Zábrana Overheard

April 19, 2022   •   By Justin Quinn

The following essay is adapted from the translator’s introduction to Jan Zábrana’s The Lesser Histories, the first collection of the author’s work to appear in English, published in April by Karolinum Press.



W. B. YEATS was surely wrong when he wrote that “[w]e make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This suggests that poetry, in its essence, has no public dimension, that the realms of politics, of community, of shared experiences more generally, don’t belong in the genre, which is better suited to expressions of the inner spirit. Of course, the first place to look for evidence that Yeats was wrong is in his own poetry. Many of his poems resonated, and still resonate, in public forums, while others that talk of love and of spirit make some fine rhetorical moves. Still, the dictum can’t quite be discounted, as it suggests that poetry can somehow reach deeper into the spirit than any other literary genre.

We encounter some of these paradoxes in the poetry of Jan Zábrana (1931–1984), above all in his 1968 collection, The Lesser Histories (in Czech, Stránky z deníku, which can be literally translated as Pages from a Diary). Zábrana began writing many of these sonnets in the 1950s, a calamitous decade in Czechoslovakia’s history, when political repression had perverted public poetry, turning it into tinkling rhymes by wide-eyed ideologists who were infatuated by mass murderers. In contrast, Zábrana in his poetry seems, at times, to be talking to himself. He rejects tout court a wider audience, choosing mostly to write of himself and his own experience in the second- or third-person singular. He frequently addresses disappointments in love or in himself. In these poems we can never quite escape public events, however. We have an acute sense that the snatches of conversation and song that the poet hears (and overhears) resonate in that larger arena, but Zábrana, although tempted throughout his life, would never raise his voice enough to fill that space.


In summer 1982, two years before his death, Zábrana reflected on his life and career. He had spent the previous three decades working as a professional translator of mostly detective stories, poetry, and novels, working long days for uncertain honoraria. As his stature as a translator rose, he had some leeway in the choice of work, but the daily grind was unremitting. Many passages in his diaries document this tedium and, increasingly in the 1970s, the other central dilemma of his life:

Why should I worry about the way my life looks — about the fact that, aside from work, it no longer resembles a life in any way? After all, it isn’t my life. The life I considered my own ended in November 1949. Would anyone believe me if I told them that November 1949 is more vivid, more burning, more present for me — even at this very moment — than is July 1982, when I’m writing these words? And that, if I’m not dying from my old wounds, it’s only because I’m not actually alive? Would anyone believe me if I told them that the pain inside me has only been growing more intense with time, that a 33-year-old pain is, for me, right now, worse and more unbearable than it was 33 years ago? It’s 2:30 a.m. I woke up and turned on the light and I’m writing in this notebook. I woke up with a feeling of horror, pain, and despair over what happened 33 years ago. And my mother, whom they arrested and carried off at five in the morning, hasn’t been alive for more than eight years. But the despair of that morning persists. It woke me on this stifling Saturday night. [1]

When World War II ended in May 1945, another struggle began that would decide the political terrain of Europe during the next four decades. The USSR began to bring states into its sphere of influence, and Russian emissaries cooperated with local communist parties to expand Soviet influence. Disgusted by Nazism and mindful of the endemic poverty that preceded the war, many Europeans embraced communism. By the beginning of 1948, it was still unclear on which side of the Iron Curtain Czechoslovakia would end up. Many hoped, both within and without the country, that it would be possible to find a third way through the Cold War. But in February, the Czechoslovak communists staged a putsch, and those hopes died.

Zábrana was born in the village of Herálec in the Czech Highlands and grew up in the larger town of Humpolec. In many respects, his parents represented the flower of Czechoslovak society. Both were active members in one of the country’s social democratic parties and teachers who followed and helped instigate education reforms in the country. Zábrana’s mother, Jiřina, was the more prominent of the two, contributing to magazines and lecturing around the country. She associated with luminaries such as Františka Plamínková, the leading feminist of the day (executed by the Nazis in 1942), and Milada Horáková, the social democrat and member of Parliament (later executed by the communist regime after a show trial in 1950). Zábrana’s parents also represented the best of the First Republic — that is, Czechoslovakia in the period 1918–1938, which was liberal, democratic, reformist, and nationalist (the latter in a complex way, as the country contained many nations). Indeed, Zábrana’s mother was in contact on several occasions with Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. In 1979, Zábrana sighed in his diaries thus:

Oh, the First Republic […] Amidst the despair of all these quickly passing years, I see ever more clearly that just one happiness remains to me: at least I experienced those seven childhood years in the First Republic, was still able to feel its air, that unsurpassable and singular atmosphere of freedom. […] The war was horrifying, but compared to what came in the 1950s, it had one basic advantage: everyone understood it as an interruption, at the end of which was waiting some reconnection with the First Republic. Today, the two and a half years from May 1945 to February 1948 seem to me like a short-lived continuation of what existed in this country before the war — the same feeling of happiness.

He shared this feeling with many Czechs, for whom the First Republic represented the halcyon days of the country’s history, especially when viewed from the 1970s and ’80s.

Then, on November 8, 1949, agents of Czechoslovak State Security arrested Jiřina Zábranová at the family home in the early hours of the morning. In May of the following year, she was condemned to 18 years imprisonment for high treason and espionage. Zábrana’s father, Emanuel, had to retrain as a painter of porcelain in a workshop 50 kilometers from the family home. In October 1951, however, Emanuel was also arrested and later condemned to 10 years. (The sentences of both parents were commuted in 1960, though their convictions were not overturned.) Zábrana applied to the Charles University Faculty of Arts in Prague in 1950 to study languages, but was turned down for political reasons. He moved to Prague, where he studied theology for a few semesters and then worked in the Tatra Smíchov factory, spending most weekends during the decade making long journeys across the country to visit his parents in different prisons.

Many people would agree with Zábrana when he wrote in 1976:

The difference between the first and second half of life — taken subjectively, that is, based on how we feel — lies above all in one thing: in the first half of life, you’re on the side of the beautiful and the promising, while in the second half, you’re on the side of those who are ugly and washed-up.

But across this personal divide, another deeper cut was made into the nation as a whole, intensifying Zábrana’s later feeling of alienation from his younger self. This is what lies behind the diary entry of 1974: “To all those who keep asking me to do things for them, I sometimes feel like saying: ‘But I’m dead. I died long ago. Why do you keep treating me as if I were one of the living?’”


So, by his own account, from 1949 to 1984, Zábrana was a dead man walking. He had no public life: he never spoke out, not even after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Often, in his diaries, he explodes that he has a mind to tell X or Y what he really thinks, but this soon subsides, as he admits to himself that he will never do it. Unlike Václav Havel, his close friend from the 1950s, he was not a vocal opponent of the regime; and unlike the internationally known Czech poet Miroslav Holub (whom Zábrana disliked), neither did he enjoy the privileges of keeping quiet (such as travel and official tolerance of foreign publication). He was acutely aware of his situation and his ability to respond to it:

This is how the era toys with me. I am able to say no, but not very loudly. I’m not afraid of death, but I wouldn’t be able to summon it myself. I’m not capable of any deed. I feel like everything inside me is agitated, trembling, in pain. […] And so I am unbound but broken, uncertain, unsatisfied, laughable in my own eyes, bound up in my mask of arrogant aloofness. I find it oppressive. In normal times, I would have a hard time stepping out of it, but now, when the burden would be doubled, I’m just not capable. I wouldn’t do it. My will simply couldn’t take it.

Yet we may also turn Zábrana’s statement upside down and declare that in fact his life began in 1949. In many respects, as his diaries of the time attest, he was already politically mature, capable of penetrating analyses of the situation in Czechoslovakia, as well as in Europe (he wrote the passage above at the age of 17). During the early 1950s in Prague, he came into contact with a wide range of future important cultural figures such Bohumil Hrabal, Věra Linhartová, Jiří Kolář, Josef Škvorecký, and Havel, who would become president in 1989. Some of these were friends, Škvorecký above all. This pleiad would serve as a surrogate college, providing a superior education to that offered by Charles University, which had been brutally whipped into ideological line after 1948.

He also applied to the Translators Association and was accepted. In practical terms, this meant that he was freed from the obligation to seek other employment and could work from home. He subsequently became one of the top translators of his generation. In 1997, the writer Patrik Ouředník remarked that “[a] translator of Zábrana’s stature appears once every fifty or hundred years in any given language” (translation mine). This expresses a widely held opinion. In spring 1955, Zábrana had an important love affair. In 1963, he married Marie Leskovjanová; a year later, their daughter, Eva, was born. Over the next 20 years, he would write thousands of pages of diaries, translate an impressive number of works from English and Russian, and publish three collections of poems, one in 1965 and two in 1968, one of which was The Lesser Histories.

An earlier working title of the book was The Annals, though the sonnets it gathers rarely begin with the clear declarative statements of the annal writer. Rather, they start by seeming to catch from the air a few odd skeins of feeling that might belong to anyone, along with snatches of overheard songs. The sonnet barely seems to be orchestrating its materials: rather it collects them the way that leaves and small bits of trash might gather in a neglected building entrance. It is as though Zábrana sets up the form of the sonnet and simply waits to see what will catch in it. We might draw another analogy to a sound artist who strolls around a city holding out a microphone. In the 20th and 21st centuries, poetic form is typecast as a bully, blindly imposing its will upon reality, and thus reducing a rich complexity to jingling rhymes and beat-machine rhythms. The Lesser Histories, made up of crafted tetrameter Petrarchan sonnets, gives the lie to this stereotype.

Epigraphs, allusions, and segues into quotes from the work of other writers marble the collection; sometimes those segues are marked by italics or quotes, and other times the maneuver is seamless. A diary entry of 1980 reflects upon this method:

The citations — other people’s formulations, used or abused — entered into the poems themselves, without forethought, simply with the same degree of insistence they had in my own consciousness. If everyday things are present for you, if they are the subject of your work with words — and for me they always are and will be; a professional translator would have to be a dead stump overgrown with moss for them not to be — then words will eventually change into a part of your reality. They’ll be just as real as a light switch on the wall, a rainy day outside the window, the carpet beneath your feet. […] Such words, such combinations or chains of words, will then shine anew — they are now “dressed up,” stepping into “society” in a jester’s costume or in a tuxedo, in overalls or a bathing suit; they smell of perfume, or of the shit they just stepped in. Such words carry two or three times the weight — they drag along a baggage of emotion, something that words don’t have when they’re taken from linear reality. […] Such verses then become a collection of golden and rainbow-colored flies in amber.

Dylan Thomas, Boris Pasternak, John Donne, Alexander Pushkin, William Carlos Williams, Osip Mandelstam, and C. Day-Lewis are referenced openly in The Lesser Histories, while the reader will have to be spry to catch Viktor Shklovsky (the last two lines of “Jealousy”), The Bartered Bride (the title of “A Graceful Little Bear”), and the late-19th-century Czech poet Josef Machar (the title of “Here Should Blossom”). Zábrana himself sometimes forgot which sources he had used. (Did he pick up the Latin phrase, “Prodeunt vexilla regum” — which was translated to make the title of “Banners of Kings” — during his schooldays in Humpolec? Years later, he discovered that it was in fact from the period of 1950–1952 when he studied theology. [2]) Zábrana uses a quote from Alexander Pushkin’s poem of the same title for “Demons”; this had also served as the epigraph to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s later novel of the same title. He also draws upon fragments of overheard conversation or conversations the poet himself is involved in (“TV Screen,” “Midnight Monolog,” “Golden Scalp,” “Ungallant Conversation”). “Tabloid Reader” is a cento of truncated quotes from tabloid newspapers, while “Black Morning Memory” ends with two scraps of sentences from a diary found in a trash can.

So, the borders of Zábrana’s lyric subject are porous. In the Anglophone world at present, translation is often considered secondary to creative work, a level below the writing of fiction or poetry. This is a relatively recent idea, stemming from Romanticism, and it can obscure the profound and inventive imaginative engagement involved in translation. To understand Zábrana the poet, we also have to understand how translation was fundamental to his poetry. This comes through clearly in his use of quotations. More generally, we are reading poems that are generously open to other poems; indeed, one might say that the poet is in part made by other voices.

This can seem counterintuitive. Poetry is so often figured as the voice of the individual spirit, or as self-expression, but such a description won’t work for The Lesser Histories, which at times resembles a loose, shifting congregation of voices, some talking clearly, others muttering indistinctly, on occasion shifting from one language to another. In English, we might be tempted to draw an analogy with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (Zábrana knew this work), but Marianne Moore’s samplings of conversations, classics, tourist brochures, and government publications in a poem like “An Octopus” is a better fit. Zábrana’s poem “Short Circuit” has an epigraph from Mandelstam’s poem, “Oh, how we love to be a hypocrite,” and the last two lines are a translation of part of the epigraph. But if you can’t read Cyrillic, you’ll miss it, as the shift in authorship is not marked. (We face the same uncertainty in translations from a language we don’t know: how much of the style and the tone of what we are reading belongs to the translator and how much to the author?)

Who, then, speaks here? If these are pages from a diary, then whose diary is it? At this juncture, it is a Czech Russian persona, as Zábrana ever so slightly takes on the aspect of the banned, imprisoned Mandelstam; so, the Russian expands transnationally, finding purchase in Czech culture. Also, two periods are intermixed: the early 1930s, when the Russian poem was written, and the 1950s, when “Short Circuit” was most likely first drafted. It turns out that we are reading the diary of much more than one person.

These subliminal transitions might make readers feel that they are taking an examination rather than reading poetry. Who is supposed to get all these references? What reader knows the Czech literary tradition, as well as Russian, German, and English in the originals? While the Czech reader might be expected to recognize some of the broader contours of the country’s history in the 20th century, as well as be able to make out Cyrillic and some of the German (at least in Zábrana’s time), they will often be pulled up short by Zábrana’s allusions to episodes in his personal life. In turn, an English reader of poetry will perhaps (but not necessarily) be familiar with Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams (though, probably, no longer C. Day-Lewis), but hazy on the Czech background.

Quotation and allusion are ways of working subtly with the broader cultural memory of an audience, by turns flattering, teasing, and intriguing. Those who get it right can play this cultural memory like a grand instrument. Often, while translating Zábrana’s poems, I encountered a word or phrase that was unknown to most Czech speakers younger than 80, as it was the slang of a bygone age; and many of those readers might not catch the exact luster of a quote from William Carlos Williams or Dylan Thomas. Often it can seem that there is no overlap between the groups of people who will get different passages of the poems. Who, then, is the intended reader of these poems, but a man who grew up in a Czech country town, moved to Prague, was scarred by the regime during his teens, and worked as a translator from Russian and English? Who except Zábrana himself?

Indeed, the thousand pages or so of his selected diaries bear witness to a splendid, if bitter, solitude. But many entries are clearly written for an ideal reader, and not Zábrana himself. Perhaps these readers were in the past, perhaps in the future, and Zábrana keeps faith with them. Some of the poems may at first seem like vatic whispers uttered at a frequency we cannot catch, but Zábrana published this book, and as we lean in closer to these sonnets, we realize that he wanted them to be overheard.


Justin Quinn has lived in Prague since 1992. He is a poet, translator, and critic, and works at the University of West Bohemia.


[1] Jan Zábrana, Celý život (Prague: Torst, 2001). The translation here, and all subsequent translations from this source, are by Jonathan Bolton, whose selection and translation of Zábrana’s diaries, under the title All My Life, is in progress.

[2] I am grateful to Martin Pokorný for pointing out to me that this appears in Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno. It is originally from the Latin hymn, “Vexilla Regis,” which was subsequently alluded to in works by Gustav Holst, James Joyce, and David Jones.