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Classics Professor Discusses Survival of Art

Kassidy Arena
Wells described American English as "non-durable," which is why the study and translation of the Classics are so important to modern day students.

  Dr. James Wells, professor of Classics at DePauw University in Indiana visited the MU campus to talk about the importance of translation in modern day.

Wells himself wasn’t aware of the classics until well into his own undergraduate studies. He first went to school to study science.

“A D in Biology and a little note on my first calculus test, which read, I suggest you perhaps drop this course and try again in the future sort of tanked my career as a scientist,” Wells said.

Although it did lead him to signing up for a Humanities course. A love for his humanities class developed into a love for the classics as a whole.

Wells said “it’s the study of everything. I mean we study history and science and philosophy and rhetoric, and poetry and performance and religion and archaeology and space.”

Wells took the mix of everything Classics has to offer and decided he would focus his attention and efforts on translating ancient Greek poetry into a language that fits with modern day, colloquial English. He is currently working on works from ancient Greek poet Pindar, who wrote victory songs for athletes in the fifth century BC.

According to the Poetry Foundation based in Chicago, “Pindar is considered by some scholars to be the greatest of the classical Greek poets.”

In order to translate Pindar’s works, Wells taught himself Greek. He started by studying Greek at least 15 minutes a day and carrying his textbook with him everywhere he went.

“It’s sort of like creating the environment in order to pursue a habit,” Wells said. “If you get a gym membership, you’re more likely to go. And if you actually get to the gym, you’re probably going to work out. So similar thing, except studying Greek.”

During his lecture on the MU campus, Wells spoke about the “disposability of art” that has become present in today’s era of digital presence and the way to combat that is by constant translation. Wells talked about the importance of developing ancient works into contemporary English. By doing so, he keeps the work alive.

“I think Classical Studies teaches grit, it teaches attention, it teaches a delayed gratification,” Wells said. “It takes a few years to actually read poetry in Greek or Latin and understand it and appreciate it, but when you do, it’s very very worth it.”

Wells tries to show, through his poetry and translations, that Classical Studies teaches society how to be human—where the term “humanities” comes into play. He says it’s important to challenge oneself and learn how to cultivate passion, which is what he has experienced through his own art of translation.

Interview conducted by Sidney Steele


Wells reads a portion of his poetry.


Intro: Welcome to Exam on KBIA. I’m Kassidy Arena and this is where we talk everything education all across Missouri. This week Sidney Steele sat down with James Wells, a classics professor from DePauw University.

Sidney Steele: So can you tell me a little bit about what you studied? I know that you for from what I've heard about you, you didn't start with studying Greek and the classics.

James Wells: That's right. When I was an undergraduate I, well, I started undergraduate school with with the just a vague idea that I wanted to keep learning. And I didn't know that people could earn master's degrees and PhD. So the way that I thought I could stay in school was to be a doctor, or a lawyer. And so a D in biology and a little note on my first calculus test, which read, I suggest you perhaps drop this course and try again in the future. That sort of tanked my career as a scientist as an undergraduate. But eventually, I discovered an interesting humanities. And that led after I finished my BA to starting to study Greek and Latin.

Steele: And so what got you interested in those topics?

Wells: Well, I think the first thing is that I had a childhood dream of being a writer, and I really didn't have any sense of how to become a writer or what that would involve. And so really, the story is that I happened to take one course in classical studies as an undergraduate, with a very charismatic and brilliant teacher. I took away the idea that if I really wanted to be a writer, that I ought to be willing to do the work of devotion to language and literature itself. And so Classical Studies seemed a pathway for that.

Steele: Can you tell me more, a little bit more about your background and how you got into translating specifically within that field?

Wells: Yeah, I think, along with the desire to be to be a writer, My interest is in writing poetry. And so I thought of translation as a way to bridge the work of being a classicist, and being a creative writer, putting, you know, one foot in each world. I actually have a lot of insecurity about my ability to realize my dreams of being a writer or even being a classisist I mean, it really didn't think, especially because I taught myself Greek on my own, I didn't think that I would know Greek well enough to be able to get a get a PhD. So I just didn't really think I would make it actually, but but I thought that if I could present myself a challenge, it would sort of validate my aspiration. 

Steele: How does the study of classics influence your work? And how do you think that the study of the classics is important today?

Wells: I think that studying something that requires me to move out at myself, that challenged me that that in some ways, something that is actually difficult, teaches me many things about life, in particular, just how to cultivate passions. I mean, I think, if I love something, love is the greatest and most challenging work. And this can apply to other forms of study as well, certainly, but that one can learn the fundamental skills it takes to be true to oneself to be true to one's family to one's causes. Because the world always demands something of us. I think Classical Studies, teachers grit, it teaches attention, it teaches a delayed gratification, but the gratification is greater. Because the the scale is broader. It takes a few years to actually read poetry in Greek or Latin and understand it and appreciate it, but when you do, it's very, very worth it.

Outro: I’m Kassidy Arena and this is Exam on KBIA.

Kassidy Arena was the Engagement Producer for KBIA from 2022-2023. In her role, she reported and produced stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focused on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.