I have a long-standing affection for Swiss literature. Like many A-level students over the years, my first taste of literature in German was through the dramas of Frisch and Dürrenmatt. I revisited Swiss drama as an undergraduate, met my future wife acting in a Dürrenmatt play, then wound up teaching Die Physiker (‘The Physicists’) to A-level students during my brief spell as a schoolmaster. What is the enduring appeal of these two giants of Swiss letters that ensures their place on the school/university syllabus? One answer lies in the accessibility of their language. By its very nature, dialogue is easier to grapple with in a foreign language than the complex syntax of dense prose. But I have always suspected that something else is at play here too; something that has its roots in the linguistic idiosyncrasies of German-speaking Switzerland. Many a visitor to that part of the world, native German speakers included, has scratched their head at a vernacular that appears to bear no relation to the language spoken in Hamburg, Berlin or even Munich. The unintelligibility is exacerbated by the fact that dialects differ from region to region, and even valley to valley.
By contrast, the literary Swiss-German language is for the most part standardised and is indistinguishable from High German; even dialogue is washed of its dialectal colour. I may be overstating a point here, but it seems to me that when Swiss Germans write they use a language that, strictly speaking, is not their mother tongue. I believe this affords their writing a particular clarity, which enhances their accessibility to foreign readers, A hypothesis certainly borne out by my experience of translating Richard Weihe, Martin Suter and Peter Beck.
Another feature of Swiss-German literature I have encountered – and one its writers share with their Austrian counterparts – also relates to accessibility. According to population statistics there are around 4.5 million Swiss Germans, just under nine million Austrians, but more than eighty million Germans. It is natural, therefore (and makes financial sense), for Swiss-German writers to aim beyond their domestic audience in an attempt to appeal to the wider German-language readership. To achieve this it helps if the content is outward-looking rather than parochial; and there can be no doubt that the two major writers I began this article with are masters at tackling issues – political, philosophical and psychological – with universal resonance.
In a similar vein, many Swiss-German writers lend their work a distinctly international flavour. An obvious example here is Pascale Mercier’s Nachtzug Nach Lissabon(‘Night Train to Lisbon’), made famous by the 2013 film adaptation; but more recently I have read Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (‘Kraft’, set chiefly in California) and Urs Mannheim’s Bergsteigen im Flachland (‘Mountaineering in the Lowlands’) which jumps all around Europe. Not to mention Lukas Bärfuss’s Koala (‘Koala’), which looks at the Aboriginals of Australia, or his Hundert Tage (‘One Hundred Days’ – reviewed in this magazine), about the genocide in Rwanda. Is this a conscious effort by such writers, or does it proceed naturally from a country with a global outlook and outreach, home to countless international organisations?
All three of the Swiss writers I have translated fit this pattern too. Richard Weihe’s micro-epic, Sea of Ink, considers the life and art of the seventeenth-century Chinese painter, Bada Shanren. Peter Beck’s thriller Damnation (also reviewed in this magazine) has a James Bond-type hero as its protagonist, who, in true 007 style, travels to Egypt, New England and Norway to solve the crime. Two of the Martin Suter novels I’ve worked on have strong connections to Asia, in particular Sri Lanka, while the third has a brief cameo in Thailand, and otherwise centres on a Swiss banking conspiracy, but one with a worldwide dimension.
The stylistic and thematic accessibility of Swiss-German literature undoubtedly gives it a broad appeal. Which makes it particularly ripe for translation.
By Jamie Bulloch
Jamie Bulloch is an historian and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. His translations include books by Martin Suter, Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser, Timur Vermes, Friedrich Christian Delius and Linda Stift. Jamie won the 2014 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Best German Translation for Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast.