The Selected Poems of Ko Un

  • onOctober 18, 2014
  • Vol.2 Winter 2008
  • byThorsten Ahrend
Beim Erwachen aus dem Schlaf (Awakening From Sleep)
Tr. Kim Miy-He

It is a great honor for Wallstein Publishing to have been able to publish Awakening from Sleep, a selection of poems by Ko Un. Ko Un is probably the most internationally renowned Korean poet, and his works have long been highly praised and translated into a number of other languages. When Wallstein first decided to publish an anthology of Ko Un’s poems, we were already aware of the great importance of this writer. Ko Un’s work had already been published by the German publishers Suhrkamp in 1988, and also by Pendragon, a company that has been striving to introduce Korean literary works in Germany for a long time. Unfortunately we were only able to experience Ko Un’s other books through English or Swedish translations, since we were unable to read the original Korean.

At that time, Ko Un was not very well known in Germany, nor indeed in other major countries. We hoped that by taking the lead in publishing Awakening from Sleep we could do something to change this situation. Wallstein would like to promote Ko Un’s work more widely and also publish translations of his other works. Continuously publishing various works by the same author is not only the most meaningful project for both writer and publisher, but it also acknowledges the great importance of that writer.

Wallstein has been publishing Korean works of literature in German since 2005. Apart from Ko Un, we have published translations of the works of four Korean writers (Kim Ji-ha, Hwang Ji-u, Lee Yun-gi, and Yi Mun-yol) so far, all of which have been prominently reviewed in leading literary magazines and the literary columns of newspapers. The number of copies originally published was not large, but some of these books have run to second editions. The success of these works is largely due to the high assessment of the translations in literary reviews.

A major contributing factor in Wallstein’s decision to publish Korean literature was the enormous effort that relevant Korean organizations had put into finding outstanding translators. Famous German poets participated as co-translators, polishing the draft versions of the Korean translators, to produce poetry that matched traditional German poetic style yet at the same time conveyed the spirit of Korean culture. Uwe Kolbe was a translator for the poems of Hwang Ji-u, and Mathias Göritz for Kim Ji-ha’s poetry. Kurt Drawert is working on the translation of an anthology of poetry due to be published in 2008. All three are famous writers recognized by the German reading public. In the case of poetry in particular, the quality of the translation is absolutely crucial.

We have been especially fortunate to have Dr. Sylvia Bräsel as translator for the anthology of Ko Un’s poems. Dr. Bräsel, a scholar of German literature, has lived in Korea for many years and has an excellent command of the Korean language.

She is also well versed in Korean history, culture, and literature. This meant that we were able to collaborate extremely closely with her when first choosing a Korean work of literature for translation and publication. Naturally, Dr. Bräsel works in tandem with a Korean translator. However, she has a far deeper understanding of the background, the writing forms, and the special characteristics of Korean authors than someone who has only visited the country briefly, and has given us invaluable advice in selecting Korean works.

Ko Un’s selection of poems is one of the most significant works that Wallstein has published. Every poem, every stanza, every word is permeated with a subtle sense of experience and wisdom, together with the exceptional power of linguistic expression. Ko Un combines both the tradition and the open modernity of Korea in his poetic diction, and is being hailed by German readers as a most important and monumental figure. The selection of Ko Un’s poems has received acclaim by the mainstream media, while the most authoritative Swiss newspaper, “Neue Zürcher Zeitung,” appraised it as follows: “The superb poems which appear in this anthology awaken our poetic awareness through their suggestive imagery and wonderful overtones…Is this the work of a future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature? Ko Un has already been nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, and is clearly a poet of that caliber.” Distinguished critic Dorothea von Törne has written, “Even in his political poems, readers can hear the sound of the sea, the murmur of tiny living creatures, and the conversations of the trees. His recent poems have a feeling to them of brightness, lightness, and calm.”

The highlight of Ko Un’s meeting with German readers was the German tour of public readings of his poems, sponsored by the Korea Literature Translation Institute in spring 2007. Readings held in Berlin, Göttingen, Erfurt, and Leipzig, attended by the German reading public and internationally known poets, were a resounding success. These readings received extensive coverage by various newspapers and broadcasting stations, and politicians and cultural figures also extended formal invitations to receive Ko Un. Two hundred enthusiastic readers joined the Erfurt recitation, some of whom were also familiar with Ko Un’s The Stars of the Fatherland, published by Suhrkamp almost 20 years earlier. When this anthology was republished in 2005, a certain critic was prompted by the allusive title of the anthology to refer to Ko Un as a “Korean Gryphius.” (Gryphius was one of the most famous German poets of the 17th century). 


* Thorsten Ahrend is Managing editor of Wallstein Publishing.



Author's Profile

Ko Un’s poetry collections have been translated into twenty-seven languages, east and west. English editions of his books include Ten Thousand LivesManinbo: Peace & WarFirst Person SorrowfulHimalaya Poems; and What?: 108 Zen Poems. He has received several prestigious awards, such as the Golden Wreath Award at the 53rd Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia, the America Award, Griffin Poetry Prize Lifetime Recognition Award, Bjørnson Order for Literature, and the Republic of Korea’s Eungwan Order of Cultural Merit. His poems have been featured in PO&SIEChicago ReviewWorld Literature TodayThe New YorkerAzalea, and Mānoa.