Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | November 21, 2010




To amuse His Royal Majesty he will change water into wine.
Frogs into footmen. Beetles into bailiffs. And make a Minister
out of a rat. He bows, and daisies grow from his finger-tips.
And a talking bird sits on his shoulder.
Think up something else, demands His Royal Majesty.
Think up a black star. So he thinks up a black star.
Think up dry water. So he thinks up dry water.
Think up a river bound with straw-bands. So he does.
Then along comes a student and asks: Think up sine alpha greater than one.
And Zito grows pale and sad. Terribly sorry. Sine is
Between plus one and minus one. Nothing you can do about that.
And he leaves the great royal empire, quietly weaves his way
Through the throng of courtiers, to his home in a nutshell.

Miroslav Holub (Czech)
Translated by George Theiner

From Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations, 1991, Bloodaxe Books, 274 pp, ISBN 978-1-852-24122-3.


  1. Too bad Zito did not know complex numbers! For example,
    sin(Pi/2+I) = cosh(1) = 1.543… > 1

  2. Miroslav Holub is one of my all-time favorite poets!
    Here’s a link to a slightly different translation of “Zito the Magician.”

  3. […] That is (I think) the translation which I first read. As one of the comments here points out, if you use complex numbers you can have a sine(alpha) “greater than 1”, something which the Warwick mathematics magazine also noted as a possible criticism of Holub, which at the time I sort of accepted but didn’t worry about because I liked the poem so much. But thinking about it now, there isn’t a “reasonable” order relation on the complex numbers, that is there isn’t a “reasonable” way of saying that one complex number is “bigger” than another, so – many years later – I now consider this type of criticism of Holub’s poem invalid! * […]

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