TWO VOICES: Bill Johnston on Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski

Posted on November 19, 2012 by Scott Esposito

In this audio, lauded translator Bill Johnston talks about his translation of Stone Upon Stone by Wieslaw Mysliwski, which received both the 2012 PEN Translation Award and the 2012 Best Translated Book Award. As Johnston mentions in the question-and-answer session at the end of this audio recording, it was a dream project for him, a book he had long wanted to translate and finally got the opportunity to do, once he found a publisher "crazy enough" to take a risk on it.For his own part, Johnston called it one of the greatest novels to come out of Europe in the past century.

Stone Upon Stone is a true epic, chronicling the modernization of Poland from the peasant’s-eye-view of Szymek Pietruszka. When the book begins, Szymek is building himself a tomb. He has seen most of his friends and family pass away and knows that soon the earth that has nurtured his way of life will become his final resting place. Szymek begins the tale of his life, moving seemingly at random from one story to another, in the process creating a rich composite autobiography of himself and a biography of his land: tracking down loose firearms after World War II, run-ins with the Communist bureaucracy, liasons with the women of the village, drunken fights after dances, and a gravely remembered childhood transgression of stealing the slice of bread that the family consecrated every year to the earth.

Johnston began by noting how he was immediately taken by the voice of Stone Upon Stone's protagonist, Szymek Pietruszka. It is a very peasant voice, Johnston explained, also commenting on how Mysliwski specifically avoids locating it in any one dialect or geographical area. Johnston compared his initial attempts at getting into Szymek's voice to an actor trying on gestures and props in an attempt to get into his role. He finally hit an eureka moment with the sentence, "There is a road ran through our village." "It had the qualities of spoken language," he explained. "It was earthy, but avoided dialect," and was true to "spoken American English."

From here, Johnston went on to discuss some of the translation challenges that Stone Upon Stone presented him with. "I had to learn to use run-on sentences," he reflected saying that at first he was very uncomfortable but later came to enjoy it. Fronting constructions were another linguistic tic Johnston had to master, using Kramer from Seinfeld to demonstrate how they worked: "Kramer would say, 'Jerry, he likes pizza,'" explained Johnston, going on to say that it's very common in the kind of spoken language that Stone Upon Stone is composed of, even though it is rare in formal written language.

After running though Stone Upon Stone's translation challenges, Johnston read several passages from the work before moving on to the question-and-answer session. Questions dealt with included words that could not be translated, Johnston's current translation of Mysliwski's novel A Treatise on Shelling Beans, how he discovered Stone Upon Stone, why it was his dream project, and the state of Polish literature in translation.