Two years after Revolution my most exciting period at Radio Prague, says former chief Jan Valeška

Jan Valeška, photo: Ian Willoughby

The name Jan Valeška will be familiar to very long-term listeners of Radio Prague. After a stint at the station’s African service that began in the early 1970s, he returned to head the English department in the initial years after the Velvet Revolution. Valeška subsequently worked as a translator and two years ago published a huge dictionary of English phrasal verbs, as in act on, act up, act out, etc. Before we discussed the book, which was three decades in the making, I first asked him what language Radio Prague’s erstwhile African section broadcast in.

Jan Valeška,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It was called English language broadcasts, the whole section. It was divided into an English service, an American service and an African service.

“I came in 1972, which was the sad time of normalisation. The very good older people, English ladies who had married Czechs and worked there and made excellent programmes, they were sort of kicked out.

“They needed new blood. I was quite naïve and thought it would be an opportunity to learn English, especially when there were some Englishmen who sort of corrected our English and taught us the radio business.

“So I came here and worked in the African service, but that was mostly politics and some reports on life in Czechoslovakia.”

What was specifically African about your broadcasts?

“Whenever a Nigerian minister or a Ghanaian guy came to Prague, I hurried and interviewed them about their impressions. And of course when there were May Day celebrations we were sent out and tried to find some negro or black guys to interview [laughs], hoping they were English speaking.

“Otherwise, the work was not specifically African. The programmes were very much the same: commentaries, the news, and some special features about agriculture perhaps and about FAO, the food organisation of the United Nations. So that was African.”

Was it enjoyable work?

“[Laughs] Well, it was enjoyable for a guy who liked English. I studied English and when I finished I was supposed to be an English language teacher.

“I tried that at a secondary school somewhere in Eastern Bohemia and the children were not motivated. There was nobody who cared about English at that time, apart from perhaps some people who liked the Beatles.

“So I said, do I want to spend my life teaching English to people who… Of course we didn’t know that communism would break down so easily and so soon – it was 1970, so we had 20 years to go. And I was still young.”

You came back after the revolution in 1990 to the English section. Was that an exciting time?

“Yes, it was very exciting. Actually, I left in 1986 because I was fed up with the atmosphere. It was a time of going nowhere. It was sort of a bog.

“So I worked at the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology – I translated articles for them. Then I came back because there were changes, people were leaving and some came back. There were changes. And I think the people who stayed here thought that I would be something of a dissident [laughs].

“But still, it was very, very exciting. Because international interest in Czechoslovakia was great. The Velvet Revolution, of course, Havel.

“We had a group made up of Czech people who knew English quite well and we tried quite hard. I was head of the English service. We were still divided into the same sections.

“And there were very many young Americans and Australians coming and saying, hey, I worked in college radio, would you like me? We tested them and kept some of them… I must say those two years were the most exciting time I had at the Radio.”

Was it hard for Radio Prague to adjust to the new situation, given that prior to 1990 it hadn’t really been doing journalism?

“I think it was very difficult. Radio was a political matter and unfortunately the Radio was occupied… the main posts were taken by reformed Communists, so the changes weren’t so quick.

“Those reformed Communists said, yes, yes, you can broadcast whatever you want. But I think that Czech[oslovak] Radio, the internal service, was still adjusting very slowly.

“But we had freedom. I said, we will broadcast about this and this and this, and we’ll talk about Havel and make a portrait of Havel…”

David Vaughan,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Also there was one great guy, David Vaughan, who worked here. He was a wonderful reporter…”

He still works for us occasionally.

“He still does, and he publishes books… So, I would say the changes were different in the foreign language broadcasts. Because all of a sudden all the people who couldn’t say what they wanted were able to.

“It’s true that we weren’t journalists in the right sense of the word. But we tried our best.”

You later worked as a translator and you’re also the author of a dictionary or English phrasal verbs, which for people who don’t know them are like take to, take up, take over, and so on. What prompted you to put together that dictionary?

“Well, my work. I studied in the 1970s and my professor was [great linguist and lexicographer] Ivan Poldauf. I was interested in phrasal verbs and he said, how about comparing Czech verbs with prefixes – Czech is very rich and very creative in this – with English phrasal verbs?

“So I did. I started collecting excerpts. I had 102,000. I wrote my thesis, which was not very good, it was just a comparison, quite mechanical; I’m not very proud of that.

“But that prompted me. I had so many extracts. I would take a book, Charles Dickens for instance, and would look for phrasal verbs – I was terrible [laughs].

“Then I translated some books for Argo, it’s a Czech publishing house, and the guy said, all right. I started working on that and I wrote this book that has 1,000 pages.

“Unfortunately phrasal verbs are very difficult. I have many English dictionaries and they have phrasal verbs as well as prepositional verbs. In my dictionary I have things like take up, take down, but now allow for or apply for. I have about 20 pages of an explanation of what I regard as phrasal verbs.

“I have a list of particles, about 32. Usually in dictionaries you have things like come about, come across, come off. But my dictionary is divided according to particles. So first you have about and then all the phrasal verbs I’ve found…”

Relating to about.

“Yes. It also gives some idea about the semantics – that about is movement without any purpose, really. It’s quite interesting, I think. But it doesn’t sell very much [laughs].”

Photo: Argo
I guess it must have been a labour of love, for you?

“Yes, it was.”

How long did it take you, by the way?

“Actually about 30 years. But the real work took me about three years, putting the thing together.”

Phrasal verbs are difficult for Czechs – why are they so hard?

“I think they are so hard because of the position of the particle. Take something up, take it off…”

And the Czech equivalent is a prefix at the front of the verb?

“Yes, sometimes, like go away is odejít. Swim away is odplavat. ‘Od’ is the prefix in Czech which would be equivalent to away. But of course phrasal verbs are most difficult not in their literal sense but in the other sense.”

This may be a stupid question, but do you have any favourite phrasal verbs?

“[Laughs] Well, my favourite is for instance the use of away in the sense of starting – fire away, ask away. People normally don’t know it.

“And I think if my dictionary is valuable in any way, it’s in this explanation of the semantics of the particle.”