The translator as schizophrenic…An interview with Professor and Director of Polish Studies at Indiana University Bill Johnston

Though Literary Translation Professor and Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University Bill Johnston is primarily known as one of the most prolific, diverse and talented Polish-English translators of our day. We met for an hour before his Massolit reading from his new translations of Rozewicz (?New Poems,? Archipelago Books) to discuss everything from adopting the American accent (Johnston is a transplanted Englishman) in prose to the propriety of using the term ?doggy-bag? in translating Slowacki. Below are some highlights.The Krakow Post: How could you describe the difference between translating poetry and fiction?Bill Johnston: I?m not sure that there is one. It depends what poetry we?re talking about, but poetry is obviously much more formally tightly constructed. I guess I?ve always been drawn to writers who construct their prose very precisely, like Gombrowicz… Magdalena Tulli, who is really a kind of poetess in disguise.Q: Would it be accurate to say, though, that in prose it?s more about developing a rhythm, where as poetry is more of a painterly exercise, going back over your tracks a hundred times?A: Well, to some extent, but increasingly I find myself working the same way with prose. For example, I?ve just finished Magdalena Tulli?s 2006 book ?Skaza.? I was working really slowly on that, I went over it and over it, paying very careful attention to the details of the language as well as the overall flow and the voice… Maybe in her case, partly because I?ve already done three books by her, it wasn?t a huge problem to find the voice, because always when you begin a new writer you?re looking for something which kind of sounds like them, sounds plausible. How the writer might sound if they were writing in English. When I was translating [Kamil] Baczynski I would spend up to two days on one poem to get some kind of version of it, and then I still had to polish it. When I was doing [Juliusz Slowacki?s] ?Balladyna? I was working at a rate of ten lines a day. This is really not very much considering that?s about two hours of time. Q: That leads me to another question: How has your approach to translation changed? What was different in the way you were working twenty books ago?A: I might have been more arrogant then.Q: How does that show itself in translating?A: You think you can do things you really can?t. Although in general it?s not that different. I don?t think I work any faster now, for example. You do acquire a certain confidence. I remember in early translation worrying about where I could move away from the text, and often not doing that. And if I could go back I would just make that move. Because often I think you have to. Q: This is a question of fashion as well. When I first came to Poland [Stanislaw] Baranczak was treated as a God of translation, and now more and more one hears the opinion that he took too many liberties, and that fidelity to the text is more important.A: Well, you know that?s a debate that goes back and forth. And I think that the problem with Baranczak?s translations is that they do sound like Baranczak. He was an extremely fertile writer. He would take a humoresque in English and add to it to make it funnier than it was in the original. And that?s a perfectly legitimate form of creative activity which has a very long pedigree through the history of translation, though of course you pay the price with the fidelity. There?s a wonderful essay by Seamus Heaney talking about translating old Irish poetry, where he shows his original version which is definitely more Heaney than 12th-century Irish poetry. He said that he himself realized this and pared it down, and the final version really is very different. I don?t know if it sounds like 12th-Century Irish poetry, but it definitely sounds less like Heaney. The translator has to have humility. It surprises me that some translators will take a language that they don?t really know and think they can do something with it. Sometimes it works, but more often it doesn?t. But this arrogance surprises me because by its very nature this is a profession where one is subservient to someone else. I?ve come to think of it like acting. When one acts, one has to find within oneself the particular character that one?s supposed to be portraying. And in writing too, when I finish a translation that I?m happy with ? and I speak as someone who has done some acting ? it?s like having had a good performance on the stage. You feel as if you?ve captured someone else, someone else?s manner or way of expressing themselves.Q: You were speaking of works that are visibly Baranczak or visibly Heaney; do you have a sense of what is visibly Johnston? A: You could probably with a very sophisticated computer program figure out my translations from somebody else?s, but I don?t see them as being recognizably me, and I would be worried if that were the case. Q: But do you consciously work against this?A: Yes. And one of the ways I do that is I?ve been extremely broad in terms of the texts I?ve worked with. I?ve translated Kochanowski, for example, Zeromski, Tulli, Slowacki, Gombrowicz… These are all very different kinds of writers. I?m much more interested in finding them in me rather than me in them. I think the model one should look at is Pessoa?s notion of heteronyms, where even within one poet there are multiple poets. And they all write in different styles, have different subject matters and different sensibilities. Q: Kind of a schizophrenic model of translation.A: If you like, yeah. Exactly. But I?m comfortable with that.   Q: How concerned are you with making your translations sound somehow Slavic?A: Not very. I think if it?s a Polish book it?s going to sound Polish anyway in English. I?m more concerned with the translator knowing their own language really well. Most of the American and British contemporary fiction I read happens within a very narrow range of language.Q: How would you describe that range?A: Um… Politely, I?m not sure.Q: That?s ok.A: I think it?s pitching to the lowest common denominator, that there?s an accepted way of writing prose. There are great writers like Pynchon or William Vollman who are not afraid to push the limits of the language. But I think in many ways that?s fallen to translators in the field of English. Although we want to write English, we?re also slightly pushing the limits of what?s possible. We do that through the nature of translation, through the books and how the plots develop, how the landscapes are described and so on. Stasiuk is an inconceivable writer in English, for example. Tulli is another. But I think generally what we?re looking for in writers is people who can expand the possibilities of what can be done in English. Certainly a writer like Gombrowicz did this very consciously in Polish, and that was one of the great joys in translating him, I could push things a little bit, build sentences in ways nobody else would.  Q: Thanks for your time.A: My pleasure. 

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