Writers are leading ambassadors of Swiss culture. Right from the beginning, Pro Helvetia promoted and propagated Swiss literature, making a point of actively encouraging literary creation.
In Switzerland’s cultural image, the written word takes prominent place in many forms, illustrating the various dimensions of Swiss cultural policy especially concerning information, translation, artistic and literary creation, and the numerous exchange programmes. When created in 1939, Pro Helvetia regarded books first and foremost as information media, useful for highlighting specific aspects of Switzerland
In the literary field, activities were focussed on the translation of some of the 19th century classics, such as works by Jeremias Gotthelf and Gottfried Keller.
From 1951 onwards, the Foundation began to play a more active role in the promotion of literature by annually awarding grants to authors representing the four linguistic regions.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that writers themselves started to play a significant role in the promotion of Swiss culture abroad, particularly by participating in readings and exchange programmes. During this decade, reading and lecture tours became a regular and often used element of Pro Helvetia’s policy. At the same time, the Foundation contributed to the development of permanent structures such as e.g. the Swiss Writer- in-residence programme in Los Angeles, combining the support of literature and writers with its general policy of promoting Swiss culture abroad. Finally, also the exchange programmes and the reception of writers’ delegations in Switzerland enjoyed some further development.
Concerning the perception of Switzerland and its image, literature and theatre, like film, often critically reflected the actual situation of the country. In 1956, the controversial nature of Der Besuch der alten Dame by Friedrich Dürrenmatt prompted Pro Helvetia’s refusal to subsidise a presentation of the play in Paris, as it was judged inconsistent with national values. From the 1970s onwards however, the Foundation supported the distribution of non-conformist and critical literature, thus contributing to the ongoing debate about Swiss myths and the national identity.
During the same period, there was an opening up to non-western cultures in the field of translation, particularly supporting the literary dialogue between Switzerland and Asian countries. This trend continues even today, with several literary exchange programmes between Switzerland, India, and China.