First time grant applicants: Start now.

A few notes about the application process for the NEA literature in translation fellowship, especially for first-time applicants, as I was right up until last night at 10 pm.

Believe people when they tell you to get an early start! The variety of information required makes it hard to get everything together — plus polish your translation sample — in a short period of time. I gave myself almost three weeks, from just before Thanksgiving for a December 6th deadline; I was starting with a descriptive essay and a sample translation left over from a PEN/Heim application, and I still felt like I was cutting it close (well, I didn’t just feel like it, I was).

It doesn’t matter what part of the application you start working on, but you need to read the guidelines and get a sense of the scope of materials you need. You might even want to take a look now. Especially if you do not have an ongoing relationship with your author or if you are dealing with a rights-holder that/who is not as invested as you are, you’ll need extra time to get the rights statement and compile an author biography and resume. It can be like pulling teeth even with the best relationships. And if you have never written a grant or have never written a grant involving this author, you need extra time. You are basically writing a monograph or term paper about the author and the text you are proposing. Also read the project review criteria, it’s a good anchor for when you are wondering what to include and omit from your application.

Register at to see what the site is like, click around. And go back again within 60 days of the grant deadline to make sure you can still log on. They make you change your password every 60 days, and you don’t want to be fooling around with changing a password at 11 pm before a midnight cut-off. I logged on the day before I intended to submit just to make sure I still could.

Before you get started, view or download the list of recent awards in the grant program you are applying for. It’s a spreadsheet with year of grant, grantee name, city/state, start and end dates, amount, project description (one sentence) and additional description (longer). There are a few things you can do with this information:

  1. See if there’s anyone you know on the list and send a quick e-mail asking if it would be OK to contact them with questions as you put your application together. You might not need their assistance later, but it’s always easier to ask when you don’t need something urgently. Don’t forget to congratulate them on their award and ask them how the project is going if the grant was recent.
  2. You can’t sort the entries by language (unless you add a column and extract that information yourself), but you can use the ‘find’ function to see the awards given for translations from your language and country of origin. If you do this before you’ve got your heart set on a project, you will have time to shift gears if your project looks too much like a recent or past award (same author, same corpus of work, same historical period). You want to be sure when you say “this is the first X to be translated into English” that someone hasn’t beat you to it. Also, go back to the review criteria to see how the awarded projects addressed those criteria in their descriptions.
  3. Most important for me was reading the project descriptions. When I wrote my description, I was focusing only on the plot of the play — it did not occur to me to include information about awards, context, social relevance… But after reading past descriptions, I had a better sense of what I needed to include for a more compelling and complete short description. By the way, from trial and error I can tell you that the form has a 1,000 character limit. The way I write, that’s about 165 words.
  4. If you do find a grant related to what you are working on, now you have a potential source of information for writing your own grant. Perhaps the awarded translator has published about her project — those articles can provide a starting point for your own research, either background or references you can follow up on. You might have a completely different take on the work, and it would be good to be aware that you are contradicting the views of a past award-winner.

Once you start preparing your files, even if you don’t have any questions, read the FAQ for the application. I realized from a few that I was thinking about things the wrong way. For instance, I listed a bunch of publications on the eligibility page (Attachment 3), but I read in the FAQ, “please don’t” — include only as many publications as will establish eligibility, whether that is one book at 120 pages or 10 journal articles at 2 pages each.

Another mundane piece of advice — pay attention to file sizes. This year’s instructions limited any one attachment to 2MB. If you’re working from a scanned original document, like book pages, where you don’t have access to the original itself and can’t scan it again at lower resolution, you might have to figure out how to reduce the file size of what you do have. There is an option under the Document tab in Adobe Acrobat called “reduce file size” — you can run it repeatedly, but make sure you’re not creating an illegible original. And need I say you should make a copy to work with?

Some odds and ends I had questions about but didn’t see instructions for on the site. I called the day of the deadline and expected some finger-wagging, but the person who answered didn’t sound frazzled or lecture me at all.

  1. Each section of the narrative (Attachment 2) needs a header with the section number. I only found out when I called to ask if headers were a good idea. As I understand it, that means a header with the file name on the left (in my case GordonNarrative) and the section number and page number (e.g., Section1: Translator’s resume, p. 1 of 3) on the right. What that means to me is that if you don’t know how to work with section breaks in Word, you are better off keeping all your sections as separate documents, then you can create PDFs from each one and compile them into one PDF document at the end.
  2. For sections that do not pertain to you, it’s OK to either skip them or to include a blank page with, for instance, “2. Information about collaboration: N/A, this project is not a collaboration,” at the top of the page. I called to ask about this and the person who helped me suggested including a sentence of explanation, so this was my solution (instead of just “N/A”). I included the blank pages for sections 2 (collaboration) and 5 (retranslation), but not for 9 (flawed translation if your project is a retranslation), which comes at the very end.
  3. It’s fine, and even preferred, to insert your original text in landscape orientation if that’s how the scan was done. No one wants to have to read sideways on a computer monitor, and the cardinal rule of grant applications is “don’t annoy the reviewers.”
  4. Because the Library of Congress entry for the book I was using to establish eligibility does not list me as the translator (that’s another blog post!), I asked if I should attach the copyright page of the book itself. I was told that I didn’t have to but that I could. In other words, I wouldn’t get dinged for providing more information than strictly necessary (the guy read my mind!) I went ahead and attached it, with a short explanation.
  5. It is not necessary to change the name of the PDF application form itself. I added “_Gordon” at the end anyway. I did not have a problem with the submission process, so I guess it’s OK to do it.

I grumbled the whole way through the application process. Wouldn’t my time be better spent translating? But (and this is another piece of advice), after giving my draft description to someone else to read and critique (do this, possibly multiple people and multiple times, and definitely not at the last minute!), I realized how important it is to be able to talk about your work and get other people excited about it. Unless we are translating purely for our own enjoyment, without wishing to share our work or the author’s work with others, we are not done when the translation is done. In fact, it seems to me that translating is the easy part. Then we have to find a publisher or reviewer, or place the book in bookstores, or sell copies of the book; or for me, find someone to direct the play or produce the play or publish the play, not to mention attend a performance of the play! We can translate something in, say, six months to a year, but we will be promoting that thing for, potentially, the rest of our lives. We better have something to say about it.

So I say start early, and build in time to think, because only after starting do you realize (1) how much you care about the work, (2) how much you want to say about it because you care so much, and (3) how hard it is to edit your own writing to fit into the two-page limit. At least that was my experience.

For more advice, see this summary of a meeting of DC-Area Literary Translators:, in which Katherine Young, winner of a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) translation fellowship, Lara Vergnaud, recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Grant and a 2015 French Voices Grant, and Tanya Paperny, recipient of translation fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Ledig House, discussed their respective awards and gave advice on applying.


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