The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation, eds. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. $12.95, 200 pp. Open Letter Books.
Judith Thurman writes in The New Yorker: “Biography and translation are related enterprises. In neither case does a literal transcription produce the most desirable result: it refuses the risks—the deep adventure—of the poetry.”
Having practiced in both forms, Thurman knows that biographies and translations cannot be mechanical.
The best biographies move into the realm of literature when they offer more than a chronological play-by-play when they tell the story of a life lived, of impact on other lives, or when they situate the private story into the context of public life and history.
In the same way, the best translations are not mere transcription. The best translations do more than grapple with the material at the line level; they also consider context, meaning, and subtext. They honor the raw material of one work of literature by ultimately shaking the words off the fabric of the original context and sewing new letters onto a new cloth. This is “imaginative refraction,” as Thurman calls it.
What then of a translator’s biography, two related enterprises meshed into one? A biography of a translator attempts to honor a person whose life was about this very fraught job.
The recently released “The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation” isn’t a strict biography of the man known for his English-language renderings of works by Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Anton Chekhov, and Thomas Mann, among others. Instead the book is a collection of essays, autobiographical writings, and speeches by and about the famed translator, who passed away in September of 2012.
In a speech reprinted in the book, Heim makes a self-deprecating joke about whether the life of a translator is worth reading: “What does a translator do? He sits and translates!” The Man Between serves as a book-length retort by laying bare all the things Heim did: these include persuading the academy that translation is a scholarly (in addition to a creative) act, mentoring and funding the next generation of translators, and, through numerous conferences and gatherings, keeping “the interconnectedness of cultures in motion” (to quote Esther Allen).
Notably, The Man Between successfully brings Heim, always a humble figure, out from his hiding place behind the works he translated. One of the original contributions of this volume is that it assembled a bibliography for Heim (the list on his website, in typical humble fashion, is rather incomplete as it currently stands). From twenty books and plays, the list grows to sixty, and as Allen writes, “more than half the books listed . . . remain in print,” a testament to “the enduring quality of Mike’s skill as a translator and the acuteness of his judgment.”
Russell Scott Valentino’s contribution to the book, a transcript of a keynote address he gave at a Slavic conference, argues that Heim was not “merely” a translator but “a person who spent most of his career creating primary texts, not commentaries or interventions or theoretical approaches, but works of English-language literature that sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies.”
Valentino’s speech powerfully begins to do what I would have loved more of the volume to do: to insist on Heim as something akin to a creative writer (Valentino even argues that in today’s scholarly landscape, Heim might have fit better into the MFA world). As Maureen Freely later writes, Heim would “run his [literary translation] class as a writing workshop because in his view literary translation was a form of literary writing.” These contributions to the book honor Heim as a creator and, therefore, imply his value and importance beyond an audience of literary translators.
This is all to say that The Man Between feels much like a volume that preaches to the choir. Perhaps this should not be a surprise. The book is, after all, a collection about a literary translator, by other literary translators, edited by three literary translators, and published by a press that only publishes international literature in translation. Still, I can’t help but suspect that contemporary American writers don’t know of Heim, and I hoped The Man Between would try to rectify this.
If our writers have been shaped by Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and Dubravka Ugrešić, might they take a minute to look up the translator of their editions? Do they know they have been reading the words of Michael Henry Heim? Do they know that when they make puns on the phrase “the unbearable lightness of being,” they are making the case for Heim’s long-lasting impact on American literary—and non-literary—culture? (As Sean Cotter rightly writes: “Heim’s translation [of Kundera], like a spot of dye, dropped into the flow of culture and altered the hue of English as it diffused downstream. A meme before memes.”) Heim’s should be a household name for writers as it is for those who closely follow literary translation. Heim himself once said that he liked to translate books that “create[d] other worlds,” and I wished this volume could have spoken more to the readers who got to inhabit those worlds.
As it is, The Man Between is a moving testament to Heim’s legacy. But, perhaps since Heim’s career was about translating literature that took imaginative risks, I kept hoping that The Man Between would do the same. Colleagues of Heim’s may be easily persuaded that “translation is a creative force” (a common Heim aphorism), but do lay readers believe this? Perhaps with a little more distance, the next Heim biography can offer the reader, as Thurman puts it, “something more vibrant and sensuous, which only comes through an imaginative connection.” Such a biography could make a case for why Heim was, as Michael Flier writes, “a translator of worlds.”
Tanya Paperny is a writer, editor, and translator based (mostly) out of Washington, D.C. She writes book reviews for the Washington City Paper, and her essays, articles, and translations have appeared in VICE, The Literary Review, and other fine journals and magazines. Follow her on Twitter @tpaperny or visit tpaperny.com.
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