In translation: Professor returns to Binghamton for the next chapter
Once upon a time — as stories traditionally begin — there was a book. And when its covers finally closed, the beauty and insights within finally reaching their inevitable resolution, there was another book, a world of books written in many tongues, all begging to reach the reader.
Associate Professor Tarek Shamma — who teaches both comparative literature and translation studies at Binghamton University — has long been drawn by the power of words. An avid reader for as long as he can remember, he initially imagined a future as a scientist when growing up in his native Syria. The plot shifted when he hit middle school and began reading serious fiction in Arabic and in translation.
“I was fascinated by the creativity of literary works and the ways they could give profound insights into the world,” he said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in English literature at Tishreen University in Latakia, Syria, he came to Binghamton University on a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate study in translation. Academic programs in translation studies remain rare in the United States; Binghamton’s Translation Research and Instruction Program (TRIP) was the first to offer a doctorate in the field.
In the end, the choice came down to Binghamton or the University of Iowa.
“We went for Binghamton because my advisor thought the cold would be less severe. I still don’t know if he was right about that,” Shamma quipped.
He earned his master’s in comparative literature and a certificate in Arabic/English translation from Binghamton in 2000, and followed it with a PhD in comparative literature six years later. After graduation, his career took him to universities in the United Arab Emirates and then Qatar, where he taught translation in practice and theory, and Arabic writing and research methods, as well as a brief stint in an English department where he taught linguistics, composition and American literature.
He returned to Binghamton University in 2018 as an associate professor in both TRIP and comparative literature. It represented a new chapter in his life, both personally and professionally — and was the ideal fit for his research interests.
Currently, he’s working on a history of pre-modern translation in Arabic, spanning the eighth to the early 20th centuries. Translated works during that period came from many languages, including Persian, Syriac and Sanskrit, but especially ancient Greek for texts on philosophy, medicine and science.
“The focus of the project is the role of translation in the scientific, intellectual and social life of Arabic-speaking communities throughout history,” Shamma explained.
He’s currently preparing the first part of the anthology — the Arabic version — for publication. While he has a contract for the English anthology, the pandemic has delayed the submission date until next year.
It’s not his first book; he also published Translation and the Manipulation of Difference: Arabic Literature in Nineteenth-Century England in 2009, and he has written a long list of articles in academic journals, with topics ranging from Aristotle’s Poetics in classical Arabic to the politics and poetics of Arabic literature in translation.
Since he started, Shamma has made an invaluable contribution to TRIP students, including chairing and serving on committees for many doctoral students, said Beth Polzin, TRIP program coordinator.
“When Tarek started in January 2018, he hit the ground running. As an Arabic speaker with a background in translation studies research, he was in high demand with the then 54 students in our program, more than a third of whom are from the Middle East,” she said. “We are very grateful to have him with us!”
Binghamton is one of the few places in the United States where students can pursue translation theory and practice at all levels of specialization, from introductory courses all the way through a doctorate in the field, Shamma pointed out.
“Translation is one of the most enriching fields to study on the academic and personal levels. It is highly interdisciplinary in nature, so you can pursue practically any interest that you have,” he said, noting options in the hard sciences, social sciences and the humanities. “The experience of learning other languages and cultures is one of the most rewarding I know, and one of the most useful in today’s world in practically any professional field.”