The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Writers from the Other Europe)

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A Champion of Literary Translation: On the Loss of Michael Henry Heim

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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.

Surprise Me!