Archive for July 2012

NEA Announces 2013 Translation Fellowships

The National Endowment for the Arts has just announced its 2013 cohort of Translation Fellowship recipients. According to the NEA’s website, this year’s awards amount to $12,500 each, the same as last year’s fellowships, but substantially less than in previous years: Grants were either $20,000 or $10,000 (depending on the scope of the project) last time I received one (2008), and in 2009 the amount went up to $25,000/$12,500, where it remained until last year. Last year and this year, $200,000 worth of grant money per year was distributed, as compared with $300,000 in 2010. Somehow I managed not to notice the financial discrepancy when last year’s grants were announced, but clearly the NEA’s translation program budget had been dramatically slashed then already. This is not good news. While $12,500 is a substantial sum, and significantly more than most publishers pay most translators for most books, it is not very much when you consider the amount of time it actually takes to translate a serious literary work. Often translators are compelled to be doing other (more lucrative) things at the same time as they are working on their translations, so it can be hard to calculate the exact amount of time a project takes, but when I was translating Robert Walser’s novel The Assistant, for which I was fortunate enough to receive a 2008 NEA grant, I devoted myself exclusively to that project (working long, frenetic hours – I was on deadline) and kept track of the time, so I can report that this 300 page book cost me five solid months of labor. If a 2013 NEA grant had been my sole income in that period, that would have come out to $2500/month before taxes or approximately $1667 netto. That covers “cheap” rent in NYC, and possibly gas and electricity too in some cases, but not internet, health insurance or food. Which means that – depending on location and living expenses – this year’s recipients may find themselves in a financial bind if they are hoping to work full time on their projects, unless they happen to have received larger-than-average advances from their publishers. But not all these projects have publishers, and the point of the NEA grant is to support literary translators regardless of whether or not they have already gotten their work placed and a contract signed.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anyone should ever complain (pace Thomas Bernhard) about receiving money to do something she loves. Obviously these fellowship recipients are much better off with the fellowship than they would be without it. But I really really want to ask the NEA: What happened? I see that the fellowship information page of the NEA website still states the award amount as $25,000/$12,500. Has the budget for fellowships for fiction writers and poets been slashed as well?

For the full press release and detailed information about this year’s fellowship recipients, see the NEA website. And here’s the roster of 2013 fellows:

• Dan Bellm (French) for Song of the Dead, a volume of poetry by Pierre Reverdy
• Daniel Brunet (German) for experimental plays by playwright Dea Loher
• Wendy Burk (Spanish) for Tedi López Mills’ eighth book of poems, Against the Current
• Sara E. Cooper (Spanish) for the novel, The Bleeding Wound, by Cuban writer Mirta Yáñez
• Daniel Coudriet (Spanish) for Argentinean writer Lila Zemborain’s collection of poems, Torn
• Deborah Garfinkle (Czech) for Worm-Eaten Time, a collection of poems by Pavel Šrut
• Christian Hawkey (German) for Ilse Aichinger’s collection of short fiction, Bad Words (This project is a collaboration with poet Uljana Wolf.)
• Lynne Lawner (Italian) for poems by Giorgio Orelli
• Rika Lesser (Swedish) for Elisabeth Rynell’s novel, Hohaj
• Sylvia Lichun Lin (Chinese) for The Lost Garden, a novel by Taiwanese author Li Ang
• Samuel Perry (Japanese) for Sata Ineko’s novel, Crimson
• John G. Peters (Japanese) for Journey, a collection of poetry by Takamura Kôtarô
• Matt Reeck (Urdu) for Paigham Afaqui’s novel, The House
• Katherine Silver (Spanish) for three works of contemporary fiction by the late Mexican writer Daniel Sada
• Johanna Warren (Spanish) for short fiction by contemporary Salvadoran author, Claudia Hernández
• Charles Waugh (Vietnamese) for an anthology of short fiction by young Vietnamese writers, New Voices from Vietnam (This project is a collaboration with Nguyen Lien, professor emeritus at Vietnam National University.)

Translating Childhood

I’m celebrating my birthday in Berlin this year – something I used to do all the time when it was part of my life rhythm to spend summers (all summer, every summer) here. Now the city is changing so much I hardly recognize parts of it, and it is full of Americans the way Prague used to be. In recent years, my life rhythm has changed, and now I generally come to Germany only when I have a specific occasion. The occasion this summer was being the 2012 recipient of the Calw Hermann Hesse Translation Prize, which included an invitation to participate in a prize ceremony held in Hesse’s birthplace in the Black Forest. Calw is lovely: a little jewel box of half-timbered houses, some of them old and real, some of them “nachempfunden” (“in the sentiment of,” i.e. copies). There are modern touches aplenty, but walking up and down the main drag – which doesn’t take long – definitely gives you a sense of what the town must have felt like a hundred or two hundred years ago. In Calw, Hesse is a major tourist attraction. The Hesse Museum has a large show of his watercolors up, some of which are quite beautiful. I was taken to see the room where Hesse was born by the building’s current owners, the family that runs the largest clothing store in town. Apparently German rock musician Udo Lindenberg likes to visit this room regularly to commune with Hesse’s spirit; I too sat for a few moments on Lindenberg’s chair. I was even invited to tea for an afternoon of reminiscences by the astonishing Frau Bodamer, daughter of Hesse’s favorite cousin,who visited Hesse several times in Montagnola as a young girl (and is now a girlish 96); the family resemblance is striking.

I asked every Calwer I met what he or she thought of Hesse’s work, and invariably I received the answer: “I loved him when I was young.” That’s just how it was with me as well. Last winter, when I was told I had been selected for this prize and would have to give a speech about Hesse in German, I thought back on the experience of translating Siddhartha, and realized that my entire relationship to Hesse was based on the fact that this book had meant everything to me at age thirteen. In my junior high school, it was one of the books the “cool kids” were passing around and reading, and since I wanted to be one of them (no, it didn’t work), I got hold of a copy and read it too. I might even have borrowed the book off one of my crushes, C.C., who spent much of that year limping around touchingly on a broken foot. But even apart from the external factors that made the book an object of desire, every line in it seemed designed to speak to the anguish and yearning known to roil the teenage heart. Siddhartha, the young man groping his way through life, trying out one thing after another in search of the perfect existence, perfect peace and perfect knowledge: nirvana – couldn’t we all live like that? I read his story thirstily, doggedly, infatuatedly. I sneaked a few pages under my desk during class. And my reading of the book became infused with all the hopes and fears that accompanied the first inklings of adulthood and its dangers and responsibilities (a classmate of ours got pregnant, for example, and we never saw her again).

Twenty-five years later, when I sat down to translate Siddhartha for Modern Library, all these long-forgotten feelings came flooding back, and several times I found myself weeping at the keyboard as I relived scene after deliciously fraught scene (Siddhartha’s despair, the death of Kamala, the final revelation). I could never have harbored such feelings for this book if I had first encountered it as an adult. But as an adult reader and translator I was able to arrive at a new appreciation of the novel, particularly after having learned more about the circumstances of its composition. Hesse began writing Siddhartha late in 1919, at a time when all of Europe was still reeling from the trauma of the Great War, which had decimated an entire generation of young men. His novel presents a fantasy diametrically opposed to the violence of war: a world in which young men have the leisure to seek out the paths best suited to them. And this is what so excited us in junior high school, at a point in our lives when we were all desperately weary of being told what to do but not yet ready to take on the responsibility for our own lives and learning. I spoke about these things on the stage of the town auditorium in Calw on Hesse’s birthday, July 2. It was a fancy prize ceremony, with local dignitaries galore, a cello ensemble, and an amazing Laudatio by Denis Scheck. You can read his words along with mine on the website of the Calw Hermann Hesse Foundation. Pictures of the ceremony are posted there too.

Submissions open for hotINK 2013

Here’s a heads-up for translators of international theater: The hotINK festival – which brings international playwrights and their plays to New York each year and presents them in English translation – is now accepting submissions for its 2013 festival, to be held from April 17 – 22 at the Lark Play Development Center. The 2012 festival, which I blogged about here, featured work by Nikolai Khalezin (Belarus), Ivan Dimitrov (Bulgaria), Suzie Bastien and Michael Mackenzie (Canada), Giorgos Neophytou (Cyprus), Jessica Cooke (Ireland), Aleksey Scherbak (Latvia), Taher Najib (Israel-Palestine), Linda McLean (Scotland) and Jean Tay (Singapore) and outstanding directors and actors from the New York theater, including Satya Bhabha, Reed Birney, Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Epstein, Joe Grifasi, Adam LeFevre, Lisa Peterson, Elizabeth Rich, Lisa Rothe, Deborah Rush, Jay O. Sanders, Giovanna Sardelli, Heidi Schreck, Sturgis Warner and Tamilla Woodard.

The 2012 festival also featured a collaboration with the PEN Translation Committee, which co-hosted a panel discussion with foreign playwrights and their translators. We are planning to continue the collaboration in 2013.

Playwrights selected for the 2013 festival will be flown to NYC and provided with accommodations thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation. For information on applying to participate, see the hotINK page on the Lark website. All applications must be received by October 15, 2012.


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