Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012)
I’m really not sure how to write this post . . . I didn’t know Michael Henry Heim as well as a lot of other people, such as Esther Allen, Susan Bernofsky, Sean Cotter, and the like, but I did have a number of really amazing interactions with him, and his passing is incredible sad and hitting me pretty hard. We’re quickly organizing a number of events at ALTA to honor Mike, who was definitely one of the greatest translators ever (not a hyperbole), and whose kindness, brilliance, passion, and giving nature have impacted more people than can be named. Simply put, in ways explicit and secret, Michael Henry Heim accomplished more for international literature over the past half-century than probably anyone else in the world. (Read to the bottom for a truly newsworthy revelation. And yes, I know I’m burying the lede, but I have my reasons.)
First off, just look at this incomplete list of authors that Mike translated: Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kis, Karel Capek, Peter Esterhazy, Dubravka Ugresic, George Konrad, Bertold Brecht, Gunter Grass, and Anton Chekhov. Yes. All of them.
He also translated Hugo Claus’s Wonder, for which he received a great deal of praise and an award that led to this video filmed at the Flanders House:
I don’t have a complete list of awards here in front of me, but I know Mike also received the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize, the PEN Translation Award, and definitely some NEA fellowships at some point in time. I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that Mike’s translations are among the best ever written. He was a true master.
And part of the reason he was so, so good, was he natural affinity for learning languages, and the curiosity that kept him motivated to continue exploring words and languages and literatures right up to the end. According to this interview, in which Mike explains his system for learning languages, he claims to know ten.
CWL: I’m here with Michael Heim, who is a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA, and is a well known literary translator and an exemplary language learner. So, I guess I’d like to start by asking you, could you tell us how many languages you know?
Michael Heim: The answer is no and I’m not trying to be coy. It’s just that the concept of what is a language changes with the historical situation. I started learning a language about 25 years ago – a language that was then called Serbo-Croatian, and it’s now called Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. So did I learn four for the price of one, or is it still only one? That’s an ideological question; a more linguistic question is whether you can consider the three Scandinavian languages as one. I studied Danish but I went the extra mile to learn how to read Norwegian and Swedish as well, but I can’t speak Norwegian and Swedish. I don’t know if there is anybody who can speak all three of them, because they are very very close, so it’s not actually clear. I say that I work actively with about ten languages, and when I mean actively, I mean that I use them professionally.
I think he’s actually hiding the truth behind the word “professionally” and that he “knew” at least 16. One of the last times I spent a lot of time with Mike was on a flight to Salzburg for a seminar on translation. At the time he was learning Chinese by translating a book. Seriously, one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met.
I loved being on panels with MHH. For a moderator, there’s a comfort in knowing that you’re sitting beside someone who loves to share what he/she knows, and can do so in a way that’s entertaining and engaging. Mike was very much that type of person. And one who was always extremely well prepared and could blow your mind with the his most passing of comments.
Once we were on a panel together at the Goethe Institut in Chicago to talk about Gunter Grass. I had mentioned ahead of time that I loved his translation of My Century because of the way each section of the book—one for each year in the century—was written in its own distinct voice, which shifted in dialect and vocab throughout the novel. At the event itself (which sadly is not available online), Michael presented a whole speech on how a translator can invent dialects for translation and thus avoid the trap of relying on Southern or black speech patterns—the two most “obvious” dialects in America. I remember sitting there stunned at how effortlessly he explained solutions to a seemingly insolvable problem, and honored by the fact that I was sharing a table with this genius.
There’s so much more to say about him . . . The first time I met Mike was in Los Angeles at a reading at the now defunct Dutton’s Books. He had told me to “look for the guy who looks like Abraham Lincoln.” So I spent a few minutes searching for a man in a stovetop hat until this person walked in, smiling . . . He always seemed to be smiling:
After the reading, Michael and Priscilla took me back to their house for a lovely dinner, and hours of fantastic conversation. I loved looking through his bookshelves, talking about how he came to be a translator, looking at his office, which was overrun with projects and paper . . .
If you’re ever around a group of translators, you should mention MHH’s name just to see everyone’s face light up and hear all the gushing praise. During his time at UCLA—and his time as an active member of the translation community—he mentored and worked with everyone. I feel like the list of translators indebted to him could take up a post by itself. Translators AND publishers. This ALTA is going to be one massive love fest, which, undoubtedly, would make Mike nervous, since he was such a humble person.
For example—and this is the lede I intentionally buried because I wanted to wax rhapsodic about MHH and his life, works, etc., and didn’t want you jumping past all that—Michael Henry Heim is the secret donor behind the PEN Translation Fund. In 2003, Michael set up a meeting with Esther Allen, and donated $734,000 to establish the Translation Fund—a fund that provides approx. 12 translators a year with $3,000+ grants to work on their projects. (So add all of these recipients, applicants, editors, and the like to the growing list of people whose lives were touched by Mike.)
Until today, the source of this money has been kept a secret, but upon his passing, his wife agreed that this is the right time to share the information with the world. It MUST be noted though that there was no rich uncle, or stock market killing that made this gift possible. Michael’s Hungarian father was a soldier for the U.S. in WWII and the money the family received when he died was set aside untouched for 60 years. During that time, Priscilla and Michael lived a simple, frugal life, adding to the fund when they could, and then giving the whole gift to help future generations of translators share their gifts and passions with the world. And to help prod publishers into doing more to recognize and celebrate literature in translation.
[I’m literally crying right now. I’ve been working on this on-and-off all day, arguing at ALTA people, stressing about the conference, and repressing the fact that Michael’s death is extremely sad and that I may never meet anyone this amazing, this giving, this selfless again my life.]
One last note: Sometime next year, Open Letter will be publishing The Man Between, a book about Michael Henry Heim. It will contain bits of his autobiography, which was published in Romania, along with texts he used in teaching his translation classes, bits of correspondence with famous authors he translated, and essays from some of his literary admirers.
You can read a bit of the “autobiography” section online at The Iowa Review. And please feel free to share your own thoughts, comments, and stories about Mike there at TIR or in the comments below. For everyone who ever came in contact with him, this is a terrible loss, and I’m sure most all of us will want to reminisce. And we’ll definitely raise a toast to him at ALTA. This week, translation lost one of its all-time greats.