Book Review: “The Man Between” — Homage to a Translator Extraordinaire

The Man Between not only offers a fascinating glimpse of Michael Henry Heim, its reportedly modest and reticent protagonist, but of translators themselves — the invaluable but often invisible men and women in today’s literary marketplace.

The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation, Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino, eds. Open Letter, 313 pages, $12.95.

By Helen Epstein


The Man Between, an intriguing, informative, and often moving collection of wildly unequal pieces includes a long Paris Review-style interview of the late American translator Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012); a speech by the translator; various tributes and essays; and a poem. This unusual volume not only looks at a beloved and singular academic, but also explores his translations, teaching, and influence on current translation practice; his activism on behalf of international literary exchange; and the current state and history of Translation Studies, the discipline that Heim was instrumental in shaping. Throughout, The Man Between not only offers a fascinating glimpse of its reportedly modest and reticent protagonist, but of translators themselves — the invaluable but often invisible men and women in today’s literary marketplace.

A polymath: writer, linguist, teacher, scholar, musician, compulsive recycler, and secret benefactor as well as translator, Heim taught in UCLA’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures for 40 years. He published his first book of translation from the Russian, Letters of Anton Chekhov, in 1973; his last, Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Unreality, from the Roumanian, will be published in 2015. He spoke 12 languages and translated into English from eight: Czech, German, Russian, Dutch, Croatian, Danish, Spanish and Hungarian, including the novels of Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Mann, and Péter Esterházy.

In his introduction to The Man Between, Sean Cotter points out that unlike authors, translators are rarely the object of readers’ curiosity, even as the translation has shifted “from a domain of language training and linguistics (the field of [Heim’s] graduate work) to comparative literature, cultural studies, and creative writing.” Heim essentially created Central European literature in English, Cotter contends, “giving us not only the texts but also the notion that these books from disparate languages formed a whole.” As an educator, Heim instituted one of the first workshops in literary translation and developed a translator training method that produced not applied linguists, but writers. He also donated (anonymously) nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to PEN to further translation in the U.S.

This collection is not a festschrift: that academic volume of essays, Between Texts, Languages, and Cultures (Slavica Publishing), was published in 2008. The Man Between is something else, an assortment of highly personal texts by Heim’s colleagues, students, and friends. Perhaps the most interesting is the set of interviews. They were conducted during a conference in Timisoara, Roumania in 1998 by four interlocutors, each asking questions in a different language. These were published in Roumanian as Un Babel ferict (A Happy Babel in 1999, then translated back into English, edited and rewritten by Heim, then excerpted by Sean Cotter).

Reading the interview questions and the then-55-year-old Heim’s answers, one is struck by how unlikely a candidate for his eventual career Heim appeared. “I was more or less a typical American,” he describes himself at 17. “I was extremely naïve. I had never been outside the U.S. and knew nothing of the world. It was 1960. I had just finished high school, a public high school in the semi-rural borough of Staten Island…”


Piecing together a biography out of the choppy excerpts, we learn that the translator’s father, Imre Heim, was the son of Hungarian Catholic bakers who studied piano with Béla Bartók at the Royal Conservatory in Budapest. He arrived in New York in 1939 — not as a refugee musician, but as a pastry chef for the Hungarian Pavilion of the World’s Fair. Next, or concurrently, he became piano teacher to Blanche, the young Jewish copywriter, reader, and avid tennis player who married him. Imre Heim then joined the Army and became a U.S. citizen. Michael was born during the war. After it ended, the Heims moved to Hollywood where Imre wrote music for the movies and died of cancer when his son was four. His mother remarried and moved with her second husband to Staten Island, where, every Saturday, Mike took the ferry to Juilliard Prep for piano and clarinet lessons.

As I read this rich but fragmentary material, I wished for a more complete narrative than Heim and his interviewers provide, especially about his academic choices. Heim says/writes he wound up as an undergrad at Columbia University “only” because he wanted to continue his music studies at Juilliard. He says he majored in Oriental Civilization because he liked reading and music too much to study them: “You shouldn’t make something you like into your job, or so I thought.” He took two years of Chinese but then, unable to travel to “Red China,” he followed the advice of his advisor, who said if he added a second Cold War language, Russian, he would never be out of a job. He says nothing about the influence of studying with Gregory Rabassa (translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) or why he decided to study linguistics with Roman Jakobson, and its impossible to know whether that information was cut out somewhere along the line or whether no one ever asked.

By the time Heim arrived at Harvard to study linguists with Jacobson, he had acquired French and German, Spanish (studied with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ translator, Gregory Rabassa), Chinese and Russian but soon was lured into studying Czech with Jakobson’s ex-wife (who is not named). In 1971 he received his doctoral degree in Slavic Languages and Literature. He apparently went straight from Harvard to UCLA.

“I should explain something.” Heim told his interviewers in Timisoara. “In America, there is no such thing as a professional translator. Of course there are people who translate mechanical manuals and the like. But there is no job as a literary translator. You can’t make a living at it. So everyone has to have another profession as well. I am a university professor. Everything I translate, I do in my free time.” Sometimes, Heim explains, he can’t translate for five or six months at a time because he’s too busy with lectures and dissertations. “What you say is very important to a student, it’s his life in there. When I work on dissertations, I do nothing else. In the summer, I have some peace and quiet, and I work well. This is why I travel so little. I stay put and translate. People say to me ‘but you made a lot of money off of Kundera.’ I tell them quietly that I didn’t make anything…The translator receives a modest sum from the publisher..”

It was, therefore, a surprise when, after Heim’s death in 2012, his widow revealed he had been the anonymous donor of the largest single donation ever received by PEN. It set up a Translation Fund that provides approximately 12 translators a year with $3,000-plus grants to support their projects.

Editor Esther Allen writes about meeting Heim for the first time at the PEN American Center when he proposed that astounding gift. Heim had worked for PEN and other grant-awarding organizations for decades and, when he asked to meet with her, Allen was not expecting anything unusual. “He got straight to the point,” she writes. “He was concerned about the paucity of literary translation into English and admired the various initiatives PEN’s Translation Committee had taken to address that situation. Accordingly he and and his wife Priscilla had decided to donate $500,000 to establish a fund at PEN to support literary translation into English…He said this in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, with a hint of embarrassment.”

“My mind went blank. The PEN staffers weren’t entirely sure they’d understood. He had to repeat himself. There was, he quickly added, one stipulation: the donation was to be absolutely anonymous.…” Since he assumed they were wondering how a professor and his wife could afford such a donation, he explained that the U.S. government had paid his mother a death benefit when his father died due to a military accident at a military base: “Mike had inherited the award and at 60 wanted to donate it. He hadn’t paid attention to the money over the years and it had grown to $734,000.”

Photo: Bernard Heim

Michael henry Heim — “Without translators we would be shut off from whole continents of great literature.” Photo: Bernard Heim.

Several of the contributors to The Man Between make reference to Heim’s generosity as well as his frugal habits and the fact that, like the waste paper collector in Hrabal’s Too Loud A Solitude and the garbageman in Ivan Klima’s Love and Garbage, he picked up refuse every day. Assiduously recycling, he walked to and through UCLA for three decades with garbage bags, picking up cans and empty bottles, sometimes 60-70 per day.

In her essay, Michelle Woods looks at Heim’s affinity to Czech writers and his translations of Hrabal and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, mixing shop talk and publishing gossip with some chapter and verse from the Czech and English texts. One of book’s highlights comes from novelist and fellow translation teacher Maureen Freel, who talked to Heim once, over Skype, shortly before he died of complications from melanoma. She had stepped in to substitute for him at a four-day translation course in Yorkshire, England. He gave her no hint of how ill he was and she took extensive notes as he coached her on how to conduct the workshop.

In “On Literary Translation in the Classroom,” Freel notes that Heim encouraged workshop students to translate from whatever language they wished, to read out their translated texts in class, and to ask their classmates to mark “any word, phrase or sentence that jumped out at them” for discussion. Heim would let them discuss those for a while and then join in with a talk about “what he called “principles” rather than “rules.”

His over-riding principle, Freel writes, was that “languages have a genius of their own – something that makes them different from other languages. He taught students to pay attention to rhythm. Think about register, tense, punctuation, concison, logic, and always allow space for the imagination.”

“Above all they should understand the importance of translation,” Heim told her. “Without translators we would be shut off from whole continents of great literature.”

A practioner rather than theorist, Heim was often asked whether he ever thought of writing his own books. His answer was no: “There are so many wonderful books that need to be translated, and this is what I know how to do best. – I’m not being modest, just honest. …I prefer to work on those books that I already know can change people’s lives.”

Time for someone to write his.

Helen Epstein is the translator from the Czech of Under A Cruel Star by Heda Kovály and Acting in Terezin by Vlasta Schonova.


  1. Gerald Peary on January 22, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Thanks for such an interesting, illuminating review. I never knew about Heim, the man between me and the extraordinary translation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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