The lyrical is political: Translation introduces Czechoslovak poet to international audiences

Justin Quinn pours kindred sensibilities into translation of fellow poet Jan Zábrana.

Ioana Caloianu

Written by Ioana Caloianu Published on 23.10.2022 10:10:00 (updated on 23.10.2022) Reading time: 4 minutes

"In Prague there's snow and show trials," a line from the "Bio (Short version)" poem by Jan Zábrana’s (1931–1984) reads. The eerie atmosphere that stems from the juxtaposition is illustrative of the lyrical universe that the Czech poet, now translated for the first time in English by fellow poet Justin Quinn, creates in his "Lesser Histories."

Zábrana’s work revolves around a paradox: despite his resoluteness not to tackle political themes, he cannot escape them, even in his poetry. Outside the Czech Republic, Zábrana’s best-known works are his diaries, which were published posthumously in 1992, and translated into a number of languages. Reunited under the title “A Whole Life,” these are witnesses to “the crushing pressure of the totalitarian regime on the creative individual,” as Quinn writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

A witness of life-changing events

Two years before Zábrana’s death, a diary entry read: “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.”

At that time, his mother Jiřina, one of the leading intellectuals of pre-World War II era,  was arrested and sentenced to 18 years in prison. His father Emanuel, the mayor of the town of Humpolec where Zábrana grew up, was later arrested as well, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Due to his family affiliations, Zábrana was unable to enroll in any Czechoslovak institution of higher education. 

However, after a stint working at the Tatra Smíchov factory in Prague, Zábrana found employment as a translator, and over the course of decades honed his craft to perfection, earing praise as one of the leading Russian and English translators of his generation.

As the European Council of Literary Translators Association notes, through his translations of modern English, American, Russian, French and Spanish literature, as well as his literary journalism, Zábrana “introduced authors he valued highly” — such as Boris Pasternak, Isaac Babel, Sylvia Plath, or Allen Ginsberg, — to a large audience.

His poetry debut happened in 1957, in the samizdat (during communism, the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state) anthology "Life is Everywhere," Czech Radio writes. Three books of poetry followed in the 1960s, along with a collaboration with Czech-Canadian writer and publisher Josef Škvorecký that resulted in a book of prose for children and three detective stories.

Learning from the Russian masters

Both Zábrana’s literary affinities and his translation works influenced his own lyrical voice. Quinn notes that oftentimes “in the poems Zábrana’s voice segues into the voices of those poets he has translated, leaving only a bare shimmer of subjectivity – humorous, oblique, pained – with which to view the days of a life.”

His love for Russian literature makes its way into one of his poems, " A grass widower's evening in," which tells the story of a man who's "wonderfully alone," and, after planning to reach for a hidden bottle (presumably of alcohol), changes his mind. "He has a better, older solution: he reaches for the Russians."

Quinn told that Zábrana "loved Russian literature and culture, but gave scathing analyses of Soviet foreign policy." His attitude "might hold for the moment: one can love Russia and its culture, yet deplore its actions in Ukraine today and in other countries previously," Quinn said about Zábrana's contemporary significance.

Like-minded poets meet in Prague

A Dublin-born poet, Quinn arrived in Prague in 1992, according to the Czech Radio. He authored seven collections of poetry, and also translated into English several modern and contemporary Czech poets, such as Bohuslav Reynek, Ivan Blatný and Petr Borkovec. He also lectures at the Department of English, Faculty of Education, University of West Bohemia.

Romance and a sense of humor as pain relief

A peculiarity of Zábrana's work is that his poems were written as sonnets, and more specifically Petrarch sonnets, a poetic form of 14 lines named after the Italian 14th century poet Francesco Petrarch. 

"’s pulse, beneath which you’re a whirl of horses racing. My longing spurned and pitied by you – was it grotesque? That night still lasts, but now she’s turned her back to me, like that bared girl from childhood towns, Nude over Vitebsk..." his poem "A borrowed book" reads.

Quinn told that he "loved the contrast of the structure of the sonnet form with the mix of languages and voices," which gives the impression of "wild stuff in a well-ordered room."

A voice that persists, like a running thread through work, is that of his younger self. "Trials like black masses televised. Progress? Our cat had had enough. We had a five-year plan for love, but it was never realized." While the voice can, at times, sound disenchanted, it can also beckon new readers to Zábrana's world and lead them to discover an affinity that Quinn told attracted him to the Czech poet 's work in the first place.

Jan Zábrana's "The Lesser Histories" was published in September 2022 by Karolinum Press (Nakladatelství Karolinum). Translated by Justin Quinn.

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