Bill Johnston

Bill Johnston

Professor, Comparative Literature


  • B.A., French and Russian, University College, Oxford, 1982
  • M.A., Applied Linguistics, Durham University, 1987
  • Ph.D., Second Language Acquisition, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, 1995

About Bill Johnston

My passion is literary translation. When I’m not translating from Polish or French, I read extensively in international literature. I’ve long been involved in ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association, serving several times as a mentor in ALTA’s mentorship program. I’ve also twice served on the faculty of the Bread Loaf Translators Conference in Vermont.

In Comparative Literature, at the graduate level I teach workshops in literary translation. What I most enjoy is getting to grips with the translation of specific texts, and so a large part of our classes involves workshopping translations from a wide range of languages into English. We also spend time comparing often radically different translations of major works of literature and discussing the consequences of different approaches to the task of translation. It quickly becomes apparent that there’s no such thing as a “perfect translation,” and that the translator’s work is creative in a very profound way—however “faithful” a translation may be, it still involves the production of a new and different work of literature.

As a translator I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity of translating works from many different periods and genres. This has included recent prose by authors such asWiesław Myśliwski, Magdalena Tulli, Andrzej Stasiuk, and Jerzy Pilch; contemporary poetry by Tadeusz Różewicz, Julia Fiedorczuk, Tomasz Różycki, and Eugeniusz Tkaczyszyn-Dycki; earlier 20th-century authors such as Witold Gombrowicz; and “classics” by Adam Mickiewicz, Stefan Żeromski, Jan Kochanowski, and Juliusz Słowacki. In recent years I’ve begun working from the French, and have translated works by contemporary novelists Alain Mabanckou, Jeanne Benameur, and In Koli Jean Bofane, as well as 20th century giants Jean Giono and Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. I encourage students to cast their net broadly also, and in class we work on prose, poetry, and drama. It’s a constant joy to see students publishing their own translations and presenting their work at conferences.

I very much enjoy my undergraduate teaching, too. At the undergraduate level I offer several courses. C322 “How to Write a Photograph” looks at photography and its relationship to writing. C160 “What’s Good about ‘Good Books’ and ‘Good Movies’?” examines the moral dimensions of creative expression and asks why there is so much suffering and cruelty in the “great works” of literature and cinema. Mostly recently, I’ve taught C205: Introduction to Comparative Literary Analysis under the title “Stop Making Sense.” In this course we examine mad characters, mad narrators, and mad stories in literature and film. I find that students learn best through opportunities for discussion and through active tasks; I try to incorporate these as much as possible throughout my classes.