2013 Vol. 5 No. 1 — Spring / Commentary

Bill Johnston: Educator Extraordinaire

On the occasion of Bill Johnston’s extraordinary year, three individuals on what his work has meant to them.

* * *

“His translations are a labor of love…”

I was largely introduced to Polish literature through Bill’s translations. I remember hunting through my university’s library, checking out every translation I could find (sadly the selection was rather pitiful – I ended up spending a fortune on Amazon). Bill’s translations functioned as an initial literary road map to Polish literature, as I often selected books based on his having translated them. I chose him as my go-to translator because through him I was able to access the specificities of Polish culture rendered into a beautiful, and comfortable, English idiom. In addition, he’s a rather eclectic translator; his translations span centuries, from Jan Kochanowski’s 17th c. The Dismissal of the Greek Envoys to present day works by authors such as Andrzej Stasiuk and Jerzy Pilch. Plays, novels, and poetry constitute his repertoire, and he brings to each of his projects a considerable expertise in Polish language and culture, as well as a sensitivity that belies an extraordinary innate talent for language. His translations are a labor of love, and as such, his passion for words shines through them. I am lucky to call him a mentor and a friend.

Thank you, Bill, for helping to introduce me to that which I have since devoted my career and my life!

Jodi Greig is a graduate student of contemporary Polish literature and language at the University of Michigan. “Halfway through her career as a psychology major, Jodi accidentally stumbled into a class on Polish literature and became instantly (and hopelessly) obsessed. Two years later, she was residing in Kraków and learning Polish.” She attended Poland in the Rockies in 2008.

* * *

Tribute for Bill Johnston

Poetry was never my thing. I would quickly, academically process poems and never stop to enjoy the idea, the sound, the taste of every word as it rolled out. This all changed at Poland in the Rockies two years ago, when I witnessed a man unable to read a poem because of the feelings it caused to swell up in him.

That poem was Baczyński’s – Biała magia, and that man was Bill Johnston.

I now savor poetry, deconstructing the endless images each word, each mark, each and every drop of ink it offers. This is a world I would have continued to pass by blindly were it not for Bill’s sincere outpouring those two summers ago. The memory continues to delight and the poem continues to deliver.

Thank you, Bill. Briefly encountering you has changed my life.

– Paul Valdemar Sulżycki
Vancouver, Canada

Paul Sulżycki is a massage therapist working at North Shore Sports Medicine at Capilano University. In 2003, Paul received a black belt in judo and is a nationally certified coach with the Coaching Association of Canada.




after the end of the world
after death
I found myself in the midst of life

Bill Johnston is many things, among them a teacher and a poet, but given that this edition of the Cosmopolitan Review celebrates his translation work, it seems appropriate that it’s by someone else’s poem – a poem in translation – that I remember him best.

The year was 2008, and I was quite literally between continents – a South African who had studied in York, stayed in Warsaw, interned in Singapore, and was on my way to New York – and personally at sea. A series of life choices had left me feeling dislocated rather than translocated, and in between continental shifts I’d lost my sense of who I was in the world. Looking back, I suppose you could say I was in one of life’s great Bermuda Triangles, a sea of forgetfulness, in which there is no up.

In the middle of moving, I found myself at a cross-cultural pollination session – appropriately entitled Poland in the Rockies. Bill was there as a lecturer, an expert, yet, being Bill, he occupied more of a middle ground between students and teachers. To our surprise (and delight), he would gladly stay up late talking about the meaning of life, love, and the things in between, and seemed genuinely interested in who we were and where we were from, rather than in imparting what he knew and imposing who he was.

Sometime during those 10 days in the mountains, Bill read out In the Midst of Life by Tadeusz Różewicz. And as he read, the room in which we were seated seemed to fall away, leaving only the spun thread of his voice. In the darkness, I grabbed onto his voice, and it held fast.

I still hold onto that thread (and Bill’s printout of the poem). It reminds me that, even at the end of the world, there can be life. And where there is life, there is hope.

It strikes me that Bill’s reading of Różewicz was also an act of translation. Through the poets, he helped me find the shore of the other side of sadness, helped me make myself anew in a new world.

It’s the kind of work for which he will not be forgotten.

Judith Browne is a write/editor in Cape Town, South Africa. She attended Poland in the Rockies in 2008.


CR publishes book + film reviews, interviews, profiles and more. All with a Polish slant, in English.

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