Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Translating Heaven (on the death of Michael Heim)

translating heaven

Although 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 death.

     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.

 Los Angeles, 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.

Reprinted from The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 4 (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003).


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