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.)

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