Dialogue by translation

by Thomas Kadelbach

Thomas Kadelbach, né en 1979. Après des études d'histoire et littérature française à Angers, Fribourg et Madrid, il collabore au projet de recherche FNS Les relations culturelles internationales de la Suisse, 1945-1990. Thèse de doctorat sur Pro Helvetia et l'image de la Suisse à l'étranger. Actuellement collaborateur scientifique à l'Université de Neuchâtel.
, Thomas Kadelbach, born in 1979. Studied history and French literature in Angers, Fribourg and Madrid. Research assistant in the SNSF research project Switzerland's International Cultural Relations, 1945-1990. PhD thesis on Pro Helvetia and the image of Switzerland abroad. Currently scientific collaborator at the University of Neuchâtel.


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


Pro Helvetia's first translation

The first translation commissioned by Pro Helvetia, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen by Jacob Burckhardt, was published in New York, 1943.

Swiss National Library

Neutrality for beginners

1944 Pro Helvetia commissions a short treaty of Swiss neutrality. History professor Edgar Bonjour’s paper is in line with the post-war myth of Swiss neutrality and is published 1946 in London.

Swiss National Library

Assessing neutrality in Spanish

Edgar Bonjour’s book on the history of Swiss neutrality is also distributed in the Spanish speaking world. In 1954, a Spanish version is published in Madrid.

Swiss National Library

Gotthelf in Japan

In 1960, Pro Helvetia funds a Japanese translation of the novella Die schwarze Spinne.

Swiss National Library

The first literary translations

By the end of the 1950s, Pro Helvetia had financed only one translation of a contemporary writer. 1957, the novella Der Spaziergang by Robert Walser was published in English.

Swiss National Library

Max Frisch in Korea

The Korean translation of Max Frisch’s journal was published 1996 in Seoul.

Swiss National Library

Swiss literature in China

Towards the end of the 1970s Pro Helvetia strengthens its ties with Asian universities. 1992 an anthology of Swiss German literature is published in Shanghai.

Swiss National Library

"Strapazin" in China

In the course of cultural exchange with China, Pro Helvetia publishes a Chinese version of the comic strip magazine Strapazin in 2010.

Pro Helvetia Archives

Heidi in Romania

In the second half of the 1970es Pro Helvetia invites Jean Grosu, writer and translator from Romania several times. His translation of Heidi is published in Bucharest in 1978.

Swiss National Library

Swiss French poetry in Romania

This anthology of Swiss French poetry was published in Bucharest in 1985, edited by Jean Gabus, an important cultural liaison between Switzerland and Romania.

Swiss National Library

The New York Herald Tribune, 1943

On April 4, 1943, The New York Herald Tribune publishes a review of Jacob Burckhardt’s book.

Swiss Federal Archives E 2001 (D) 1000/1553, Vol. 257

Times Literary Supplement, 1946

The Times Literary Supplement introduces Edgar Bonjour’s book in its edition of June 29, 1946.

Swiss Federal Archives E 2001 1978/84, Vol. 132


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