Translation in Switzerland: An Evolving History

“Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes.”

Günter Grass

Swiss History

Translation plays a critical role within the multilingual nation of Switzerland and has shaped it profoundly. By law, Swiss citizens have the right to address the federal authorities in any of the three official languages (German, French and Italian) and all federal legislation must be provided in three language versions. Today the Swiss federal administration runs an entire department dedicated to providing language services including translation. From a financial point of view, multilingualism is somewhat of a burden but worth every Swiss Franc as it forged and continues to ensure unity between Switzerland’s culturally and linguistically diverse regions.

In 1823, the French and Italian speaking cantons were granted permission to employ a translator to work at the Tagsatzung where representatives of the different regions met –  but only at their own expense! This changed when modern Switzerland was founded in 1848 and multilingualism was enshrined within the federal constitution. German, French and Italian became the official national languages with equal status and seven translators were hired, now paid for by the state.

But today’s multilingualism in Switzerland is by no means confined to the political and administrative realm. It penetrates many areas of Swiss economy like banking and finance, the pharmaceutical market and tourism. It is also part of the cultural and educational sphere and, especially in linguistic contact zones, it is part of everyday life.

Our project will be among the first to carefully construct the dynamic history of translation in Switzerland, to reveal that language practises and policies have been a pillar of the Swiss nation from its beginning.

One of the last sessions of the 1847 federal conference chaired by Ulrich Ochsenbein. Woodcut by Kretzschmer (Swiss National Library, Graphic Collection).

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