By Adriana Adarve – Owner of Adarve Translations & Donnamarie Leemann – Head of Marketing at Adarve Translations
Adriana and I always have a point to make in these blogs that we create together, a position we wish to take, an idea or a problem upon we which we want to focus. It’s usually us speaking to you. This time we’d like a little feed-back: we’d like to learn your opinion as to what we have to say in this piece.
We touched upon this subject in an earlier blog but we want to expand upon it here. We ask you to picture a mountainous, landlocked country that is poor in natural resources. A country that includes different religious, linguistic and cultural traditions. A country that is surrounded by larger, richer, more populous and more powerful neighbors for whom trade routes through the mountains of their smaller neighbor are important. Picture a poor country with a very harsh climate and little arable land that is at the epicenter of powerful rival forces, perched on a Continental Divide.
The above description accurately applies to both Switzerland and to Afghanistan. The former has long been one of the most peaceful, prosperous and creative lands on earth. The latter is a failed state, one of the poorest, most corrupt and most violent places on the planet.
It should be noted that Afghanistan does have a number of natural resources. It is one of the premier producers of opium, a very valuable cash crop. It also has as yet under-unexploited mineral wealth. Switzerland wouldn’t produce opium even if it could. It has no as yet unexploited resources. Switzerland does have water. Water from the Swiss Alps flows into the Rhine, the Rhone and the Danube. The landlocked country nourishes the entire continent with its water. That same water also nourishes Swiss energy needs. There are a multitude of small dams and hydroelectric plants peppered throughout the Alps. The power they generate serves Switzerland well. (Switzerland is also making increasing use of power generated by windmills.)
The question Adriana and I want to ask is: Why is there such an enormous disparity between the fortunes of Afghanistan and Switzerland when the two lands appear to have so much in common? If anything, Afghanistan should have the advantage, given that it is larger and actually does possess resources in excess of those available in tiny Switzerland.
Could the answer lie in the two countries taking different paths, one of pride and vengeance, the other of peace and commerce? Afghans and Swiss both have a great deal of pride. When a country is caught between the tectonic plates of vastly more powerful and well-endowed neighbors, pride is essential for the preservation of a national identity. When the wars of neighboring lands ebb and flow over one’s mountain fastness, one clings to one’s nationality, culture, language and sense of place with a passion, a passion spurred on by one’s desire for one’s identity to not be obliterated by the battles of others.
I’ve lived in Switzerland for over 30 years. I don’t know all that much about Afghanistan. Even so, it seems to me that there is a basic difference in the two country’s approach to conflict. The Afghans draw their swords and exact vengeance upon their enemies and other intruders unto the fourth generation. The Swiss erect customs barriers and assess taxes and duty.
The Afghans are too proud to permit trespass. They are too weak to prevent it. They thus doom themselves to perpetual conflict. The Swiss are proud, too, but they are too peaceful, practical, pragmatic and avaricious to try to do what can’t be done.
Much of Asian history was acted out in the mountains of Afghanistan. Much of European history rolled over the Alps. The locals in both places have a lot to complain about. How they complain, in modern times, is the case in point.
Hannibal drove his elephants over the Grand San Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps. The Romans build six-abreast roads across those same mountains. Hannibal and the Romans were bent on war and conquest. Then there were the French, Italians and Austrians who pushed the local population hither and yon.
The Swiss finally understood that they could not control the excesses of their more powerful neighbors. They realized that they could control access to the narrow Alpine passes. When the Swiss set up their confederation in 1291 A.D. they put an end to their mountain passes being used as war routes and transformed them into trade routes. Folks could cross their Alps at will—but not to make battle, and they had to pay for the privilege of crossing the Swiss-controlled mountains.
In as much as it was possible for a small, poor, weak nation to keep the peace, the Swiss endeavored to keep the peace—and they charged all their neighbors as much as possible for the service.
Like Afghanistan in the middle of Central Asia, Switzerland was at the center of Western Europe. It was at the epicenter of many wars that did not concern the Swiss Confederation. From the time that Switzerland threw off the yoke of the Hapsburgs in 1291, it was time and time again unwillingly pulled into seemingly endless conflicts. There were proxy wars between the Duke of Burgundy, the King of France and the invading English during the 100 Year War. There was the era of the Napoleonic Wars that redrew many of the borders in Europe. There were countless smaller conflicts.
The Swiss could have vowed revenge upon any number of oppressors and aggressors. Instead, they steadfastly maintained their neutrality and pragmatically collected their Alpine tolls.
So what’s the better option? To be peaceful mercenary toll collectors or to be proud vengeful victims intent upon retribution, no matter what the cost?
Why, you might well ask, do we present this question on the pages of a translation bureau blog? We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: translation is not only a matter of turning words in one language into words in a different language. The words are important, they are the foundation of any translation, but the words alone do not tell the whole story.
After 9/11, shortly before the USA went into Afghanistan, I saw a video clip of an elderly Afghan tribal chieftain sitting on a rag rug in front of a shed on a mountain side stolidly sharpening his ancient sword. “If the enemy comes here,” he proclaimed, “I will slay the enemy with this sword.”
Picture that ancient warrior transported to the head office of a major Swiss bank on Paradeplatz in Zürich. The proud, toothless old tribal chief would stand firm with his sword, still determined to exact vengeance against his enemies. But it was no longer a case of his enemies flowing over mountain passes. It was a case of the world economy having been disastrously impacted by an ancient ideology bent on pride and vengeance.
We know about ancient blood feuds in the Balkans. We know about more modern vendettas like those played out by the Hatfields and the McCoys in the USA. The Swiss gave up the idea of vengeance over seven centuries ago. The Swiss kept their pride, and increased it by their humanity in dealing with their enemies.
Of course, the Swiss also earned a lot of money because of their neutrality.
Do you, the reader, think that the Swiss made the right decision, to become peaceful, neutral, unwarlike and avaricious, or do you think that the Afghan approach of fierce pride, vengeance and retribution is the better solution?
I am mindful here of the difference of gun possession in Switzerland and in the USA. Here, every man of military age has his army-issued rifle in his closet, cellar or attic. Hunters have rifles and cops have guns. Regular civilians do not. The Swiss do not sit on rag rugs in front of mountain sheds sharpening ancient swords. They are far too busy making clocks, cheese, chocolate and money to bother with archaic quarrels. They remember ancient battles but they do not dwell on them. When conflict breaks out in the world beyond Swiss borders, the Swiss are quick to contribute money and expertise in an effort to help those less privileged than they are.
So what do you think? Pride and vengeance or peace and commerce?
We at Adarve Translations don’t often have the opportunity to translate documents or recordings between such radically different societies and perspectives as those that exist between Switzerland and Afghanistan. It would be surpassingly difficult to translate a conversation between a Swiss banker and an Afghan tribal chieftain. We’re up to the job.
We’d very much like to know what you think about how to view the different perspectives between Afghanistan and Switzerland.
All the best,
Donnamarie Leemann, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, & Adriana Adarve, Asheville, NC
About the Authors: Adriana Adarve is the owner of Adarve Translations and is fluent in three languages (English, Spanish & French), as well as pluri-cultural, multi-cultural, plurilingual and multilingual. Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.