The Green Integer Blog supplements our Green Integer website with essays on various cultural topics by editor/publisher Douglas Messerli, along with a listing of Green Integer titles and information on our new books. Please note that all essays and commentary are copyrighted by the author, Douglas Messerli, and may not be republished without permission.
I knew that my friend Michael Heim was dying of cancer, I was still shocked to
hear of his death, at the age of 69, on September 29, 2012.
I don’t remember where I first met
Michael, most likely at a party by my former mentor and dear friend, Marjorie
Perloff. What I do remember is that as a scholar and major literary translator,
Michael immediately attracted me, since my publishing houses—both Sun &
Moon Press and Green Integer—featured international literature in translation;
and we soon became good friends, Michael inviting me to be the lead speaker at
one of his UCLA translation seminars. These seminars, held in the summer,
invited major translators from around the country to gather for a few weeks,
where they shared—translated from many languages—works they had translated or
were currently working on, receiving from their fellow colleagues and a man who
spoke and translated from many languages, critical advice and affirmation.
I bravely proffered an introduction from
one of volume 4 of my ongoing Anthology
of World Poetry of the 20th Century, advocating and defending
the publication of international works*, which received a great deal of response
from young translators in search of possible publication. After all, both my
presses had perhaps published more translations than any American press in
those days, with the exception of Dalkey Archive. Many of our publications,
moreover, had received awards for translation, and I had received an award as
publisher from the American Translator’s Association. My good friend, Suzanne
Jill Levine, translator of Spanish-language literature, was also a guest
speaker, and followed my introductory speech.
That event, led, through my introduction
to Efrain Kristal, to a two-semester teaching position at UCLA in the
Comparative Literature Department—an experience I thoroughly enjoyed—and which
further resulted in my teaching two courses in the UCLA Scandinavian Department
in later semesters.
Michael, born in New York City in 1943,
the son of a Hungarian immigrant father (who studied music under Béla Bartük)
was the kind of person who naturally nurtures. But he was also an imposing
figure, somewhat conservative in the world of open-minded translators, who
graduated from Columbia with a degree in Oriental Studies before gaining a
Harvard degree in Slavic languages and literature. Along with French, Spanish,
German, and Russian, Heim later expanded his linguistic abilities to include
Czech, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Hungarian,
Italian, Latin, and Romanian! And his translations, from several of these
languages, were brilliant. When Nobel Prize-winning writer Günter Grass lost
his long-time translator, he invited 15 world-wide translators to come
together; Heim was selected to translate his book, My Century. Heim also translated major works by Milan Kundera, Hugo
Claus and numerous others. For me, he translated only one poem (without any
remuneration), an original work sent to me by the Czech poet Miroslav Holub.
His stern vision of the original text
differed a bit from my own commitment to present a text that, while true to the
original, in part, had to be recreated into the translated language:
The postmodern stance is that
the translator creates a new work.
That’s where I disagree. I
believe that the translator is a creator,
But I’m not sure that I’d want
to create a new work. I would like
as much as possible, the same work.
Over the last several years, I met Michael
at several of Marjorie and Joe Perloff’s parties and events at his own home
with his always gracious and intelligent wife, Priscilla. Michael, a tall,
lanky, lean-looking man who one was always tempted to compare, in appearance,
with Abraham Lincoln, despite his literary and academic successes clearly had
little interest in money. His very aspect (Lincoln excluded) spoke of the kind
of patch-coated academic who hadn’t ever given a thought to his costume. Michael,
it was apparent, was averse to the smell of dollars.
What we didn’t know until the appearance
of his obituary in the Los Angeles Times is
that he and his wife had anonymously given away a small fortune of $734,000,
left to him by his father and mother, to establish a fund from the PEN American
Center to be awarded to translators over the past decade. I had seen several of
the translations that had resulted from his generosity without ever knowing
that he had been behind them, a fact that Priscilla revealed only after his
Over the last years, with wracking back
pain and then, suddenly, the inoperable cancer, Michael was, occasionally, an
oppositional discussant, impatient perhaps with some of the more contemporary
figures I published. He was, after all, a kind of classicist, a perfectionist,
a mentor for generations of young talents devoted to the often unrewarding job
of recreating into English fiction, poetry and drama that might receive little
reader attention. But I felt only love and admiration for him, a man who had
done so much for writers and their translators.
Today Marjorie noted on Facebook that at
his memorial service yesterday one speaker had suggested that Michael had
surely gone to heaven, where he was busy translating for all. A nice sentiment.
But I would argue that Michael Heim had created a heaven here on earth—a kind
of translated heaven—almost personally defeating the age-old curse of the Tower
of Babel, as he brought forth communication in our everyday lives between
creators of numerous tongues. Through his struggles many cultures could finally
communicate with one another and find shared values, a cultural peace.
September 8, 2012
*The central paragraph of this
essay reads, in the context of its 2003 publication date:
What has become increasingly
apparent, in this horrible year of war, is the true need for such a series, the
importance of helping English-language readers to know the writing and, by
extension, the cultures of poets from around the world. In an interview with a
Brazilian journal, I was recently asked to comment if I felt Americans, and by
extension American poets, knew of the poetry in other countries. My conclusion
was a bleak one: most Americans don’t even know a poet in this country, I
quipped; and, perhaps even more disturbing, is my guess that most American
poets could name, perhaps, twenty poets from other countries. I recounted the
story of a poet friend, very interested in international writing and who is
engaged in reading the poetry of other cultures, innocently asking me who was
the poet whose book I held in my hands. The books was the collected poetry of
Léopold Sédar Senghor, the great Senegalese poet, former President of the
Republic of Senegal, and one of the founders of the Negritude movement of
French-speaking Caribbean and African writers who utterly transformed
Francophone writing in the 20th century. My fear is that precisely
this lack of knowledge of the writing and experiences of other cultures
underlies the American arrogance and beliefs that not only is our culture
superior to others, but that it should be the culture of others. It is no
accident, I suspect, that a president who had traveled very little before
taking office, could not comprehend that American values and methods of
achieving those values were not shared by all others. I am not suggesting that
poetry will change these conditions, but certainly it may help us comprehend a
world which—despite its astounding ability to quickly communicate—seems to be
splintering apart rather than sharing ideas.
from The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of
the 20th Century, Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003).