BILL JOHNSTON, Professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington, is, along with such masters as Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak, one of the leading translators of Polish literature in the English-speaking world. Working in both prose and poetry, he has translated such authors as Witold Gombrowicz (Bacacay, Polish Memories), Tadeusz Rózewicz (New Poems), Magdalena Tulli (Dreams and Stones, Moving Parts, and Flaw), Andrzej Stasiuk (Nine,Fado), Wieslaw Mysliwski (Stone Upon Stone), Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski (White Magic and Other Poems), Juliusz Slowacki (Balladina), Boleslaw Prus (The Sins of Childhood and Other Stories), and Stefan Zeromski (The Faithful River and The Coming Spring).
Johnston has held fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has won many prizes: most recently, the Transatlantyk Prize for translation (2014). In 2005 his translation of Magdalena Tulli's Dreams and Stones (Archipelago Books, 2004) won the AATSEEL Translation Award. In 2008 his translation of Rozewicz's New Poems (Archipelago Books 2007) was nominated for a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was for that book that Johnston has been honored with the first annual Found in Translation Award, given by the Polish Book Institute in Krakow, Polish Cultural Institute in London, Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and W.A.B. Publishers in Warsaw. In 2012, his translation of Mysliwski's Stone Upon Stone won the Best Translated Book Award from the University of Rochester's "Three Percent" blog and Amazon.com as well as the PEN Translation Award and AATSEEL translation prize. In 2013 he received a very prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship to work on a new verse translation of the great Polish Romantic national epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz.
Bill Johnston was born in 1960 in to a family in southern England that had no Polish roots or affiliations. But while at Oxford a scholarship to attend a Polish language course at Warsaw University in 1981 changed his life. He found himself in the thick of the Solidarity movement's initial period of relative freedom, exercising his Polish not only with Wajda films and banned books but in heated debates within the democratic opposition, meeting his future wife, and experiencing a degree of intellectual vivacity and human solidarity that he found missing in the West. He knew then that his professional and personal life would be forever bound up with Poland.
Graduating with honors in French and Russian from Oxford in 1982 (and earning in 1987 an MA in applied linguistics from Durham University), Johnston accepted positions teaching English as a second language, first at Jagiellonian University and then at the University of Wroclaw, immersing himself in Polish literature and culture until 1991. In that year he came to the U.S. to work toward his Ph.D., which he got in 1995 at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, where he helped bring such guest speakers as Czeslaw Milosz, Stanislaw Baranczak, and Agnieszka Holland. It was in Hawai'i that he started to translate Polish literature professionally. His first published book of translations was The Sins of Childhood and Other Stories, by Boleslaw Prus (1996).
In 1995 Johnston moved to Indiana University, where he directed the Polish Studies Center from 2001-10, running a thriving program of Polish cultural events, from readings and exhibits to concerts and theatrical performances, hosting Poland's most distinguished writers and performers, publishing books, and collaborating with Warsaw and Jagiellonian Universities on programs for study abroad and research.
Bill Johnston has not only managed to become one of the country's most prolific translators of Polish literature, he has also demonstrated an extraordinary versatility in crossing borders between epochs, styles, and genres - combining his pitch-perfect ear for Polish with a dedicated effort to make accessible to Americans and other English speakers Polish works hitherto regarded as accessible only to Poles - and thus handling with equal grace such classics as the early XIX century poetry of Juliusz Slowacki and the post-1989 novels of Andrzej Stasiuk or Magdalena Tulli. No translator-for-hire, he creatively seeks out works that he loves but are not known in the U.S. such as the poetry of Baczynski and Rozewicz. He has been a major contributor to the relatively recent and enthusiastic discovery by Americans of Witold Gombrowicz.
For his extraordinary service in the promotion of Polish culture, this brilliant translator has not only been honored by the Polish government but is warmly embraced by American readers as an ambassador of Polish literature in the US.