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RIP Michael Henry Heim October 3, 2012

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings.

The translation industry lost another great recently. Michael Henry Heim was a well regarded scholar of Slavic languages at UCLA known for his translations of works by Gunter Grass, Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann and Anton Chekhov. He was 69 and died of cancer on September 29th. Fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbian/Croatian) and possessing a reading knowledge of six more, Heim had taught at UCLA since 1972 and served as chairman of the Slavic languages department from 1999 to 2003. Among his best-known translations are Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech original, Grass’ “My Century” and “Peeling the Onion” from German, a 2004 translation of Mann’s “Death in Venice” from German and a 1975 collection of Chekhov’s letters from Russian. I’ve been meaning to read “Peeling the Onion.” This might just be the prompting I need.

A lot of my friends and colleagues are posting their memories of him on the various listservs. I can’t say I’ve ever met him, but I’ve certainly heard of him. One of my colleagues posted this quote on one of the lsitservs. Andrei Codrescu, NPR Commentator and author of So Recently Rent a World: Selected Poems, 1968-2012/* wrote a really nice tribute for him:

I look at my bookshelves and I see Checkov, Kundera, Hrabal, Axyonov, Capek, Esterhazy, Brecht, Ugresic, all of them profound markers and cornerstones of my education, thinking, life, and work, and I feel an awesome gratitude to Michael Henry Heim for bringing them to me. The light that surrounds these books and the power that emanates from them is Michael’s work. Beyond my bookshelves, it is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20^th century’s spectacular end until now without his translations. Michael Henry Heim brought us worlds that are now a permanent, natural feature of how we conceive our creative, philosophical, and ethical landscape. There are other great translators, but Michael is a brilliant star among the best of the best. I personally feel that his marvelous American English made my own work feel at home in America. He “naturalized” me in a way that the official ceremony never could. He’s taken a great many readers, students, and statesmen,
not just writers, along on voyages of discovery that he made both less alien and necessary without compromising their “otherness.” His body of work has the integrity of any great humanist’s endeavour — it has a permanent living presence, a lasting authority.”

Most of my (and probably your) work will never be immortalized (except maybe this blog), so what a nice tribute to the man. He will live on in his works. RIP, Michael Henry Heim.



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