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12 Swiss Books


Eva Stensrud

T +41 44 267 71 62

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.

12 SWISS BOOKS 2016 | NO. 05



Dear Friends of Literature, dear Publishers and Translators

If you are among those who continually long to head for the sunny south, then you will certainly know the place I’m talking about: the Gotthard Tunnel. It links the German- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland. After seventeen years under construction, a new tunnel under this legendary mountain was opened in 2016, making the subterranean trip by train now 57 kilometres long, and cutting down the journey time from Zürich to Milan to little more than two and a half hours.

So for once I won’t use the hackneyed metaphor ‘bridge-builder’ to praise the profession of translator. This time, ‘tunnel-borer’ will be pressed into service: great ingenuity, enormous stamina and almost unending patience are what drive both tunnelers and translators to bore their way into the real, and the textual, rock. There are days, when giant boulders are hewn out; other days, when only a few centimetres of progress are made, if that.

And as they dig deeper and deeper, the mountain reveals to their practised eye its spectacular inner life, layer by layer. Indeed, they blast the mountain, give it some hard knocks – but then, if the translator and the tunneller are good at their job, the mountain withstands their onslaughts and their work can endure. It’s a case of ‘joining-up’ – canton Uri with canton Ticino, for example, or German with Italian. And when the light appears at the end of the tunnel, the patron saint of translators, Jerome, and the patron saint of tunnellers, Barbara, will for certain rejoice together.

In this issue of 12 Swiss Books, we are once again recommending new books for translation. 2016 has been a rich and diverse year, and indeed the Gotthard Tunnel plays a role in our selection. In order to give you an even greater opportunity to tunnel deeper into our twelve books, this year we’ve prepared longer extracts for you to read, in addition to the short samples in the magazine. You find them here on our website.

Happy tunnelling everyone! Enjoy those precious discoveries on your journey and enjoy the literary lights at the end of the tunnel!

For the editorial team,
Angelika Salvisberg (Head of Literature & Society Division, Pro Helvetia)

Download the latest edition (No. 05)





ph_4859_12swissbooks_16_seite_16_bild_00022016 is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare – Britain’s greatest poet and playwright. Nowhere is he celebrated more than at the reconstructed Globe theatre in London. Patrick Spottiswoode is the director of Globe Education and one of the theatre’s founder members. He talks to Max Easterman about Shakespeare, language and translation.



MAX EASTERMAN: Why is the Globe such a special theatre?
PATRICK SPOTTISWOODE: This theatre brings actors and audience together in a way no other theatre does. We have here the three “As” – architecture, actors and audience. It’s the place where Shakespeare sings best, where Shakespeare connects with his audience best. Shakespeare wrote for the Globe like an original instrument and the plays sound and play differently in this architecture. So that is why the Globe is important.

ME: Is there some special significance for you in this 400th anniversary year?
PS: Well, something that Shakespeare could never ever have imagined was that his plays would be translated into over a hundred languages – he could also never ever have imagined that English as a language would have such a universal appeal. England in the 16th century was an island cut off from the rest of the world. No-one needed to speak English. The contemporary linguist John Florio said, “What think you of this English tongue?” … “Oh well, it will do you well in England, but past Dover, it is worth nothing.” So this idea that he could have thought that 400 years hence there would be Shakespeare in every language, a company of actors taking Hamlet in English to every country in the world and even Shakespeare spoken from outer space! He couldn’t have imagined that his plays would have that appeal, nor that the English language would have such an influence on world culture.

ME: What is it though about Shakespeare and his language that has created this great appeal? English has become a global language but there’s no reason why Shakespeare should become a global playwright.
PS: No, but I suppose it’s because he’s so beloved by actors, and actors have kept him alive. And I think why he appealed so much to German writers in the 18th century, for example, is that the language is not stone, he hasn’t left us stone, he’s left us clay. So we can constantly remould that clay and each generation can shape it to their own ends and to their own needs. Each art form can do the same. That’s a key thing about Shakespeare: he doesn’t sermonize, he explores. Two of his fellow actors said that he was a happy imitator of nature, a great depictor of nature, of human kind and the most gentle expresser of it. It was both the depiction, but also the way he depicted it.

ME: So Shakespeare’s language, thought and philosophy are malleable. Does that carry over with translation from English into other languages?
PS: I think each person will have their own bias as to which language it works best in. I personally like to hear Shakespeare in German even though I can only understand a little German. It marries well with the German language because of similar roots. To me it doesn’t work quite so well in French. But what happens when you translate Shakespeare? We English are hearing it in early modern – that’s late 16th century English. If I’m in Japan, I’m hearing Shakespeare in modern Japanese. That’s a great advantage over us. So it becomes alive in a different way, it’s immediately connected with our time. My dear friend Norbert Kentrup, the great German actor said, “Oh, Patrick, you are so lucky that you were born in the land of Shakespeare’s language. But I am lucky as an actor that I am not trapped by it. We are free in a way”. So translation frees it and makes it more resonant again for a particular time.

But there are other things about translation: Poles, for instance, don’t do alliteration, but alliteration is very characteristic of Shakespeare, so how do you translate that? I was a text advisor at a translation workshop, where 30 Poles, Romanians and Germans gathered together and had to translate extracts from Romeo and Juliet: they had to do ‘consensus’ translations and I was fascinated by the way they mined the text for meaning and debated the status of words. I watched how they breathed in English and then breathed out their own language. This workshop showed me how you read a language much more closely when you’re translating and you can’t skip over words which you don’t fully understand, as you would if you were just reading for pleasure.

ME: Why do you think Shakespeare is so important, almost a theatrical obsession, for German speakers?
PS: Shakespeare helped to develop the German language from the 18th century onwards, because German translators needed to invent new words in order to accommodate Shakespeare’s own words. So there’s a branch of translation, which is literal – as well as literary – and then there’s another branch, which is translating for the stage, where you are translating for a theatre audience and an actor, not for a reader.

Plays are always different on the stage from on the page. Any production in England on a stage is a form of translation, an adaptation. No one ever stages the complete play that Shakespeare’s left us. There are always cuts, edits, sometimes changes of language, even today. So, the text isn’t sacrosanct. But if you are a translator aiming for a literary translation, you may be keener to find the match of the metaphor or the analogy, the simile or the pun. Puns are incredibly difficult to do in translation! The very great contemporary German translator Frank Günther – who may have been the first German translator to complete the canon of Shakespeare after Johann Eschenburg published it in Zürich in 1782 – I heard Günther speak for forty minutes on the translator’s nightmare, on “How do I get the goat and Goth pun in As You Like It? How, as a translator, can I match that?” That’s his passion as a translator, can he somehow find the equivalent in German? That’s a labour of intense love and admiration. While a theatre translator will say, “Forget it, I’m going to cut that line, because the audience won’t get it” or “That doesn’t suit the vision of the play or the world the director wants”.

ME: Is that perhaps why nobody’s really attempted to translate the Shakespeare canon into modern English?
PS: Well, there’s a great debate about that now. And indeed there is a major Shakespeare festival in Oregon in the USA, which is doing just that, getting important, established North American authors to find new translations of Shakespeare into modern American. Of course, that sets the cat among the old pigeons for those of us who believe that the meaning is bound up in the language. But then again, as soon as you translate, you are creating a new meaning. Because how are you making Shakespeare relevant and contemporary if you keep it in that old early modern English that doesn’t resonate to the modern era?

ME: So when, for example, a German-language theatre director decides to do a production of Macbeth or Hamlet, he or she has a choice of translations?
PS: Yes, this is where German, and plays and translations into German, triumph. Because both the theatrical tradition and the tradition of translation of Shakespeare in German is, of course, much older than, say, the tradition of Shakespeare in Japanese or Shakespeare in Russian. And because of this Germanic tradition of the director as author (“Regisseur als Autor”), texts are subservient, they don’t worship the text of Shakespeare, it’s just part of the theatrical event, but it doesn’t dominate the theatrical event. What dominates the theatrical event is the vision of the director.

ME: Is there any evidence that British audiences will be prepared to take that kind of leap of faith with Shakespeare, to hear the text altered and, some would say, distorted?
PS: The way English audiences are being introduced to this idea is by hearing and seeing Shakespeare in foreign languages. Here at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012, as part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad celebrations, we invited 37 companies to England to present 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages. Immediately audiences knew they weren’t going to get Shakespeare’s pentameters. So I think because English audiences are becoming more accustomed to seeing Shakespeare in translation, they’re getting more used to the idea that plays can be cut, changed, copy-cut-and-pasted and, in some modern interpretations, the order of scenes changed. And I think this is going to happen more in this country, in English; modern English directors are now following suit.

ME: In 2011 you held a bold and very successful series of lectures and performances here at the Globe, called “Shakespeare is German”. As head of Globe Education you were a key player in this: what was the thinking behind it?
PS: In Globe Education we work a lot with young German-speaking students and I’ve became aware how German culture kind of appropriated Shakespeare. Schlegel said that Shakespeare is “ganz unser”, he’s “entirely ours”. Now, my reaction was to say: “What do you mean he’s entirely yours? He’s ours! Come on, he’s ours like the Queen!” So, when I first presented the idea of doing a series called “Shakespeare is German”, friends at the German Embassy said “A very good idea, but don’t you mean Shakespeare in German.” I said “no”, what we really wanted to explore was why and what was it that made Shakespeare so popular for German readers and German theatre goers of the past and present? There are more Shakespeare productions in Germany in one year than in England. That’s remarkable! That’s partly because of the position of English as a global language. One 19th century American critic said, rather ideologically, that “one touch of Shakespeare makes the whole world kin”. So Shakespeare is an umbrella under which we can all meet, Shakespeare provides us, if you like, with common stories that we now share. Go anywhere in the world and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet are iconic.

I did a TV interview with a Moroccan television crew and they asked me ‘live’ on air, “Mr Spottiswoode, can you confirm to our viewers that Shakespeare was an Arab? Shaykh Zubayr?” “Yes, I can” I replied, “But he was also Australian, Japanese and Chinese.” Likewise an Iraqi film crew interviewed me and said: “We believe that Shakespeare was born in Basra.” I said: “Yes, he was and he was also born in Adelaide…” It’s interesting that countries want a bit of ownership of Shakespeare, that they appropriate him. In the 19th century translating Shakespeare into your own language became a sign of cultural arrival; it gives a language a cultural significance, a power. So partly it’s because English is a global language and also, in the days of the British Empire, teaching English to ‘the colonials’ the question was, who are you going to teach? Shakespeare! So Shakespeare gets into the literary bloodstream around the world.

ME: If you take Switzerland, where German isn’t the only language, there’s French and Italian too, not to mention Rhaeto-Romanic: to what extent is Shakespeare appreciated by speakers of Romance languages, like French and Italian?
PS: Well, the French and Italians first ‘met him’ through English performers travelling over there, that’s what shook them up. Berlioz, for example, saw a company doing Romeo and Juliet, fell in love with Juliet and started being inspired to write his own musical works. Then in Italy it’s opera in the 19th century where Shakespeare really takes hold of the Italian imagination. What’s interesting, though, is whether those artists first met Shakespeare in English? Or did the French meet him through the German language or the Germans meet him through the Italian? So, they may not actually have met Shakespeare through the medium of English but through another language. And that is what makes it more complex.

ME: Here at the Globe you also commission plays which are in no way Shakespearean, although some of them may be set in that period. I wonder whether there aren’t German playwrights who, in translation, would sit very well on the Globe stage? I’m thinking specifically of two great Swiss writers, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The Fire Raisers, Romulus the Great are plays which, it seems to me, because of this closeness of the audience and the player, would function beautifully on that stage.
PS: The remit for the first three artistic directors here at the Globe since it opened in 1997 has been either to stage Shakespeare, or other plays of the period, or to commission new plays for the space. What we want to do more now is to explore plays written specifically and especially for this space. When you build a theatre like the Globe, you are of course going to focus on Shakespeare, you’re going to focus on Shakespeare’s contemporaries and on what we call “original practices” – and one of the original practices of the Globe was “all plays were new”! So if we want to be truthful to the Globe, we have to do new work. We’ve had some wonderful new plays, by Howard Brenton for one, written specifically for the Globe. In 2017, we’re 20 years old, so we are very young to branch out into Frisch or Dürrenmatt, modern plays in translation, but maybe in future years we will.

ME: It just seems that theatre in Britain is a bit of a one-way street, not just at the Globe. There are certain foreign plays, European plays, like The Seagull, like Hedda Gabler, which keep getting revived, and yet other plays in other languages get ignored.
PS: It’s true, it’s a question of whatever is available in translation. It’s why translations are important and that means publishers have to take a punt and commission translations and be prepared to sell translations. And remember that we don’t have a tradition in this country of ‘dramaturgs’. You have to have really good dramaturgs who act rather like football scouts: people who go off and look for those plays, these new exciting plays and maybe then theatres will commission those translations. The National Theatre here in London is good for that and the Royal Court, but that’s a huge investment, so, inevitably, there is a kind of canon developed of European plays that are going to be put on over and over again, rather like Shakespeare. If you are a commercial theatre, you are living from the box office, so when we put on a play in translation it’s a risk: we might get 55 per cent attendance. If we put on Shakespeare in English we get 99 per cent. As the Globe doesn’t get any government subsidy, if we want to put on a play, whether it’s a new play or a visiting theatre company – at 50 per cent – we’ve got to be able to balance the books by putting on a Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because the government is not going to bail us out, as in many German or Swiss theatres where they have subsidies. We at the Globe do not have any public subsidy. That might be hard to appreciate but it’s true.

ME: So money is always going to be one of the governing factors?
PS: Of course. As it was for Shakespeare in his own theatre. Shakespeare had to make money, he had to make sure the boxes were full of coins, that people came to the theatre and paid admission. I sometimes feel in theatres on the continent that are subsidized, sometimes I feel that it doesn’t matter whether only six people attend because they got that subsidy. Now I know that’s changing on the continent too and subsidy is dropping. Subsidy empowers you but also can make you forget your audience sometimes. Here, we are lean and mean, but that means also entrepreneurial.

ME: There is something very Shakespearean about that!
PS: I think so! One of the people we are celebrating this year is Philip Henslowe. Just like Shakespeare, he died 400 years ago this year. Henslowe ran a playhouse called The Rose. He was a theatre owner and manager and has had a very bad press at times, along the lines of: “…he actually wanted to make money! He was a capitalist working in the theatre while Shakespeare was a pure poet”. Well, forget it. Henslowe was a man of the theatre and he knew how to make theatre work. Shakespeare was no different!

12 Swiss Books 2016









The Gaps in the Arab Mosaic

12 Swiss Books 2016


It’s long been a truism to claim that reading a novel about a particular society will tell you more about its origins than any amount of scholarly research. And so, how much more could we learn from reading three or even five novels, which would give us three or five views of – or from – that society? So we’re not doing literature an injustice, if we seek to gain from it information about other lands, worlds, peoples. Not as a documentary source, that’s quite another genre, but rather as a written, a writerly, introduction to another world, which is also a part of all our worlds. Literature, and especially prose fiction, recounts different forms of human experience and social intercourse, it interprets the behaviour of individuals and groups, offers examples for understanding history, describes different expressions of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, enjoyment and abhorrence, love and hate…
Every novel, every story, offers one tile in a mosaic, which, when placed next to all the others, creates a full picture. For, just as – to quote the Arabic saying – one hand alone cannot clap, equally one piece of the mosaic alone cannot create a picture.
Thus, to perceive, perhaps even to understand, a different society, we need to read many stories both from and about that society. Journalists’ reports and items in the daily news aren’t enough. They’re too narrowly focused, too short-lived, and by and large don’t give us the inside story.
The Arab world and its literature offer us an impressive body of support material – but ex negativo: there’s a drawback.
The Arab world is broad and diverse. In order to create a reasonable picture of this world, to acquire even a hint of an understanding of it, we need – have always needed – a huge number of mosaic tiles. But glance through what’s on offer in any Western bookshop, especially in the German language, and it’s an alarming and sobering experience: the scant quantity of Arabic literature in translation only masks the danger, that the few will be taken as representative of the whole.
But our expectations of literary works must also be appropriate: literature is just not reportage of what is currently happening, it is not to be equated with the countless numbers of diaries and blogs, which have been written about the events, famous now all over the world, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Literature interprets, and that takes time. Literature elaborates concepts, other worlds, and that requires a sense of distance. So when a publisher asks for the revolutionary novel about the Egyptian demonstrations a mere three months after they began, this is just as absurd as asking for the novel about the refugee crisis of September – October 2015 two months after it started.
But by now there are countless novels and stories about what led up to these and many other events in the Arab world, but so much that might deepen our understanding of them remains untranslated and therefore out of reach to Western readers. Publishers’ interest here, if it exists at all, is much too short-term.
A few examples from many… several of these are available in English, a few in French, but none in German.
There’s the story of the Syrian civil servant, who, in order to satisfy a lifetime’s desire to sit next to his Minister just once, throws his morality overboard (Dîma Wannûs: Kursîy (A Chair), Beirut 2009); or the village schoolteacher from Tunisia, who, quite out of the blue and with no personal involvement, is promoted to Minister and somehow has to cope with his new role (Hussain al-Wâd: Sa’âdatuhu … as-sayyid al-wazîr (His Excellency, the Minister), Tunis 2011). There’s the story of Moroccan parents, who imagine their son is studying in France, only to receive his death notice from Afghanistan (Muhammad al-Asch’ari: al-Qaws wal-farâsha (The Arch and the Butterfly), Casablanca 2011); or the young Iraqi, who instead of studying Art, decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and prepare corpses for burial – and gets more and more work to do (Sinân Antûn: Wahdahâ shajarat ar-rummân (The Pomegranate alone / The Corpse Washer), Beirut 2010). There’s also the story of a Saudi family, told by one of their sons, who has emigrated to the USA (Muhammad Hasan Alwân: al-Qundus (The Beaver), Beirut 2011); and several tales of east Asian or African girls working as servants in well-to-do houses in Lebanon or the Gulf (Sa’ûd al-San’ûsi: Sâq al-bambû (The Bamboo Stalk), Beirut 2012 or Rashîd al-Daîf: Hirrat Sîkîrîdâ (Sikireeda’s Pussy), Beirut 2014). There are also countless historical novels and novels about history, which provide us with information about the region, or its historical perspectives: the whole epic history of Palestine before the founding of the Israeli state, written from the perspective of a Jordanian Palestinian (Ibrahîm Nasrallah: Zaman al-khuyûl al-baydâ’ (Time of White Horses), Beirut / Algier 2007); or a novel about Aleppo, the city laid horribly to waste over the past few years, written by a Syrian (Nihad Sirîs: Hâlat shaghaf (A Case of Passion), Beirut 1998). And there are many other novels that combine the historical with the fantastic, or even the macabre: the man from Bagdad, who constructs a new human being out of other people’s body parts (Ahmad Sa’dâwi: Frânkinshtayn fî Baghdâd (Frankenstein in Bagdad), Beirut, 2013); or another, in Cairo, who gets himself declared dead in order to enable his family to live off his life insurance (Muhammad Rabì‘: ´Âm at-tinnîn (The Year of the Dragon), Kairo, 2012).

These are many, too many missing pieces in the mosaic, so leaving the whole picture incomplete.


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
– additionally, Pro Helvetia contributes financially to literary tours for Swiss authors of recently published or 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

Deadline: We accept applications at any time, but they must be submitted at least three months before printing.

All applications should be submitted at the application portal: www.myprohelvetia.ch

An exception is translations of Swiss texts into the languages of South-east Europe. Pro Helvetia is a partner of TRADUKI, the European Network for Literature and Books. All requests involving a language from South-east Europe 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.

Angelika Salvisberg
Head of Pro Helvetia’s
Literature and Society Division
T +41 44 267 71 26



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. Through readings, workshops, and conferences, translators are offered a forum for continuing professional development and for enhancing the public’s awareness of their activities.

Ubersetzerhaus Looren
CH-8342 Wernetshausen
T +41 43 843 12 43
F +41 43 843 12 44


12 Swiss Books 2016





PHOTO © Cortis & Sonderegger, 2011

Pro Helvetia
Swiss Arts Council
Hirschengraben 22
CH-8024 Zurich
T +41 44 267 71 71
F +41 44 267 71 06


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