Professor's translation to give critical witness to Islam’s rise

Image shows early Greek text on a tablet

The unexpected, rapid rise of Islam in the seventh century and its impact on global power sparked a long-running debate among scholars. UO religious studies professor Stephen Shoemaker aims to insert critical new information into the conversation by translating an essential text from that era.

Boosted by a $220,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Shoemaker will translate “The Capture of Jerusalem by the Persians in 614.” The book, originally written in Greek, only survives in Old Georgian and Arabic. With the exception of an outdated Russian version, the text has never been available in a modern language.

“This text is an important piece of the puzzle, but it’s been neglected because it wasn’t available in a European language,” Shoemaker said. “A translation of this text will make a crucial source of information available about a critical moment in world history.”

The book, he said, offers valuable observations about events that transpired during the decline of the Byzantine Roman Empire, the conquest of Jerusalem and the rapid expansion of Islam under the Prophet Muhammed — some of the most significant exchanges of power and religion in history.

“How were Muhammed’s followers so successful when their army was not that large? It’s the million dollar question,” Shoemaker said. “This text is an incredibly valuable witness to what was happening in the region right before this pivotal transfer of power.”

Shoemaker is collaborating on the project with Sean Anthony, an Ohio State University historian and former UO faculty member. Anthony will be responsible for the Arabic. Shoemaker will tackle the Old Georgian, which was a pervasive language during early Christianity.

The pair plans to publish an annotated version that will include notes that explore the historical events and figures and explain their approach to translating the text. Their finished product will be available online so people can easily access the translation.

Old Georgian is one of a dozen languages that Shoemaker works with on a regular basis, but he describes it as among his favorites because it presents such a challenge. It is an extremely rare language with very few resources available to help scholars learn or translate it.

According to Shoemaker, training opportunities are not plentiful, and it is only within the last decade that Old Georgian dictionaries even existed in modern European languages. It is not uncommon, he said, to encounter a word that is not included in any of them — a situation that leaves Shoemaker scouring stacks of Old Georgian texts for clues so nothing gets lost in translation.

“It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he said. “But I actually really enjoy that. It makes for an incredibly challenging puzzle.”

It’s a practice he describes as equal parts art and science, with careful attention paid to how he is respecting vocabulary and literary intention when bridging languages. He expects to spend two terms spread out over two years working on this particular translation.

University and state leaders were quick to recognize the significance of this award as acknowledgment of the UO’s strength in the humanities and as an important investment in work critical to this field.

“This grant is a remarkable investment in the University of Oregon’s exceptional work in the humanities,” said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio. “As a member of Congress, I am committed to preserving the National Endowment for the Humanities, an agency that makes a tremendous impact on institutions across Oregon and the nation.

“It is essential that Congress continues to support the endowment’s efforts to promote the understanding of our nation’s rich history and cultural heritage to all Americans, and I’m delighted to see such efforts being supported at the UO,” DeFazio added.

David Conover, UO vice president for research and innovation, echoed DeFazio’s praise and stressed the importance of humanities research, especially amidst uncertainty with the federal budget.

“Professor Shoemaker’s important research is helping to answer pivotal questions about the human experience and our global history,” he said. “We congratulate him on this latest grant, which represents a significant investment in humanities research at the UO.

“Now more than ever, it is vitally important that we recognize the enduring power of the humanities and reiterate our sincere gratitude to the National Endowment for the Humanities for its continued support of research that enriches our society and cultural heritage.”

The grant to Shoemaker — the fourth from the National Endowment for the Humanities — reflects his commitment to humanities research. He also has received numerous fellowships to pursue research that delves into religious history, including early Christian traditions and formative Islam.

“The humanities help us to understand who we are as human beings,” Shoemaker said. “The stories we discover give us a way to comprehend our lives and shape our values. History enables us to remember who we’ve been so we can make sense of the problems and the traditions we now share. It’s essential that we understand the past to understand where we are now.”

—By Emily Halnon, University Communications