I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.
A recent 51-minute-long segment on The Diane Rehm Show about Orhan Pamuk’s new novel never once mentioned the name of the translator, Robert Finn. Rehm repeated several times that the book had just been translated into English, but she never said by whom.
The Los Angeles Times referred to the translation profession as “the small, unseen and largely unknown circle of men and women who translate the world’s literature into English…a low-paid job that’s also highly skilled and labor-intensive.”
It’s things like these that remind me of how much we still need Michael Henry Heim, even a month after his death.
When Heim died on September 29, Andrei Codrescu wrote: “It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20th century’s spectacular end until now without his translations.”
(I know that deaths tend to trigger the writing of many unreliable mini-hagiographies, but suspend disbelief for a moment, if you will. This is different. This is no hyperbole.)
Many know Heim’s translations of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but he was also a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UCLA, mentored graduate students and young translators, volunteered as a judge for a number of translation awards and prizes, and served as an expert reader for publishers on a number of languages.
Heim knew at least 10 languages (Czech, German, Italian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian — which is now four separate languages — Danish, Hungarian, Latin, Slovak, Romanian, and Spanish). Near the end of his life, he was learning Chinese. Esther Allen, a Baruch College professor, says he didn’t sleep as much as other people do. He’d get up at five in the morning most days to study his flashcards, and would review them just before going to bed each night.
Alongside all this, Heim was an activist and true champion of literary translation.
Heim was a man who literally seemed to have more hours in the day than the rest of us. He was someone who pushed for greater visibility of translation in the larger world of American letters, who supported and nurtured would-be translators with every free minute. The list of his activities is endless:
Heim organized a conference in Romania in 1999 for translators from each of the Eastern-bloc countries. The event successfully bridged post-Soviet fragmentation and encouraged the cross-translation of the literature of those countries.
Heim started the Babel Group at UCLA, which later morphed into the Graduate Student Translation Conference, an important biennial gathering of graduate students to discuss the “work, business and craft of translation.”
Heim and his wife Priscilla were the benefactors responsible for the PEN Translation Fund, donating $734,000 to launch the fund in 2003. Joshua Daniel Edwin, a poet-translator who received the grant this year, says it has been a “publicity beacon” for his work and has absolutely done what it set out to do, which is to encourage the publication of international literature in translation.
Heim worked with the Modern Language Association, the largest professional organization for scholars of language and literature, to write up a set of guidelines for how and why translation should be seen as relevant scholarly work in the context of academia and professors seeking tenure. Russell Valentino, the editor of The Iowa Review and Heim’s former student, called Heim a “staunch supporter of literary translation as a legitimate research activity.”
In the years before his death, Heim was talking to colleagues about setting up a foundation where best-selling English language writers whose work is translated into dozens of international languages would give a small portion of their proceeds for the translation of other works into English, a sort of way to redirect the flow and address the dearth of literature in translation published in the U.S.
The good thing is that we are in a more, as Heim called it, “proactive” phase in the history of literary translation, where there is increased visibility for translators and the number of published translations increases every year, especially with the proliferation of independent and small presses.
But we’ve just lost one of our true champions.
Next year, Open Letter Books will publish a composite biography of Heim entitled The Man Between. Allen, one of the contributors calls it “a sort of cubist perspective of Mike.” I can’t wait to read it.