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The Man Between

Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation (edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino)

Reviewed by A. M. Kaempf

March 11, 2016

The Man Between

The Man Between

Edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino

Open Letter Books, 2014

“Do you enjoy fiction in translation?”

When asked this question by The New York Times Book Review, Stephen King gave a discouraging answer: “I actually avoid novels in translation when I can,” he said, “because I always have the feeling that the author is being filtered through another mind.” This insular attitude toward literature—expressed without irony by an internationally famous author whose books have been translated into dozens of languages—is apparently common among American readers: of all the books published in the United States, only 3% are translations.

There is, however, a vibrant subculture of readers who are passionate about literature in translation, as well as a growing number of small presses that are devoted to publishing it. Foremost among these presses is Open Letter Books, which has published, in less than a decade, nearly ninety translations from more than twenty languages. Open Letter’s commitment to literature in translation is exemplified in The Man Between, a tribute to the incomparable translator Michael Henry Heim. Composed of pieces by various writers, translators, and scholars, The Man Between is an intimate portrait of Heim’s life and work. While celebrating his countless achievements as a translator, it also attempts to convey the vast extent of his cultural legacy. After Heim, it seems, literary translation will never be the same. In an introduction to the book, Sean Cotter succinctly captures Heim’s significance:

Michael Henry Heim translated, taught translation, and advocated for professional and academic translators. He understood translation deeply and his work encompassed translation broadly, making him a central figure for late twentieth-century literature and translation studies. Any route to understanding the contemporary position of translation in the United States must pass through his life and work. . . . He advanced translator training at the same time that he improved the working conditions for translators, by arguing for the status of translation as academic scholarship, lobbying publishers to produce translations, and endowing a fund to support translation projects. It is difficult to imagine a translator’s life more dedicated or successful.

It is indeed difficult to imagine a translator’s life more dedicated or successful than Heim’s, yet it is likely that most American readers have never heard of him. (How could it be otherwise, given the aforementioned statistic?) For those who are unfamiliar with his work, it might be best to begin The Man Between near the middle, where Esther Allen has assembled a bibliography. Covering forty-two years and including more than fifty translations from ten different languages, it is a sprawling testament to Heim’s tremendous talent, diligence, and curiosity. His translations could easily provide an entire year’s worth of reading—and what a fascinating year it would be, filled with the writings of Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Mann, Péter Esterházy, György Konrád, Anton Chekhov, Dubravka Ugresic, Günter Grass, Milan Kundera, Jan Neruda, and many others.

The Man Between is divided into three parts: “The Man,” “Community,” and “Impact.” The first of these stands out from the others in that it includes Heim’s own words. There is a lengthy interview from 1999 (“A Happy Babel”), and the transcript of a talk he gave in 2011 (“The Three Eras of Modern Translation”). The interview is the most substantial and engaging piece in the book, and it provides an abundance of personal information about Heim. Born in New York to a Catholic Hungarian father and a Jewish American mother, Heim showed early interests in music, photography, and architecture. But reading was his greatest passion, and it always found a way to interfere with his other activities. (He recounts sitting at the piano as a boy, supposedly practicing scales but in fact reading the novel he had propped on the music stand.) As an undergraduate student at Columbia he studied Oriental Civilization, and as a graduate student at Harvard he studied Slavic Languages and Literatures. While in his twenties he began to translate Central European literature into English—something for which there was very little interest in the United States. “I was a lost pioneer,” he says; “I was very young and no one took me seriously.” This changed in the early 1980s, when Heim found success with his translations of Milan Kundera’s novels: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, The Joke, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

The second and third parts of the book contain appreciations of Heim’s career and tributes to his character. He is repeatedly described as a kind, generous, and selfless man who was tireless in his work and deeply dedicated to his family, friends, and students. “Michael was the most humble man I knew,” Dubravka Ugresic writes, “always at the service of a student, the text he was translating, always in the shadow of the good deeds he did.” The Man Between brings him out of this shadow, and in doing so it lets us see just how extraordinary a person he was. “For Michael,” Ugresic continues, “translation was a delight, yet it was also a secret mission to connect different worlds. Michael really believed that with the books he translated, American readers would become better educated, would become better, period.” Or, in the words of the poet Andrei Codrescu: “It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the twentieth century’s spectacular end until now without Michael Henry Heim’s translations from the Russian, Czech, Croatian, German, and Hungarian.”

As a collection of work from various contributors, The Man Between represents many different styles and perspectives. Its eclectic composition includes essays, lectures, an interview, and even a poem. Given this format, it is not surprising that the quality of writing varies throughout the book, that certain pieces are better than others. Sean Cotter’s introduction is excellent, for example, but his essay “The Un-x-able Y-ness of Z-ing” is virtually unreadable. “The Lives of the Translators” by Breon Mitchell, “New Frontiers for Translation in the Twenty-First Century” by Russell Scott Valentino, and “Michael Henry Heim: A Theory” by Esther Allen are three of the strongest pieces in the book, and each is worth reading multiple times. Of the remaining pieces, some could stand on their own, while others would lose their strength outside the context of this book. But to evaluate each contribution separately from the others would be somewhat misguided, for The Man Between is a mosaic, and as such it is best appreciated as a whole, not piece by piece.

It is important to note that The Man Between is not merely a tribute to Heim, but a tribute to literary translation in general, and a testament to the translator’s vital role in sustaining a diverse culture. Although the book is filled with intimate reflections and personal reminiscences (and perhaps one too many anecdotes about Heim’s saintliness), it also addresses the issues that working translators face. It brings a “human focus” to translation, while still maintaining a professional seriousness. One doesn’t have to be a translator or an academic in order to enjoy the book; it should be of interest, I think, to all readers who want to experience the world beyond the boundaries of their native languages. “World literature exists, almost by definition, only as literature in translation,” Breon Mitchell writes. “Or to put it another way, without literary translation there would be no world literature.” Heim was a humble man in an underappreciated profession, but as The Man Between makes clear, his contributions to contemporary world literature are invaluable.

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A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.