The making of a legend – Redhouse
by Niki Gaam
Part One of the article
that appeared in
The Turkish Daily News
Friday 25 October 2002
Sir James Redhouse –
The Turkish Dictionary Man
Following the change to the Latin alphabet, the Redhouse dictionaries had to be
reproduced in the new alphabet. The 1950 Revised Redhouse Dictionary, English-Turkish
was the first to be printed. In the 1960's the publishing program began to diversify into
such areas as family life, nature and ecology, travel and Turkish culture...in line with its
long-held goals of providing education and understanding.
It's not such a hard building to find actually - through the short axis of the Mısır Çarşı,
past the sellers and car/pedestrian traffic and then turn at the second right. The building
that became the Istanbul headquarters of the American Board in 1872 blends well with
the gray of the other buildings on the street that seems to offer a variety of goods and
Hard to imagine when you first see it that the dictionary we've all relied upon for more
than 100 years in one form or another originated here [figuratively speaking) -- the
Redhouse Turkish-English Dictionary and its counterpart, the Redhouse English-Turkish
It's a long story of intelligent decisions and diligent work and at present Dr. Brian
Johnson is engaged in putting all of the extant material together to provide an accurate
picture of a process that started in Malta in 1822. He calls the project, "Changing Fonts:
The Evolution of a Press," an accurate description of what happened over time. People
will be able to learn more about the transition via a brochure and series of panels in
Turkish, entitled Değişen Fontlar, Bir Yayınevinin Evrimi, at the Tuyap Book Fair at
Beylikdüzü between October 26 and November 3.
The same information but this time in
English will be on display at the upcoming Middle East Studies Association meeting in
Washington, D.C., November 22-26 and in the Allen Library (University of Washington,
Seattle) in early December.
Beginning in Malta
Malta was attractive in the 19th century because the location allowed the representatives
of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to get their feet wet in the
Mediterranean on an island that was under the British rule at the time. This was followed
by splitting into two groups -- one moving to Beirut (where there were large minority
communities) and the other to Izmir in 1833, and then to Istanbul in 1853. From Istanbul,
the American Board's publication department operated for nearly 150 years.
The situation in the 19th century was dictated by historical events of the time. But it
should be pointed out that these people who were Protestants were not trying to convert
Muslims. Their aim was enlightening Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
The publication department had an extensive publishing program with religious and
nonreligious books in Armenian, Greek and Turkish in a variety of alphabets. And
second, the Istanbul publications department also produced secular works, the best known
of which were the famous dictionaries of Sir James Redhouse.
Redhouse, the dictionary man
Born in 1811, James Redhouse was orphaned when quite young and spent between 1819-
1826 in the Christ's Hospital foundling home. He was given a technical education
probably preparing for a naval career. In 1826, he was expelled and apparently served as
a cabin boy on board a merchant ship that brought him to Istanbul where he jumped ship.
According to what is known, Redhouse found a job with the Ottoman naval arsenal in
Kasımpaşa. There he was able to learn the Ottoman language and develop his skills as a
translator as well as study Arabic, Persian, Italian, Greek and German. He had produced
his first dictionary by 1833, a Turkish, French and English lexicon.
Between 1834 and 1838, Redhouse was in England but he then returned to Istanbul to
work as an interpreter and translator for the Ottoman government. His duties however did
not stop him from pursuing [his] interest in Ottoman Turkish as a language. He not only
produced dictionaries but [a] grammar [study] as well.
Traveling to England just prior to the start of the Crimean War (1853) for a brief visit,
Redhouse ended up spending the rest of his life there. He continued throughout to
produce works such as the Simplified Grammar of Ottoman Turkish published in London
(1884). But more importantly in 1861 he finished an English- Turkish dictionary for the
missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Istanbul.
The Board subsequently commissioned a Turkish-English dictionary that serves as the
basis for the one most relied on today. In fact, as Johnson has pointed out, the dictionaries
of 1861 and 1890, which are his most important works, might not have been published if
it hadn't been for the American Board.
During his lifetime, Redhouse received such honors as a knighthood, an honorary
doctorate from (Cambridge University), an Imperial Ottoman Order and a Royal Persian
Order before dying in 1892.
On to the 20th century and beyond
Redhouse Press found itself adapting to modem times especially after the establishing of
the Turkish Republic and the change to a Latin letter alphabet in 1928. With the latter,
the [original Redhouse] dictionary became obsolete for everyone except scholars of
Ottoman Turkish. Eventually the dictionaries were reproduced in the new alphabet and
updated. The result was the 1950 Revised Redhouse Dictionary, English-Turkish
followed by the New Redhouse Turkish-English Dictionary in 1968 - with 1,525 pages
and definitions for 105,000 words and expressions. It has subsequently been reproduced
many times. Its outstanding success led to the American Board's publication department
being renamed the "Redhouse Press" in 1966.
With William Edmonds' taking over the helm of the press in 1966 and under the new
name, the publishing program began to diversify into such areas as family life, nature and
ecology, travel and Turkish culture. This was completely in line with its long-held goals
of providing education and understanding.
Starting with a cookbook for English-speakers and expanding to books on Turkey's bird
life, from poetry collections to work on traditional crafts, the press pursued its goals. It
had further best-seller hits with one of the most outstanding guidebooks to Istanbul
ever written -- Hillary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely's "Strolling Through Istanbul".
Another book, written by Everett Blake and Anna Edmonds, Biblical Sites in Turkey is
one of the best sources available for people interested in early Christianity in Turkey.
This [is] a dynamic period for Redhouse Press and it [is likely to] remain so especially for
those who [are] involved with it -- if only as readers of its books and users of its
The Redhouse publication department was reestablished as an independent Turkish owned
company in 1996 under the Health and Education Foundation (Sağlık ve Eğitim
Vakıf or SEV). The press is now known as SEV-YAY and continues to produce and sell
about 200,000 copies per year of its ten separate English-Turkish/Turkish-English
lexicons currently in print. Since 1996 there have been three new dictionaries published
and a new CD version of a Redhouse lexicon that has just come out this year -- in short,
the legend and legacy of Redhouse continues.