Remembering A Great Literary Translator

Oct 16, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 6:06 pm
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If you've read the acclaimed novels "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" or "Death in Venice," and if you read them in English, you may have read a translation by Michael Henry Heim. Heim died late last month of cancer. He was 69 years old. He taught Slavic languages and literature at UCLA for 40 years.

And commentator Andrei Codrescu has this appreciation of Heim as a literary translator.

ANDREI CODRESCU, BYLINE: It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20th century and until now without Michael Henry Heim's translations of literature, from the Russian, Czech, German and Hungarian.

A voracious polyglot who could have written remarkable original fiction, Heim decided to apply his linguistic brilliance to the writings of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Kundera, Havel and those of my favorite novelist, the Czech, Bohumil Hrabal.

Michael Henry Heim died earlier this month at the age of 69. I only met him once, a few weeks before his premature death. He had just finished translating "Adventurers in Immediate Unreality," a book by a genius Romanian surrealist, Max Blecher, who died at the tender age of 29.

Max Blecher's minutely observed world is lit by an otherworldly beauty, by the knowledge perhaps of his impending demise. He's translated into English, Michael Henry Heim - who also knew that he wouldn't be around much longer - allowed his expressive best to shine through blackest prose.

Translation might seem a simple operation to some journeyman of the form. But great translators are rare. Gregory Rabassa, who brought us Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "100 Years of Solitude," Barbara Wright, the translator of Raymond Queneau, Michael Henry Heim - they're a constellation. The renderings of world literature into English are now a permanent feature of our creative, philosophical and ethical landscape.

When I read their books I forget that they are translations. And that's the way genuine culture travels. Even King James Bible is a translation, after all.

BLOCK: Translator Michael Henry Heim died last month. He was remembered by our commentator Andrei Codrescu, whose latest book is called "Bibliodeath: My Archives With Life In Footnotes." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.