The Translator Relay: Bill Johnston

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

Image of The Translator Relay: Bill Johnston

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For August's installment, Esther Allen passed the baton to Bill Johnston, who has translated some thirty works of poetry, prose, and drama from Polish into English. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2012, his translation of Wiesław Myśliwski’s 1984 novel Stone upon Stone (Archipelago Books) won the PEN Translation Prize, the Best Translated Book Award, and the Translation Prize of AATSEEL. He received the Translatlantyk Prize in June 2014 for his contributions to the promotion of Polish literature abroad. His most recent translation is Wiesław Myśliwski’s A Treatise on Shelling Beans (Archipelago Books, 2013). He teaches Comparative Literature at Indiana University.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I have no Polish background—actually, no background at all to speak of. At grammar school in England, at the age of 13 I started learning Russian. When I first visited Poland in 1976, at the age of 16, Polish immediately struck me as clean Russian—no diphthongized vowels, “g” was pronounced “g” and never “v,” stuff like that. Pretty silly really, but so it was. I instantly fell in love with Polish—with its phonology, including its delicious consonant clusters (words like źdźbło and krnąbrny); its orthography; and of course, later, all the agonizing politics and history that are embedded in the language today. I moved to Poland in 1983, lived there till 1991, and continue to visit frequently.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslateable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Tomasz Różycki’s brilliant 2004 mock epic poem Twelve Stations (Dwanaście stacji) is filled with word play and cultural references that from the translator’s point of view are entirely impossible. On page one he situates the city of Opole, where much of the action takes place, as being on the border between “Durnym | oraz Polnym Śląskiem”—a double play on words from the Polish “Górny Śląsk” (Upper Silesia) and “Dolny Śląsk” (Lower Silesia), where the word “Górny” or “upper” has become “Durny” or “idiotic,” while “Dolny” or “lower” is now “polny” or “of the fields”—i.e. rural. It seemed to me that the humor is rooted in the linguistic closeness, so I tried to stay as near as I could to the original names, and rendered the phrase as “on the border between Utter | and Slower Silesia.”

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I do virtually all my translation work before eight in the morning. I wake up early—around 5.30—make a coffee, and sit down to work, surrounded by a wall of dictionaries and reference books. With each project, after a few days I settle on a daily quota—perhaps two or three pages of prose, one lyric poem, or, as with my current project, ten lines of rhyming couplets. I work every day of the week, only taking a break during trips away. Prose translations go through three drafts before I hand them over to an editor; the speed of the second and third drafts gets a little faster (say, six pages a day rather than three). These kinds of structures, or habits, allow me to deal with what would otherwise be, each time, a thoroughly overwhelming task.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

In teaching translation and speaking about it I’ve drawn on many of the metaphors commonly used to describe it. But the one that I feel best captures my own aims in translating is that of performance. In the early stages of working on a translation, I find that I’m looking for the “voice” of the author or narrator much as an actor searches for a character within him- or herself, looking for the right gestures, props, and of course voice itself that will constitute an integral whole on stage. In terms of producing a translation, this means deciding on ways in which language is being used in the text that will inform future decisions in the course of translating the work—is it formal, pretentious, imperious, pithy? Does the intonation range up and down, with lots of exclamation points, or is it more measured? What is the rhythm of the phrases and sentences? Once I’ve more or less figured out my answers to questions like these for a given text—which is to say, have more or less figured out how I want the “voice” of the text to sound—the rest of the translation is rendered as much as possible through this voice. A tiny example—in Stone Upon Stone, a long novel that comprises a single monologue spoken by a Polish peasant farmer, I programmatically preferred words of Germanic origin over Latinate words, a decision made early in the process that helped me find the voice of that particular text in English.

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

My current project might be described as epic foolishness—I’m translating Pan Tadeusz, a long poem from 1834 by Adam Mickiewicz (1798 – 1855), which is widely regarded as Poland’s national epic. It’s been brought into English several times before; I don’t usually indulge in re-translations, but in this case the existing versions didn’t seem adequate to me (many scholars agree). It’s a fearful thing—about 10,000 lines of rhyming couplets, with a magnificently controlled voice that shifts from the lyrical to the sardonic, the stirring to the humorous, and on the way paints a glorious picture of life in the Polish-speaking Lithuanian provinces around 1811-1812. I’m using rhyme or half-rhyme throughout; but an equal challenge is to maintain the measuredness of Mickiewicz’s language without striving for pseudo-Romantic effects and antiquated phrasing such as inverted word order (“when first the house he saw”) or archaic lexis (“greensward”). I’m striving for a dignified but lively and thoroughly twenty-first century rendering of the poem. I love this translation task, though as I mentioned above, it’s hella slow—I predict it’ll take me three or four years to complete the project.

Esther Allen's question: How important do you think it is to perpetually remind your readers of the foreign-ness, the strangeness, the difference, of the Polish reality your translations emerge from? What do you do to make your text resistant to the scrim of a more familiar culture that the reader's gaze layers onto it?

The phrase I’d like to focus on in this question is “your readers.” Increasingly I’ve found myself questioning the assumptions my fellow translators and I often make about the people who read our translations. Are they in fact so ignorant of, in my case, Polish culture and history? What do we really know of this “scrim of a more familiar culture”? Our ideas about how our “readers” apprehend the texts we offer come, I think, from fairly flimsy anecdotal evidence—occasional comments made by editors, reviewers, readers who write to us or buttonhole us at parties. This is something that merits much more sustained attention than we’ve given it in the past. However, to answer the question more directly, I believe first of all that readers are constantly reminded anyway of the so-called foreignness of the text—by the names of the characters, the settings, the very objects and activities described, and so on. Furthermore, it’s often this kind of experience that readers are actually after—the fact that they’re reading a “foreign” novel or whatever in the first place suggests that they’re seeking to expand their cultural horizons, and to encounter different cultural mores as well as simply reading a good story. In any case, my strong preference is to leave many cultural details in place, not so much to “make the text resistant,” but to do what I can to maintain the integrity of the source culture—so in older texts for instance, a character will say “Christ be praised” on entering a dwelling, to which the host may reply “Now and forever.” If such details can be successfully integrated into an English-language rendering, they effectively expand the range of possible language in English.


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