As writer and former president of the Polish Writers' Association Piotr Wojciechowski has said, Wisława Szymborska’s poetry was characterised by the extraordinary ‘transparency in translations’. As straightforward and simple though they may seem, her works are filled with deep philosophical thought, yet comprehensible in any language, even to readers of different cultural backgrounds. Over the past few years, Szymborska's poetry has been gaining great popularity in South Korea, where the Polish Nobel Prize winner has been dubbed 'the poet of poets'.
Not only has Wisława Szymborska's poetry, translated into languages such as Chinese and Japanese, attracted large numbers of devoted readers in Asia, but it has also found its place in the local pop culture – such was the case in Taiwan, where her poem Love at First Sight became the leitmotif of a popular all-star cast film. Recently, interest in Szymborska's poetry has boomed in South Korea, thanks to two collections of her poems translated by Esthera Choi (Sungeun Choi) and published in 2007 and 2016.
For many years after the poet had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996, her work was unavailable to Korean readers. This changed in July 2007 when her first volume in Korean titled The End and the Beginning, translated by Esthera Choi, was published. The book was released by Munji Publishing, one of the largest and most prestigious publishing houses in Korea. Containing as many as one hundred and seventy poems from different volumes, from Calling Out to Yeti (1957) to Colon (2005), it also included Szymborska's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a timeline of her life and work as well as the translator's remarks.
This extensive publication placed Szymborska in the spotlight of Korean literary critics, artists of various disciplines and poetry lovers. However, the readers did not respond with enthusiasm immediately. The release of the book was not accompanied by any events or an extensive promotional campaign that would arouse interest in the little-known poet. It was only the second edition of the collection released in 2008 that attracted the attention of opinion leaders. Renowned Korean authors began to quote Szymborska's poems or comment on her work and life and soon the number of positive reviews in newspapers and on the Internet increased. This in turn resulted in a gradually growing interest in Szymborska's poetry among a wider circle of readers. Since 2009, the volume has been regularly reissued, by May 2016 reaching fifteen editions of one to two thousand copies each, which comes to a total of about twenty-five thousand copies sold. The book became a steady seller – a unique case for a collection of poetry in the Korean publishing market. In 2007 The End and the Beginning was also included in the prestigious Books of the Year list published by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
The first to take notice of Szymborska's poetry were representatives of Korean literary circles. So many poets and authors invoked her works, openly expressing their admiration, that Szymborska gained the sobriquet of 'the poet of poets' in Korea. Among her enthusiasts were such prominent artists as novelists Kim Yeon Su, Pyun Hye Young, Chung Yi Hyun and poets Chang Seok Nam, Jin Eun Young, Kang Eun Kyo and Chung Kut Byol. The authors not only gave The End and the Beginning excellent reviews, but also used themes from Szymborska's poems, sometimes in the form of direct quotations, in their own work. One of them, Pyun Hye Young, in her novel The Ash and the Red quoted an excerpt from the poem Nothing's a Gift: 'I'll have to pay for myself / with myself, / give up my life for my life'. Explaining this passage, she said: 'I wanted to show the irony of life through the creation of my protagonist, who, the harder he tries to do something well, the deeper into trouble he gets. To symbolically express my intention, I quoted Szymborska's poem directly.’
Szymborska's work has also inspired Korean artists from fields other than literature. An excellent example is the film The End and the Beginning directed by Min Kyu Dong – even the title evokes the volume of the Polish poet. The film tells the story of a difficult friendship between two women: the wife and mistress of a man who dies in an accident. The death of the man they both loved becomes the natural end of a certain stage in their lives, but also the beginning of their own relationship. The film was presented at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) in 2009. Another work draws inspiration from Szymborska's poetry was the ballet Time for Poetry, performed by the Chang Sun Hee Ballet Team. The show, which premiered in 2006 in the prestigious Seoul Art Center, was based on eight selected poems, including Szymborska's Possibilities.
Furthermore, Wisława Szymborska's poetry has become a point of reference for Korean commentators of major political and social events. Writer Hyeok Kim Chung evoked her poem Psalm in his column criticizing the Korean authorities for brutally suppressing the protests of the residents of Seoul's Yongsan district against forced evictions carried out in connection with the district's redevelopment projects.
The news of Wisława Szymborska's death on 1st February 2012 was reported by all the major media outlets in South Korea. The majority of newspapers published her obituaries. Many poets, authors and literary critics as well as ordinary readers expressed their grief over the passing of the poet. Poet Sim Bo Sun in a very personal article, entitled Peaceful Passing-Away of a Poet, wrote:
On 1st February Polish poet Wisława Szymborska passed away peacefully at the age of 88. (...) This sad news reached me with a delay.
I have always thought that Szymborska and I have something in common, apart from the fact that I am a poetry lover: the first two syllables of our names sound alike. My name is Sim Bo Sun, and she is Szym-bor-ska. One day I found out that a friend of mine also loved Szymborska's poems. I told him: 'I am very happy that you like my "Polish aunt"'. (...) The press reported: 'Szymborska passed away peacefully in her sleep at her home in Kraków'. Sweet dreams, my dear Polish auntie!
Many Korean readers commented the news of Szymborska’s death in an equally emotional way, proving that they considered the poet someone close to them, in spite of knowing her only through her poems.
The second collection of Szymborska's poems, translated into Korean by Esthera Choi and released on 1st March 2016, fell on fertile ground: the readers, already familiar with the poet's work, enthusiastically welcomed the new collection of poems. The book contained all the poems from Szymborska's last two volumes: Here (2009) and Enough (2012), as well as fragments of her unfinished works, Ryszard Krynicki's essay Instead of Afterword and the facsimiles of the poet's manuscripts. The collection, titled Enough, was released by Munji Publishing – the same publishing house that issued the earlier book. By June 2016, the book had been reprinted three times and sold over five thousand copies. It was also widely and positively commented on in Korean media. Major daily newspapers, such as Chosunilbo, Hangyore, Jooangilbo, Dongailbo and Hankookilbo published articles discussing the book. Journalist Kwon Yeongmi in a review for the online newspaper News 1 wrote:
There is neither intense symbolism here, nor complex poetic techniques. The poet looks at things with a transparent gaze, speaks of them in her poems as if she was reciting, as if whispering. While reading the volume, the barrier between the poem and poet, the poem and the reader, the poem and the world disappears, and the reader has the feeling of floating in an amorphous space. And the profound truth springing from the poems absorbs them instantly.
Journalist Kim Jiyoung in her article Sunny Day And Life Goes On, published in the newspaper Donga Ilbo, noted:
Due to the language barrier, it is not easy to appreciate the rhythm of Western poetry, but Szymborska's language is plain and simple, and stylistic devices are reduced to a minimum, which makes the message of her poetry extremely transparent. (...) Her poems, even though written shortly before her death, are invariably intense and beautiful.
The release of the new collection of Szymborska's poems was also noticed by the Korean television. The news of the publication was reported on 7th March 2016 by the MBC Television, where the work of the Polish Nobel Prize winner was described as follows:
Szymborska has the eyes of the soul piercing the essence of being. Her poems are a source of comfort and consolation as only outstanding works can be. An encouragement beyond words.
Similar in character was the comment on the news of the same day on the SBS Television:
The posthumous collection of Szymborska's poems wins admiration by rediscovering the beauty in everyday life. Her poetry emanates with warmth, it is full of constant reflection on life.
Moreover, in April 2016, shortly after the collection Enough had been published, the educational television EBS broadcasted a special programme dedicated to Szymborska, entitled The Last Farewell of the Poet.
Undoubtedly, Szymborska's poetry owes such a positive reception among Korean readers largely to its excellent translation. Sin Hyung Chul, one of the Korea’s most recognized literary critics, in his enthusiastic article dedicated to the volume The End and the Beginning notes:
One can really fall in love with this thick, 500-page book, thanks to its deep insight and simple wisdom. I highly recommend this volume to those, who were deeply disappointed by the translations of Rimbaud's poems into Korean and completely lost interest in reading any poetry translated from another language. (Sin Hyung Chul, Deep Insight, Simple Wisdom: Collection of Wisława Szymborska's Poetry The End and the Beginning which Landed Safely at the Incheon Airport, Hangyore 21, no. 74, 25th Feb 2009)
Wisława Szymborska's poems published so far in Korea were translated by several authors: Cheong Byung Kwon, Choi Gun Young and Lee Hae Kyung who translated them directly from Polish, as well as Yoo Young, Lee Pung Ho and Cheong Hyeon Jong who traslated from English language versions. However, the first to translate the poet's works from their original Polish into Korean on a larger scale was Professor Esthera Choi. She obtained her Master's degree in Polish literature from the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul and continued education at the Faculty of Polish Studies at the University of Warsaw, in 2001 obtaining a PhD degree in literature. Since 2001, she has worked as a lecturer at the Department of Polish Studies at her alma mater, the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, from 2007 to 2015 serving as the Head of the Department. Esthera Choi has translated numerous volumes of Polish literature into Korean, including, among others, works of such novelists and poets as Henryk Sienkiewicz, Olga Tokarczuk, Adam Mickiewicz, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz. She is also the author of translations of Korean literature into Polish as well as texts introducing Polish literature to Korean readers. The value of one such essay was noticed by the journalist Kim Yeongtae, who in his review of the volume The End and the Beginning for the Korea JoongAng Daily wrote:
Professor Esthera Choi's essay titled From the Translator helps understand the world of Szymborska's poetry. Thanks to the translator's commentary, Korean readers can not only learn about the process of creating the poems, but also see Szymborska's human side, understand the values that the poet, ever reluctant to appear in public, believed in, and read the eulogies delivered by Polish writers after her death.
Esthera Choi admits that Szymborska is her favourite poet. Referring to the collection of Szymborska's poetry translated by her, she said:
I take great joy and pride in the fact that I was the first Korean reader of these volumes. At the same time, while translating them I felt a huge responsibility, because I knew best how eagerly Korean readers had been waiting for the next collection of Szymborska's poems. (...)
Personally, I'm really happy that I could translate Wisława Szymborska's works into my native language. It was only after the release of these two volumes that I realized how nice it is to come in contact with so many readers, enjoy the kindness of someone I have never met and even so we understand each other perfectly, because we share the love of poetry. I firmly believe that the masterpieces of Polish literature, such as Szymborska's poetry, express a universal humanism, which appeals to my fellow Korean readers and helps us overcome language and cultural barriers between Poland and Korea.
Thanks to the passion of one Korean Polish studies scholar, Wisława Szymborska's poetry has found numerous admirers in Korea. This is evidenced not only by the positive reviews from critics, which are undoubtedly a source of great satisfaction for the translator but, perhaps to an even greater extent, by the voices of ordinary readers, such as the following comment posted by the user Wehavefuntoday on his blog on the popular website www.naver.com:
When did I first read Szymborska's poetry? I think I was shortly after she was awarded the Nobel Prize. It was then that I came across the book Sixteen Rebels containing an interview with the poet and her photo. Later I read the collection The End and the Beginning and completely fell in love with her works. It turned out that someone who hardly ever reads poetry can be immensely impressed by some poems. (...)
How is that that the longer one reads Szymborska's poetry, the more it is addictive and harder to stop? And this is me, a person who usually doesn't read poetry, saying that. I admit that poetry has so far never moved me, nor have I read it with such enthusiasm as other literary genres, like novels for example, but Szymborska's poetry is just different. Her poems seem to be written in a very accessible manner and their subject matter is well known and familiar to everyone. And yet her way of seeing things, her approach and way of expression are completely new. Her poems are not only easy to read at the first attempt, but can be also willingly returned to many times.
I have already read both volumes of Szymborska's poetry released in Korea. I would love more of them to be published. I keep waiting. (http://blog.naver.com/wehavefuntoday/220683479243)
Author: Anna Włodarczyk, February 2017
Traslations of quotatios from Korean-language sources by Esthera Choi, Ewa Chwilczyńska
Translation of the quotation from Wisława Szymborska's poem Nothing's a Gift by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh
Sources: Esthera Choi, Recepcja poezji Wisławy Szymborskiej w Korei (editor's translation: Reception of Wisława Szymborska's Poetry in Korea); www.instytutksiazki.pl