Esperanto everyday life is found all over the globe

Why Wisława Szymborska was totally wrong on Esperanto

Federico Gobbo
3 min readAug 9, 2021

In the forthcoming book (to be published by New Directions) collecting her letters to the readers of the Polish review Życie literackie (lit. Literary Life), Wisława Szymborska, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, there is one letter specifically addressing Esperanto. It is an answer to M-Ł, from Warsaw. Here it is, the relevant part:

Source: The New York Review of Books, 9 August 2021

A bit of context: her letters such as this one were hints on (not) writing literature, from 1960 to 1981. In that period, Poland, the lullaby of Esperanto, hosted a quite remarkable movement of Esperanto language activists. So, it is astonishing how she comes to the right conclusion from such wrong premises.

It is absolutely true that sharing a language is not a guarantee of peace per se; admittedly, Esperanto does not foster peace per se. On the other hand, not sharing a language — and, therefore, a common identity — is quite an easy argument to foster warfare, as history taught us. My personal experience is not rooted in war; however, I personally experience family division because of different languages, used as weapons. Perhaps only religions can be more divisive than languages, in convincing people living side-a-side to kill each other, mercilessly. So, her conclusion is right but weak, as the opposite is also true — if not more true — than what argued.

Szymborska’s premise that Esperanto has no dialects may be true if we agree on what “dialect” means. This is not straightforward, but, for the sake of the argument, let’s agree on that. Even so, not showing dialectal variation does not imply that Esperanto does not show variety in any form. In other words, geography has no monopoly on language variation; more specifically, Esperanto changed — and changes — through time. In other words, we (yes, I speak it) do not use Esperanto as our pioneers did, more than 130 years ago. And yes, I am in good company thinking in Esperanto, dreaming in Esperanto, in my daily life. Thus, her statement is empirically unfounded and, therefore, totally wrong.

Finally, her sharp judgement on Esperanto literature makes me quite sad. Even if there is (still) no Nobel Prize for Literature by an Esperanto writer, the only Scottish writer to be nominated three times, William Auld, wrote his masterpiece in Esperanto. And she should be aware of that, as it was in the time when she was alive and presumably writing that letter.

Fun fact: in 2015 some poems by Szymborska translated in Esperanto, chosen by Wojciech Ligęza

For answering the Polish poet, and salute you all, dear readers, let me use the words of the Scottish Esperanto poet. Let poetry talk by itself. From La Infana Raso, V, in the original by William Auld, followed by the English translation by Girvan McKay (editor: István Ertl):

Source: William Auld, 1956. La Infana Raso, V: 61–72.

Les Sylphides on the gramophone… / tired I switch it off, / without you, music can have no appeal, / music for me must be enjoyment shared, / joining us in a pleasure intimate. / today the music charms me not at all, / poetry only bores me, / words have no meaning for me. / why is it only you that can possess me? / why only your fair body would caress me? / The world is full of women who are willing… / but all my being longs alone for you, dear / it reaches out to you, but mutely, vainly!



Federico Gobbo

Homo sum. Adpositional Argumentation. BaGuaZhang. Lebenskünstler. Eŭropano Italiano Amsterdammer. Ubi bene, ibi patria.