A translator’s gift to the English ­language world (Episode 64)


This story is featured in Episode 64

In his review published in The Spectator, Boyd Tonkin writes: It’s hard, in Britain, to imagine a popular museum devoted to a single poem. The Polish city of Wrocław hosts just such a shrine. It celebrates Pan Tadeusz, the verse novel written in his Parisian exile by the poet, dramatist and freedom fighter Adam Mickiewicz in the early 1830s, and now taught as a keystone of collective identity to every Polish schoolchild.

He calls it “A Lithuanian Romeo and Juliet”.

Adam Mickiewicz is to Poland what Robbie Burns is to Scotland. He is regarded as national poet not only in Poland, but also in Lithuania and Belarus where his statues have been erected. A giant of Polish Romanticism, one of Poland’s iconic “Three Bards“, he is widely regarded as Poland’s greatest poet.  

Illustration to “Pan Tadeusz” by Adam Mickiewicz. “Picking mushrooms”, painting by Franciszek Kostrzewski, ca. 1860

You cannot be considered Polish unless you have read “Pan Tadeusz”, written a number of essays at school about this Polish national epic, know the story, famous scenes and all the characters and can recite at least a few of its exquisite 13-syllable rhyming lines.

Imagine trying to express all that in another language…

This is what Bill Johnston has achieved to great critical acclaim. His “Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania” was published by Achipelago Books last year.

Bill Johnston is a professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University and a prolific translator of Polish literature. He has translated Polish literature of all genres and epochs.

Achipelago Books has published a number of Bill Johnston’s translations of Polish literature.

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Bill Johnston has revieved dozens of awards for his outstanding work –  in 1999 he received a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship for Translation. In 2008 he won the inaugural Found in Translation Award for Tadeusz Rozewicz’s new poems, and in 2012 he was awarded the PEN Translation Prize and Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award for Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.

Translating “Pan Tadeusz” was a long and painstaking process. Its result has been described as:

delightful tale, deliciously told, hilarious, poignant and poetic, uncluttered by archaisms, quick and energetic, full of humor and warmth, unobtrusively rhymed, a gift to English ­language readers

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Here’s Bill Johnston speaking with me in Polish:

Bill Johnston: Translator Extraordinaire by Tamara Trojanowska, Cosmopolitan Review

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