The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation

The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation


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When Michael Henry Heim—one of the most respected translators of his generation—passed away in the fall of 2012, he left behind an astounding legacy. Over his career, he translated over sixty works from more than eight different languages, including books by Milan Kundera, Dubravka Ugresic, Hugo Claus, and Anton Chekov.

But Mike, as he was known to his legion of friends, was much more than that. His classes at UCLA on translation inspired a new generation of translators, and his work altering the way translation is viewed in the university will impact the livelihood of translators for decades to come.

If that weren't enough, upon his death it was revealed that Heim was the anonymous donor responsible for the PEN Translation Fund—the largest fund in America supporting up-and-coming translators.

Hundreds of people in the literary community were impacted by Heim's life and actions, and this book is a small way of honoring this quiet, humble man who, among many other things, is responsible for the title The Unbearable Lightness of Being (and all its variants) entering the English idiom.

Comprising a number of different sections—a short autobiography, pieces from authors he worked with, essays detailing his impact on literary culture—The Man Between opens a window onto the life and teachings of Michael Henry Heim, and, similar to David Bellos's Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, will be of great interest to anyone interested in language, international culture, and the art of translation.

Esther Allen translates from Spanish and French and has worked to promote a culture of translation in the English-speaking world, most notably by directing the PEN Translation Fund from 2003 to 2010 and helping launch the PEN World Voices Festival.

Sean Cotter teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas and translates Romanian poetry and fiction, including Nichita Stanescu's Wheel with a Single Spoke for which he received the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Russell Scott Valentino is the current president of the American Literary Translators Association. He is also a professor at Indiana University, a translator, and the founder of Autumn Hill Books. He previously ran the Iowa Review.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781940953007
Publisher: Open Letter
Publication date: 10/07/2014
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Esther Allen translates from Spanish and French and has worked to promote a culture of translation in the English-speaking world, most notably by directing the PEN Translation Fund from 2003 to 2010 and helping launch the PEN World Voices Festival.

Sean Cotter teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas and translates Romanian poetry and fiction, including Nichita Stanescu's Wheel with a Single Spoke for which he received the 2013 Best Translated Book Award.

Russell Scott Valentino is the current president of the American Literary Translators Association. He is also a professor at Indiana University, a translator, and the founder of Autumn Hill Books. He previously ran the Iowa Review.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction by Sean Cotter

Michael Henry Heim translated, taught translation, and advocated for professional and academic translators. He understood translation deeply and his work encompassed translation broadly, making him a central figure for late twentieth-century literature and translation studies. Any route to understanding the contemporary position of translation in the United States must pass through his life and work. He mastered a mystifyingly large number of languages, from Czech and Russian to Croatian, Dutch, Danish, Spanish, and Hungarian. As the translator of writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Mann, and Péter Esterházy, Heim created Central European literature in English, giving us not only the texts but also the notion that these books from disparate languages formed a whole. Heim instituted one of the first workshops in literary translation and developed a translator training method that produced not applied linguists, but writers. He advanced translator training at the same time that he improved the working conditions for translators, by arguing for the status of translation as academic scholarship, lobby­ing publishers to produce translations, and endowing a fund to support translation projects. It is difficult to imagine a translator’s life more dedicated or successful. This collection is a biography and appreciation, a portrait of a man between languages who expanded the possibilities of a life in translation.

The collection demonstrates this range of possibility in its form. Rather than a single-author biography, our book is a composite, a thick description of Heim’s career from both his own perspective and those of the many authors, translators, and publishers whose work he affected. By placing one version of Heim’s influence alongside another, our approach to biography resembles the way we might compare a translation to an original, in order to see the translator’s work come to light in the space between. Heim ranged across many domains and is important to many people. The collection of voices in this volume, therefore, is modeled on Heim’s own definition of translation. “A good translation,” he stated, “will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it.” He emphasizes not narrow textual questions but the beginning of a dialog, the international community of readers a translation creates. Anyone who met Heim would recognize in this definition his characteristic, expansive generosity, a movement toward inclusion. This collection is not a Festschrift, but a conversation. This collection emulates both his translation practice and his generosity, by telling his story in many voices, which come from the many areas where Heim made translation important.

Heim’s work was dedicated to improving our practice and understanding of translation, and a book dedicated to him allows us to improve the field of Translation Studies. A focus on the complex constitution of a translator has been lacking from the wave of interest in translation that began in the 1970s and swelled in the past two decades. Heim was a part of this wave, which shifted translation from a domain of language training and linguistics (the field of his graduate work) to comparative literature, cultural studies, and creative writing. The first two fields, in particular, have become allergic to biographical approaches. Works such as Siting Translation by Tejaswini Niranjana, The Practice of Diaspora by Brent Hayes Edwards, or The Translator’s Invisibility by Lawrence Venuti have documented the roles translators play in resistance to colonial and patriarchal power structures, networks of cultural exchange, or challenges to the primacy of authorship, while focusing overwhelmingly on the power structure, network, or signature, at the expense of the translator figure. Emblematic of this elision is Paul de Man’s 1983 definition: “the relationship of translator to the original is the relationship between language and language.” The equation of the translator and language is an indication of Translation Studies’ lagging attachment to its roots in structural linguistics. In the same way that Saussure’s sign gains meaning only within the context of a larger language system, the translator has been appreciated as an element within these power networks. Only recently have studies addressed “the great scandal of translation” that Gayatri Spivak identifies as “the obliteration of the figure of the translator.” A more humanist approach should ask how a life endows a person with the complex set of skills literary translation requires, and in what ways might a person live through translation? Although some new works have come to this human focus—such as the collection Barbara Wright: Translation as Art, edited by Debra Kelly and Madeleine Renouard, or Iliya Troyanov’s fictional biography of Richard Burton, The Collector of Worlds, or even the documentary films Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s (by Alan Berliner) or Nurith Aviv’s Traduire, or Vadim Jendreyko’s Woman with the Five Elephants, about Svetlana Geier, translator of Dostoyevsky into German—translators’ lives rarely receive more than a portrait, not a book-length study.

Even this intellectual context, however, has not diminished our interest in the author biography. Translators lag behind our longstanding interest in authors, who seem more creative and more miraculous than a person who, we might naïvely think, simply copies a creative work down in another language. The author’s life promises the key to unlock his works. “Ultimately what the biographer seeks to elicit,” writes Richard Ellmann in his landmark Golden Codgers, “is less the events of a writer’s life than the ‘mysterious armature,’ as Mallarmé called it, which binds the creative work.” Yet even Ellmann’s translation of Mallarmé in this passage relies on a definition of “armature” as “skeleton,” which appears in English only in 1903, five years after the poet’s death. Earlier uses of the word refer to defensive “armament,” an exoskeleton. What mendicant French sculptor translated this new definition into English, shifting the skeleton from outside to in? It is only thanks to that translator that the armature is hidden from view and becomes mysterious. If creation is mysterious, surely recreation is even more so. The translator’s life binds together not one work, but two. The mystery of creation meets the impossible act of translating, a doubly improbable transfer of a text into a foreign system. The Man Between enables us better to imagine the translator who lives between works, erecting the armature that binds a creative work to another work in a different language.

Part of the significance of Heim and his work lies in the confluence of two key cultural events of the second half of the twentieth century: the great wave of literature translated from Central European languages and the rise of literary translation within the American academy. Heim is at the center of both of these broad shifts in our collective attention, similar changes in the value we place on “minor” countries and a “secondary” literary practice. This connection is far from accidental, Harish Trivedi has argued, since the transformations of literature wrought by Central European texts were a driving force behind the deeper consideration of translation.

As is still the norm today, Heim studied Czech only as a “second Slavic” language, as part of his doctoral work on Russian linguistics. But on travelling to Czechoslovakia in 1965, he found a culture so lively and attractive that he decided to make it his specialty, and he returned to Prague just three years later, without knowing he would land in the midst of the 1968 Soviet invasion. As Heim recalls in this book, the Soviet soldiers did not know Czech (the Latin alphabet led some to believe they were in Romania), and few Czechs knew Russian. Thanks to the structure of American Slavic studies, the young American scholar was in high demand; he traveled the city, interpreting between the soldiers and Czech people. In the end, he was featured on German television. It is a typical Heim story: an amazing performance in three languages, none of them English.

The United States experienced a rush of interest in Central and East European literature following the Prague Spring, an interest prefigured by the wave of new Czech films and a growing counter-cultural interest in the United States for works from other countries. Unlike the contemporaneous Latin American Boom, the Central European wave featured exceptional diversity in its original languages: a list of mutually unintelligible Slavic languages, as well as several other language families (in the case of Hungarian, German, Romanian, and Albanian). Heim’s competence in so many disparate languages is stunning. While there were languages he did not cover (such as Albanian, Polish, Bulgarian, and Slovene), he made do with Czech, French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Slovak, Russian, and what was then called Serbo-Croatian. It is no wonder to read in Michelle Woods’s essay that in this moment, when presses were searching for translators of East European literature, Heim appeared to Knopf as “the genius fallen from the sky.”

A leader of his generation, Heim brought a library of Central European texts into English. Perhaps best known as the translator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he also translated, from Czech alone, three other books by Kundera, three by Bohumil Hrabal, and more from Karel Capek, Jan Neruda, and Josef Hiršal. Then there are the dozens of translations from other languages, including, from the Serbian, two books by Danilo Kiš, Miloš Crnjanski’s Migrations, and Aleksandar Tišma’s The Book of Blam; from the Russian, a book of Chekhov’s major plays and a selection of Chekhov’s correspondence, as well as one novel and one book of prose nonfiction by Vasily Aksyonov; from the German, plays by Bertolt Brecht, a prize-winning retranslation of Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, a best-selling book on mathematics by Hans Magnus Enzensberger (whose math he corrected), and Günter Grass’s memoir My Century, to choose only a few titles from his much longer bibliography. His achievement brings to mind T. S. Eliot’s description of Ezra Pound, whom he called “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.” By bringing works from a host of languages into a single language, English, Heim created a textual Central Europe that otherwise existed only in the imaginations of writers separated by their languages. The idea of a cultural zone, drawing on its Austro-Hungarian connection, took shape in English translation. Long before Kundera, in “The Tragedy of Central Europe,” lamented the fact that “the West looks at Central Europe and sees only Eastern Europe,” Heim had created the body of imaginative works that enabled Kundera’s English-language readers to understand his point.

But Heim did more for readers of this region than pave the way for this landmark essay. Heim was on the board of Cross Currents, the journal that published critical essays and original work by Kundera and many others, creating yet another version of Central Europe in English, yet another community in translation. Cross Currents brought together defining cultural figures—Czeslaw Milosz, Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, Joseph Brodsky, Susan Sontag—from both sides of the West/East cultural divide. His work for this journal was followed by his tenure on the board of Northwestern University Press, which published many significant works from Central Europe in translation, with an important emphasis on new work after the historic events of 1989. He worked to expand yet another journal, East European Politics and Societies, to include the arts and literary culture. He was the founder of the Association for the Translation of Central European Literatures, which paired native speakers of English and Central European languages in a systematic attempt to evaluate the existing works and to initiate needed translations. This list of involvement follows a pattern: Heim worked not only on translations but also on the publishing systems in which translations moved. Far more than books, then, is the translation oeuvre of Michael Heim. He labored to create a translation culture.

Table of Contents

Introduction Sean Cotter vii

I The Man

A Happy Babel Michael Henry Heim Sean Cotter 3

The Three Eras of Modern Translation Michael Henry Heim Esther Allen 86

Bibliography Esther Allen 97

II Community

The Master and His Pets Dubravka Ugrešic David Williams 107

My Friend Mike Henning Andersen 116

From Mike to Mike Michael Flier 120

Bled - Paris - Shanghai - Salzburg - Oslo: Meetings with Michael Bente Christensen 128

Michael Henry Heim, a UK Perspective Celia Hawkesworth 133

Two Essays and a Poem for Michael Heim Andrei Codrescu 137

Remembering Michael Henry Heim Rosanna Warren 142

III Impact

New Frontiers for Translation in the Twenty-First Century: The Globe, the Market, the Field Russell Scott Valentino 149

Michael Henry Heim and Collegial Translation Andrzej Tymowski 166

Michael Henry Heim: On Literary Translation in the Classroom Maureen Freely 180

Translation and All That Palaver: Michael Henry Heim, Milan Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal Michelle Woods 190

O Pioneer! Michael Henry Heim and the Politics of Czech Literature in English Translation Alex Zucker 215

The Un-X-Able Y-Ness of Z-Ing (Q): A List with notes Sean Cotter 226

The Lives of the Translators Breon Mitchell 250

Michael Henry Heim: A Theory Esther Allen 270

Contributors 311

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