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Energy Discourses in Switzerland: How and whether multilingual sources (mis)represent monolingual discourses

At a glance


The phenomenon of various areas of Switzerland exhibiting contrasting patterns of voting on societal issues has been linked to urbanization, to cultural diversity, to geographical proximity to other countries’ discourses, and to linguistic differences. For example, the results of a popular initiative relevant to Swiss energy discourses (i.e. about nuclear withdrawal) show that districts in favour of the initiative were scattered throughout the French-speaking and Italian-speaking areas but very few were in the German-speaking area, suggesting the importance of cultural and/or linguistic differences.
The explanatory pamphlets that are sent to all Swiss citizens eligible to vote are meant to be objective and to present the “views of important minorities and the opinions of parliament and the Federal Council” as well as the arguments of the support committee in the case of initiatives or referenda. They are widely distributed in three national languages (i.e. German, French, and Italian) depending on the dominant language of the respective community responsible for the distribution of the voting materials. However, these explanatory pamphlets and other government sources of information have become targets of criticism not only because of their outmoded presentation of information but also for an imbalanced representation of both sides of issues.
A deeper understanding of differences between discourses at the national level (i.e. from multilingual sources) and local discourses in various languages (i.e. from monolingual sources) could contribute to fostering democratic dialogue on key issues. Just as translations often contain traces of the language of source texts, multilingual sources might be dominated by whichever national language the content was first formulated in, which in turn may (un)intentionally misrepresent the complexity of the multilingual discourses in Switzerland about production, supply, and use of energy now and in the future. Features such as simplification, explication, and standardisation that have been associated with translations as compared to non-translations (cf. Pym 2015; Toury 1995/2012) could be expected to have correlates in multilingual and monolingual sources, respectively. The proposed in-depth study will identify lexical, lexico-grammatical, and discourse patterns typical of monolingual and multilingual Swiss textual sources relevant to energy issues, as explained in the sections below, and explore their implications for models of multilingual text production and institutional practices. For example, potential misrepresentation of  discourses in the official documentation of a multilingual country might be mitigated by neutralising or standardising through translation to isolate core messages and then localising for the discourses in the national languages.