim to publish a scholarly edition of the Shahnameh, in the teeth of indifference from many who should have known better, and downright opposition from those who with Macaulay thought all oriental scholarship was 'a hoard of waste paper'. It is clear that Turner's scholarly standards were of the highest and his edition has stood the test of time.

The background of patronage is well handled. Although it is clear Macan was a brilliant linguist and well deserved his post as Persian Interpreter, he seems to have owed his position to patronage - his brother-in-law was Commandant of Combermere's Bodyguard. Yet there are background matters that might have been fiirther explored. Was Persian only used for dealings with the Native States and more or less autonomous states like Awadh? Was Persian still being used in India much after Macan's time? It is also far from clear how and why Macan learned Persian as a British Army officer between the ages of 15 and 20. Macan's is certainly a story worth telling, but it is difficult to see him as a human being. We have virtually nothing in the way of personal letters or diaries about him, apart from barbs from Sir Henry Fane's waspish daughter Isabella at the very end of Macan's life. So Macan himself is largely seen though his work and appointments. Sharper editing would have helped this book. There are repetitions - in at least three places we hear of the almost drowning of Macan's brother-in-law in Burma. A reference to 'prompt ... offers of remarriage .. common on the subcontinent' cites Richard Holmes' Sahib in support. In fact. Holmes was referring only to other ranks in the army where it was essential for a woman to remarry, so as to continue on the strength of the regiment; otherwise she would be left behind. This book is handsomely if slightly eccentrically produced: good binding and illustrations, but elaborate use of a fancy script, and the footnotes are vanishingly small and hard to read. All in all an overlong, but deeply interesting book.

British Empire Book
Keith Haines
First Published
Ballihay Books
The Author
6 Beechgrove Avenue,
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2015 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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