In order to raise international awareness of Swiss literature, Pro Helvetia has launched a magazine named «12 Swiss Books». It is published annually to coincide with the Frankfurt Book Fair and, with each issue, presents twelve newly published works of literature from all four linguistic regions in Switzerland. These works are especially recommended for translation by the Swiss Arts Council. Available in printed and web form, «12 Swiss Books» offers text excerpts, brief portraits of the authors and useful information on the possibilities of support for publishers, translators and agencies.
Download previous editions:
- 12 Swiss Books 2018 | No. 07
- 12 Swiss Books 2017 | No. 06
- 12 Swiss Books 2016 | No. 05
- 12 Swiss Books 2015 | No. 04
- 12 Swiss Books 2014 | No. 03
- 12 Swiss Books 2013 | No. 02
- 12 Swiss Books 2012 | No. 01
12 SWISS BOOKS 2019 | NO. 8
Dear Friends of Literature, Publishers and Translators
In the last seven editions of 12 Swiss Books, we have presented 131 books, which have resulted in more than 160 translation projects. Some books were translated into one or two languages, others into ten to fifteen. Readers across the globe can delve into these books in a total of 34 languages. What a gratifying outcome! We at Pro Helvetia are always delighted when a book ‘has legs’ and – thanks to the work of a translator – can be enjoyed by people in other parts of the world, giving them a taste of our literature and a glimpse into our culture. That is why, this year again, in the eighth edition of 12 Swiss Books, we recommend new books from Switzerland that are close to our hearts: because they are particularly funny or particularly touching; because we truly believe they are beautifully suited to a journey into other languages and cultures. One of the most widely translated of the books from the past 12 Swiss Books is, by the way, Pedro Lenz’s Der Goalie bin ig (in English, Naw Much of a Talker, translated by Donal McLaughlin) – a book written in Bernese dialect, which is often claimed to be untranslatable. Untranslatable? The numbers give the lie to this claim: Der Goalie bin ig has been translated into 10 languages, including English, Italian and Russian. Untranslatable, dear authors, publishers and readers? There’s no such thing!
All that remains for us now is to hope you enjoy the new edition of our magazine and that you find it as inspiring as the more than 160 publishers who, over the past seven years, have sent books from Switzerland out on their journeys into the wider world.
On behalf of the editorial team, Angelika Salvisberg (Head of Literature) and Eva Stensrud (Editor-in-chief), Pro Helvetia
So, What Is Swiss Literature?
By Rosie Goldsmith
Rosie Goldsmith is an award-winning journalist specializing in arts and foreign affairs. In twenty years at the BBC, she travelled the world and presented several flagship programmes such as Crossing Continents and Front Row. Rosie is a linguist (French, German, Italian) and has lived in Europe, Africa and the USA. Today she combines journalism with chairing and curating literary events and festivals for leading cultural organisations. Known as a champion of international literature, translation and language learning, she promotes them whenever she can. She is Founder and Director of the European Literature Network and Chair of Judges for the EBRD International Literature Prize. She is literature consultant to the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia and to many cultural organisations round the world.
I’ve been reading Swiss literature since I was a child. I discovered the comforts of Heidi’s alpine paradise of meadows, Dörfli, Dirndls and dairy products early on, and later, at university, as a student of French and German, I obsessed over Rousseau’s romantics and the innovative narratives of Robert Walser, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Max Frisch. After learning Italian, reading Giorgio Orelli’s exquisite poetry in the original became an emotional milestone. So, several decades and several hundred Swiss books later, am I any closer to being able to define Swiss literature? Working with Pro Helvetia on 12 Swiss Books and launching Literally Swiss to promote Swiss writing in the UK have certainly helped, but hindered too, as I’m now frustratingly aware just how many languages, dialects and micro-literatures there are.
Swiss literature has never been homogeneous. It has evolved over several centuries and in four national languages: German (spoken today by 63 % of the population), French (23 %), Italian (8 %) and Romansh (0.5 %). Additionally, there are the local dialects and Swiss-German – which is altogether another language (dialect soup to my ears). For a population of 8 . million, languages – and their attendant cultures – are obviously more important than geographical borders in defining Swiss literature.
The question of definition is tough even for the Swiss. Whomever you ask, you are drawn into a discussion about Switzerland and Swiss identity – its famous neutrality, infamous banks, the Gotthard Pass, chalets, cuckoo clocks, fondue, chocolate and its enviable train network: to be considered a Swiss author must you write about these things? Must you be born in Switzerland? Hermann Hesse was born in Germany but moved to Switzerland: is he a ‘Swiss Great’?
Max Frisch described a Swiss writer as a “citizen of the world” – outward-looking, cosmopolitan, multicultural and multilingual. Admirable attributes indeed, but equally, the Swiss are seen as private, guarded and dependent on the vitality of incomers. Its writers are expected to be both local and global. It’s clear that geography is destiny for writers when you live in a landlocked, composite nation with a small population and big brother neighbours; a quasi-island in the centre of Europe. Switzerland is also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful countries in that continent, which has inspired both its own and foreign praise-singers. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher and famous mountainclimber, wrote several major works there. Thomas Mann, Emily Dickinson, the Shelleys, Byron, Dickens and Goethe all succumbed to the charms of this welcoming and generous country.
Swiss authors know they need to invite us in by writing stories for the world beyond their borders. I find modern Swiss writing refreshingly clear; often daring but not overly tricksy – like the novels of Peter Stamm: direct, distinctive and sensitive. They can be funny too: I’ve witnessed large crowds laugh out loud (very un-Swiss) at the linguistic pyrotechnics of writers such as Arno Camenisch and Pedro Lenz, fluently funny in their native Romansh and Bernese. Switzerland is a well-functioning hybrid of local and global, home to many international organisations, its stories set equally comfortably in the Alps or Australia – check out Koala, for example, by novelist Lukas Bärfuss. I’ve also met several expat Swiss writers, like the philosopher Alain de Botton, born in Zürich, living in London, or novelist Monique Schwitter in Hamburg, still talking about the pull of the Heimat. “Switzerland is a great country to be a writer in”, Pedro Lenz told me: “It’s brilliant railway network means you can give five readings a week, sleep in your own bed every night and earn enough to feed your family.” Switzerland treats its writers as professionals. They earn good fees and expenses for readings and festivals; literary events are included in the cultural calendars of the tiniest villages and the largest cities – and because there are so many local councils and cantons in the Swiss Confederation, there are manifold pots of money to draw on.
Outside Switzerland I often hear Swiss writers dismissed as wealthy or privileged. This is ridiculous. It is more a reflection of how tough cultural survival is in the rest of Europe. To earn your living as a writer is a rare position to be in these days but, as a result, Swiss writers can be eloquent and entertaining in explaining and defending Switzerland’s uniqueness, holding forth on its dialects, architecture, art, design, lakes and mountains; its unique political system, referendums, banking secrecy and corruption. Incidentally, all ample material for crime writers and, contrary to belief, Switzerland does have them: Joel Dicker, Nicolas Verdan and Peter Beck, to name but three. But dystopias? Science fiction? No – they don’t need them.
Swiss writers often maintain that they have more in common with their German, French or Italian literary neighbours, and may feel they have succeeded only if they are celebrated outside Switzerland. For publishers that is a challenge. One of my favourite Swiss writers, Peter Stamm, who writes in German, was snapped up by a leading publisher in Germany. In November 2018 he won the Swiss Book Prize, which is, however, only awarded to Swiss writers in German. So, does that make him the best Swiss writer or simply the best Swiss writer writing in German? You decide. Interestingly, when I was in the French-speaking canton of Valais recently, I asked a voracious Swiss French reader if she’d read Peter Stamm. She had never heard of him. “Why would I read German writers” she responded, “when I can read French writers from across the border?” This is quite a common reaction. “I have never read a Swiss-Italian book,” a Swiss German told me this summer, “or Romansh: why would I?” Perhaps that is the secret of Swiss literature: a loose confederation, like the country itself.
I speak three of the Swiss languages – German, French and Italian – and, like the majority of Swiss, I can hop about linguistically enjoying the quirks, genres, festivals and literature prizes of the different regions. In the past few years I’ve made some astonishing personal literary discoveries, such as Michael Fehr, Vanni Bianconi, Nora Gomringer, Julia von Lucadou, Simone Lappert, Pascale Kramer and Elvira Dones (so many women too, making up for the preponderance of Swiss males in times past). However, the truth is, a few years ago I hardly knew their names. Because that is another, sadder, aspect of Swiss literature: it is not well known outside Switzerland and successful writers, like Frisch or Stamm or Jaeggy, are often assumed to be German or French anyway. But now I’d like to stick my neck out and declare that, of all the European literatures I am reading these days, Swiss literature is the most original, diverse and exciting. There’s a lively performance, poetry and spoken word culture. Villages, cities and mountains are alive with the sound of literature – as are social media and online platforms. It is buzzing. Swiss literature today comprises a mix of youthful innovation and celebrated classics. Being at ease with different languages and cultures makes it more inventive – a quality greatly boosted in recent years by immigration. Today a third of the population comes from elsewhere, and migrant Swiss writers are producing some thrilling prose and poetry and linguistic innovations: for example, Nicolas Verdan (Greek); Melinda Nadj Abonji (former Yugoslavia); Dana Grigorcea (Romania) and Elvira Dones (Albania).
Switzerland today offers a treasure trove of sparkling writing and deserves wider readership. So, here’s how I define Swiss literature: it’s world literature and we should all be translating, publishing and reading much, much more of it. My beloved Heidi is a shining example: it’s been translated into 50 languages and sold 50 million copies worldwide.
PRO HELVETIA’S SUPPORT FOR TRANSLATION
The Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia awards grants for translations of contemporary literary works from Switzerland, with an eye to promoting cultural and linguistic diversity and helping Swiss authors reach larger audiences, both within the country and around the world.
Pro Helvetia supports the translation of:
- literary works by Swiss authors (fiction and poetry)
- books for children and young adults
- non-fiction books by Swiss authors on cultural and artistic topics relating to Switzerland
- plays by Swiss dramatists (including theatre surtitles)
- samples of up to 15 pages upon request
To help promote Swiss literature in translation, Pro Helvetia also contributes financially to literary tours by Swiss authors and translators of recently translated books.
How to proceed
Applications must be submitted by the licensed publisher. An application must contain the licence and translation contracts, as well as a significant part of the proof-read translation manuscript and the corresponding original text.
For detailed information on the application procedure, please see the guidelines on our website: www.prohelvetia.ch/en/translation-funding-and-support
We accept applications at any time, but they must be submitted at least three months before the date of printing.
We accept applications exclusively via our online portal www.myprohelvetia.ch.
For translations of Swiss texts into the languages from South-east Europe, Pro Helvetia is a partner of the European Network for Literature and Books TRADUKI. All requests involving a translation into Albanian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian, Serbian and Slovenian should be addressed directly to Traduki at: www.traduki.eu.
Please contact us if you have any further questions. We look forward to receiving your application.
Head of Pro Helvetia’s Literature and Society Division
T +41 44 267 71 26
And you can find more information about, and samples of, other new Swiss books on the following websites:
New Books in German, a selection of Fiction, Non-Fiction, Children’s and Young Adults’ from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, www.new-books-in-german.com.
Books First, the Goethe-Institut’s new programme for bringing literature in German to English-speaking readers, goethe.de/en/kul/lit/ser/lit/bof.html.
TRANSLATION HOUSE LOOREN
Translation House Looren in the Swiss canton of Zürich offers professional literary translators from all over the world a place to work and study. At Translation House Looren all language combinations are welcome. As the first institution of its kind in a country that, with its four national languages, has always been a land of translation, Translation House Looren sees itself primarily as a location for concentrated work. In addition, a programme of events aims to increase the visibility of literary translation and to support its practitioners.
PHOTO © Cortis & Sonderegger, 2011