From the beginning, Pro Helvetia used the translation of books considered to represent the country as a tool to promote Swiss culture abroad. The importance of this task found mention in the Federal Council’s message on cultural policy to the parliament in 1938. In the second half of the 20th century, the Foundation’s translation programmes underwent significant changes. While books on Switzerland’s history, political and cultural identity were favoured up until the late 1950s, the main activity in this field turned to literary translation only after that period.
The first book Pro Helvetia commissioned for translation was Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen by Jacob Burckhardt, philosopher of history, from the canton of Basel. In 1943 it was published by George Allen & Unwin, London and in 1944 by Pantheon Books in New York.
The translation was part of the propaganda efforts during wartime when cultural policy was subordinate to the immediate interests of Swiss foreign policy. In the preface of the American edition, Jacob Burckhardt’s work serves as the starting point for a discourse on Switzerland’s identity and its position in war-torn Europe. At the height of the Nazi expansion, Burckhardt was portrayed as an early anti-fascist. Of particular importance was the indispensability of the small state as the carrier of cultural progress, to which he testified in his work.
In an equally contemporary perspective, post-war Pro Helvetia facilitated several translations of historical works about Switzerland. The Foundation commissioned Professor Edgar Bonjour from Basel to write a history of neutrality destined for English and Spanish speaking readers. Feeding the myth of the Swiss Sonderfall, these books were entirely consistent with the country’s traditional self-portrayal, particularly highlighting direct democracy and local autonomy.
Pro Helvetia’s decision to abandon its policy of translating non-fictional books for political reasons in favour of literary translation was taken in the 1960s, demonstrating the increasing importance of artistic creativity for Swiss cultural foreign policy. The foundation started putting a lot of effort into many projects in order to improve the promotion of Swiss literature abroad.
At the end of the 1970s, it subsidised the translation costs for a research group of Tokyo University, which published an anthology of Swiss literature. A similar partnership was developed in the early 1980s with publisher John Calder in London, who published the series The Swiss Library. During the same period, Pro Helvetia awarded its first grants for translations into Chinese, laying the foundation for an ongoing collaboration. (tk)
Pro Helvetia, procès-verbaux groupe I