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Gained in translation? Dynamism of young writers boosts sales abroad

The diverse styles and sensibilities of young Swiss writers mean their work travels well. In fact it often does better abroad than in other parts of Switzerland.

A new, young Swiss literature is hitting the shelves of Parisian bookshops, supported on the one hand by persistent publishing houses, such as Zoé in Geneva and L’Age d’Homme in Lausanne, and galvanised on the other by its own ambitions: the appeal of greener pastures which bestows an exotic flavour on the work of certain novelists.

This exoticism can even result in prizes – as was the case for Aude Seigne and Joël Dicker, two 27-year-olds from Geneva.

Seigne criss-crossed the planet in Chroniques de l’Occident nomade (Chronicles of the nomadic West), which won the 2011 Nicolas Bouvier Prize, named after the Swiss travel writer and photographer.

Dicker examined the United States of the past and present in La Verité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert (The Truth of the Harry Quebert Affair). This year the book won the Grand Prix du Roman and was nominated for the Prix Goncourt, the two oldest and most prestigious literary awards in France, both based in the French capital.

Success

“Paris is essential for French-language books. Swiss authors do better there than in German-speaking Switzerland,” according to Isabelle Rüf, a journalist and literature specialist.

“In Geneva and Lausanne, publishers struggle to get people to read Swiss authors who write in German – and unfortunately the converse is also true. German-speaking readers are drawn more to German-speaking writers.”

In the Italian-speaking part of the country, there is a militancy among certain authors, such as 42-year-old Fabiano Alborghetti, who spent many years in Italy with asylum seekers and illegal workers. From this experience came Registro dei Fragili (A register of the weak), a collection of texts which has been translated into several languages, including Arabic, English, Turkish and Slovenian.

Alborghetti’s work is more popular abroad than that of a writer such as Pierre Lepori, whose novel Sessualità (Sexuality) has had limited success, despite being published in the three official Swiss languages.

The poster girl for German-speaking Swiss authors is currently Melinda Nadj Abonji, born in 1968 in Vojvodina, now an autonomous province of Serbia. The author, who moved to Zurich with her parents when she was five, attracted a lot of attention for Tauben Fliegen Auf (Falcons Without Falconers), which won the 2010 German Book Prize.

Inspired by Abonji’s own experiences, the novel, published by an Austrian company, tackles immigration and integration.

“Melinda is a unique case,” said Angelika Salvisberg from Pro Helvetia, the Swiss arts council. “With our support, her novel, which received a lot of media coverage thanks to [the German Book Prize], has been translated into French, English, Polish, Swedish, Italian, Hungarian … the Chinese version is being done as we speak.”

Exportation

Pro Helvetia plays a significant role in the “exportation” of Swiss literature.

“We don’t do any translating ourselves,” Salvisberg explained. “Rather we support the needs and requirements of publishing houses in Switzerland and abroad – on condition of course that the books chosen are of good quality.”

Grants from organisations like Pro Helvetia, which has a programme called Moving Words, help Swiss authors publish in English, but “it has never worked without any form of subsidies”, said Carlo Bernasconi, chief editor and columnist for the organisation Swiss German Booksellers and Publishers.

“Even with Max Frisch and other novelists. The situation hasn’t really improved in the past 50 years,” he said.

“Even if a Swiss author has a lot of success in another country, it doesn’t mean that [the book] is suitable for the English-speaking market as well. In the Seventies and Eighties German-speaking authors were not telling stories but writing introspective literature, and that’s not something the US public is interested in.”

Foreign challenges

Susanne Bauknecht, director of licences and foreign rights for Swiss publisher Diogenes, says the books that succeed in English markets are those that “are able to reach a wider audience. Normally these are the bestsellers in our country as well”.

“It must be a book that can travel,” she told swissinfo.ch. “That means that in other languages or other cultures it can be understood and read. High literary fiction is sometimes very difficult to sell.”

Working with translated books is not common in English-language markets, said Bauknecht.

“There are not so many books translated in the English-speaking market, so [English-language publishers] are not as used to working on translations as we are, for example. A huge part of the books that Diogenes publishes are translations.”

It’s also difficult to sell Swiss books in English markets because so many books are already available. 

“The English-speaking world is so big and there are so many authors who are writing directly in English, so you find all kinds of books already in English. You don’t really have to look for translations to have diversity.”

Established authors

Swiss author Martin Suter, who is represented by Diogenes, published A Small World and A Deal with the Devil in English markets. A third book, The Chef, will be published in Britain in spring. 

Other Diogenes authors whose books have been translated into numerous languages include Lukas Hartmann (sold in 13 languages) and Urs Widmer (in 28). Martin Suter has published in 30. The works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, arguably Switzerland’s best-known author, appear in 44 languages.

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Future opportunities

"The e-books market is changing the whole situation completely," says Carlo Bernasconi. "Maybe there are some new chances for [Swiss] authors. If they're translated they can be sold in India as well as Singapore or Australia. And you can download their books in any corner of the world. It's a new platform and we don't know what's going to happen with it. It's just another aspect of the whole story." 

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(Adapted from French by Thomas Stephens, with input from Jeannie Wurz), swissinfo.ch


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