2008 / Interviews

A Few Questions for… Translator Bill Johnston

bill_johnston_at_a_cafe_in_krakowKRAKOW — There is little in life that is more pleasant than spending a chilly November evening in a pub nestled in the heart of Kraków’s Stare Miasto. Recently, I found myself in such a pub, seated across from one of the most remarkable people I’ve met – Dr. Bill Johnston. Over coffee, beer, and the ever-present cigarettes we spoke about his current work in Poland.

Bill: So the question is, what am I doing in Poland? The answer is Fulbright Research Fellowship. I’m looking at the work of evangelical Christians who use English language teaching as a platform for mission work, and I’m doing an ethnographic study of an evangelical language school. I’m interested in where America and the rest of the world actually encounter one another, and in my case it’s in the classroom, a literal physical encounter between an American and a Pole.

So the people that are teaching these students are American?

Bill: Yes, American or Canadian. And so they, in a very broad sense, represent the forces of globalization, and very specifically represent a different religious tradition. I’m particularly fascinated by the encounter between American Protestant Evangelical faith and Catholicism, and how that actually plays out in a face-to-face encounter, week by week.

Do these schools represent themselves as evangelical schools when their students sign up?

Bill: Yes, yeah they do. Well, the school that I’m doing does that.They’re very open about what they do.

Do you find the majority of the students are evangelicals themselves, or are they Catholic?

Bill: Some of them are evangelical, many of them are Catholic. So I’m just really interested in how each side perceives each other, how each side is affected by one another, how the two different, whatever one calls them, communities, nations, groups of people, create a common sense of community or identity within the school. The theoretical tools and frameworks that I’m looking at include things like globalization, identity theory… especially post-modern identity theory. I use a lot of discourse analysis to look at the moment-by-moment interactions within classrooms and how that’s constructed. I use interviews and look at not just what people say in interviews but also how they talk about one another. Because I’m not an evangelical Christian myself, I’m interested in the evangelical world-view and how evangelicals talk about themselves. I find it really fascinating to talk to people who openly talk about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, because these are not terms I use from day to day […]

What else am I doing here? As a sideline I’m working on a TV show about books, which is called Hurtownia Książek, or Book Warehouse. It goes out on Saturday at the ungodly hour of 8:30 in the morning, it’s a short 20 minute show, and we talk about books which have recently been brought out in Polish, very often translated from English and other languages. We look at popular literature as well as high literature or serious literature, kids’ books, encyclopedias, self-help books as well as novels and poetry and so on and so forth. It’s kind of fun – it’s a little on the shallow side but then everyone’s a little on the shallow side, so that’s OK. So we’re doing that – we do that; once a week, I go to Warsaw and record that. And then the third thing I guess I’m doing here – I’m continuing to translate.

And you’re translating what, currently?

Bill: Right now I’m working on a collection of essays by Andrzej Stasiuk that’s called Fado – like the Portuguese singing style. That’s quite enjoyable actually, they’re rather well written. That’s from a press in the US called the Dalkey Archive […] As soon as I’m done with that, which will probably be in January, I’m about to start off on a very long, wonderful wonderful Polish novel called Kamień na kamieniu (Stone Upon Stone) by Wiesław Myśliwski for Archipelago Books. I think it’s the best Polish novel of the 1980s, one of the best Polish novels of the 20th century, period. People here sometimes dismiss it as chłopska literatura, or peasant literature. It’s really unusual because its about the countryside, but it’s not about the dworek, or the Polish gentry and the landowners, but it’s about the village and the farmers in the village. A very wise novel which is brilliantly written. The guy has an ear for language which is extraordinary, I mean, the wisdom that is inherent in the way that ordinary people speak. Very concise, very compelling narratives in which he tells stories about life in the village. I couldn’t put it down when I was reading it in Polish. So I’m going to be doing that, and in the meantime I’m doing a couple of small things. I’m working on an extract from a long poem, an epic poem, by Tomasz Różycki, which is called “Dwanaście stacji” or “12 Stations”. It’s set in Opole, in Western Poland, which is one of the places where people were moved from the East, from what’s now Ukraine, and Belarus. It’s about preparations for an expedition back to Ukraine, to an old parish that the older people remember from back in the day, but at the end of the poem they never quite make it there. But it’s extremely funny, extremely wise, beautifully written… probably the best thing written in the poetry of this country within the past 20 years.

(And finally, in my infinite brilliance as an interviewer, I decided a cheesy question would be a good way to wrap things up.)

What are three things you could not live without?

Bill: Books. Good company. Movies. I mean, I could live without them but my life would be miserable. As they say in Polish, “żyję, ale co to za życie?” or “I live, but what kind of life is it?”


Jodi Greig
Jodi Greig is a student of Polish language at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She is currently attempting to navigate her way through the terrible process of grad school application, and hopes to eventually continue her education in Slavic Studies via a Ph.D. program. Her research interests include issues of identity in post-Communist women's literature and the Polish 19th century "social novel". When she's not reading, she enjoys drinking coffee and chasing pigeons around the Rynek.
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