Once an Oceanographer, Santa Fe Tutor Learns an Ancient Language
The idiom “It’s all Greek to me” is often uttered with a sense of futility, as if the speaker not only doesn’t understand something, but has given up hope of ever understanding. At St. John’s, much of the territory covered in the Program is unfamiliar to those encountering it for the first time—whether they are students or tutors—and everyone is encouraged to speak up when they don’t understand. In fact, what you don’t at first understand might well be the ancient Greek alphabet to which the idiom refers.
First-year Johnnies take up the study of ancient Greek in order to translate Homer, as do students in the Greek Institute at the Santa Fe campus, an intensive eight-week summer program launched in June. Tutors Lyd Wells and Alan Zeitlin led this year’s institute, which focuses on Homeric Greek rather than the Attic Greek taught at other intensive Greek institutes. Participants, who vary in age and academic background, learned the alphabet on the first day and by the second month had finished translating Book I of the Iliad and were making progress on Book VI of the Odyssey.
“No translation can convey the metrical beauty of Homer,” said Mr. Wells. “In addition, there’s an enormous lexical richness that creates interesting connections that are virtually impossible to translate.” He explains that the verb εποίχομαι can mean both “to attack,” and “to ply,” whether sails or a loom. “So, while Odysseus is plying his sails, trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, she in turn is also plying, albeit her loom. At other times, his wife is weaving when he is attacking or fighting someone. They’re actually doing the same thing at the level of the verb. They’ve been separated for almost 20 years, but they are still somehow in sync.”
Prior to joining the St. John’s faculty five years ago, Mr. Wells was an oceanographer studying viruses in the Arctic. Though most people think of viruses as pathogens, they are actually abundant organisms that perform important geochemical functions and can be found in virtually any body of water, whether it’s the ocean or the campus koi pond. They shuttle genes from one organism to another but have no metabolic capacity of their own. Mr. Wells was struck by how difficult it was even for scientists to definitively state what a virus was and whether or not it was a life-form. He became more interested in the underlying philosophical question—“Why can’t we say what they are?”—than defining what they were, which led him to St. John’s.
Almost everything he’s taught at the college—including Greek—was initially unfamiliar to him, but he followed the ethos of learning alongside his students, which he said requires a certain degree of humility. “Last year, I taught Sophomore Music and I loved it,” he said. “It was a world that I had very little exposure to and I felt like I was an explorer getting dropped off on a great big content and being told to go wander around. I lucked out because the students were very patient with me.”