Interpreter Jana Fraňková: Havel was always eager to learn – and his English constantly improved

Jana Fraňková, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

For many years Jana Fraňková was the regular interpreter for President Václav Havel when he welcomed foreign visitors and travelled abroad. Fraňková was one of the few Czechs of her generation to graduate from Oxford University and following her return to Prague in the 1970s was harassed by the secret police for translating for Charter 77. She was also involved, she told me at Radio Prague’s studios, with the Jan Hus Educational Foundation, a group of Western academics who provided underground support to intellectuals in Czechoslovakia.

Jana Fraňková,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I was actually the first person they contacted, because I was the only person they knew here personally. It was Steven Lukes, who is a philosopher, who first came to Prague. He stayed with us.

“The rule was that I couldn’t meet any of these [Czech] people personally, because I was meeting the people from England, and later also from France and Canada. I was sort of a liaison officer, something like that.

“You probably remember that in those days – in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s – it was difficult for the British to take too much money in cash abroad.

“So they used to stay in my place. And thanks to them my kids speak English – there was nothing else for them to do, if they wanted to get on terms with all these strangers who slept on the floor in our sitting room.”

Were these people coming here to teach in an underground way? Or were they bringing in illicit reading materials?

“Their main task was to organise classes for Czech academics who lost their jobs and for people who would have liked to study but wouldn’t be admitted for political reasons to the university.

“This was their core activity. But they also of course brought books and any other reading materials.

“They brought money for families whose breadwinners stopped winning the bread because they lost their jobs.

“So it was a whole bundle of activities they came here for.”

Jumping forward a couple of years, I’m sure it must have been a turning point in your career when the revolution happened here?

“My son was just starting secondary school and I said, If you finish it, I will do everything I can to help you to get out.”

“I was already too old – what could I do? But I was very happy for my son.

“He was 14 then and we had a very heated discussion in January that year, during the Palach Week. And the same again in October 1989, just before the revolution.

“He wanted to take part in the demonstrations. But he was brought up in such a way that he told me and discussed it with me.

“I told him, Look, I don’t blame you that you want to go there. I would want to go there – but you already know why these English people keep coming here to our place.

“I said, If you were detained by the police, they would treat you differently than all the other kids you were with, because they would have something against me.

“He was very unhappy. He was just starting secondary school and I said, If you finish it, I will do everything I can to help you to get out.

“And he said, I don’t want to get out – I just want to be able to do what I want.

November 1989,  Prague,  photo: Gampe,  CC BY 3.0
“This was the discussion actually in October. There was a big demonstration on October 28. And three weeks later that was it.

“[During the revolution] my son was already not only a fresh student interpreting for his English teacher at the grammar school, but he was also interpreting for a number of TV crews.

“There was such a need for interpreters. I was being asked by those I worked for, Look, another team is coming, have you got anybody?

“I said, I haven’t got anybody else than those I’ve already sent to you; the only one is my son, but he’s only 15.

“And they said, Never mind, we’ll take him.”

I know you yourself interpreted for Václav Havel and his wife Olga Havlová. Did you spend a lot of time with them, and what impression did Václav Havel in particular make on you?

“Yes, I did spend a lot of time with them, because I interpreted for them not only here in Prague but also on their trips abroad that were longer than just one afternoon.

“Václav Havel? He was not well-educated. He was, let’s say, self-educated. Quite a knowledgeable person, even with scattered knowledge.

“Havel was not well-educated. He was, let’s say, self-educated. Quite a knowledgeable person, even with scattered knowledge.”

“But he was very eager to learn from anyone, whatever the other person knew – he wanted to know what you did and how you did it.

“At at least in the beginning, during his first term, he was very glad when he could speak to people unofficially.

“Because I think it took him quite a long time to get used to being the official person, the political or state representative.

“He didn’t know, or he wasn’t sure, how he was supposed to behave, what was he supposed to say at certain moments.

“So he was glad if you sat down with him when the officials disappeared and he could just chat.

“His wife Olga was a super, ordinary woman with a very normal, I don’t know, view of the world, probably because she came from a low middle-class background.

“She had very good perception of people. She recognised if somebody was a crook.

“She recognised if somebody was an honest person, even though they might not be a person about whom you would think so at the very beginning.”

Václav Havel,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
How was Havel’s English? I’ve heard tape of him speaking and he spoke kind of haltingly, but I presume he understood quite well?

“He understood quite a lot. And actually his English during those, I don’t know, 12 years that I was working for him was improving every year.

“I was quite surprised, because at first he did understand something but he would use only phrases.

“Maybe he was just shy or uncertain, but he almost didn’t speak.

“And then his English was improving naturally. He was never right from the grammar point of view, but you could see that he constantly picked up new words and new phrases.

“But always when he was being interviewed, even if he could have answered the questions himself, he always wanted an interpreter.

“I think the reason was that even when he was answering questions in Czech it was pretty complicated language, complicated constructions. And he wanted to concentrate on that.

“He was of course aware of the fact, I think, that his answers in English would never be so sort of compact as they were in Czech.”

I understand also that while working with Havel you also interpreted for such very well-known names as Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Did any of those world figures make a particular impression on you?

“Actually, Princess Diana, not that I would be impressed – I mean, she was just a princess – was a nice girl. And she was a sad girl, a very sad girl.

“Princess Diana sort of clutched onto me when we were alone and she wanted to talk about ordinary things.”

“She sort of clutched onto me when we were alone and she wanted to talk about ordinary things: You have two children, I have two children, too… how did you respond if your son asked you this?

“You wouldn’t have expected that, but I guess she didn’t have anyone to ask, so it was easy to ask a woman who lived at the other end of Europe.

“I felt sorry for her. It was strange, feeling sorry for somebody who had such a high post.

“But Shimon Peres was my favourite. He’s at the top of the pyramid of my favourite politicians.

“He came here in 1990 as minister of finance to our then minister of finance, Václav Klaus, to talk for the first time about the possibility of renewing diplomatic relations with Israel.

“He couldn’t come officially, because there were no diplomatic relations. So he came as minister of finance to meet minster of finance.

“He then met Dubček, MPs in the Federal Parliament, Havel, the prime minister – unofficially.

“He was so knowledgeable, obviously intelligent but open. For me it was like a revelation. He was really great.”

As well as Havel, you have also interpreted for other politicians. Have you ever found yourself in any especially difficult or delicate situations?

“Difficult, yes. Because it’s always difficult to interpret for people you don’t know and who don’t have any specific topic really to talk about.

Shimon Peres,  Václav Klaus,  photo: Christian Falvey
“Because it’s always sort of diplomatic chat. That’s what’s difficult – you have nothing to concentrate on.

“Delicate? Sometimes yes, because sometimes when politicians speak to their counterparts they do not realise that there are certain things that sound different in Czech, because of the Czech context, than in the language you are interpreting into because of the cultural context of that language.

“So then you have to be very careful to interpret faithfully what was said and yet use language that wouldn’t distort the words but would make them acceptable for the other person.

“That’s always difficult.”

Jana Fraňková is the mother of Radio Prague’s Ruth Fraňková.