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Translator Remains Faithful to His 'Unfaithful' Art

Although 'pure' renderings may be impossible, Michael Henry Heim's love and respect of language is without question.

September 30, 2001|LOUISE STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Imagine a world without the benefit of translation--the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" only in Spanish. You could read Dante's "Inferno" if you knew Italian, or Kafka's "The Trial" with a sure command of German.

Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn't happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, it would be a world without translation. There aren't any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.

"All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven't prepared enough translators," says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation's most respected literary translators. "It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari." Heim fears the quick fix. "The government will send people to language schools. They'll start with first-year Arabic. We'll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge."

Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country's interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. "It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature."

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. "As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags," he says. "Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators." Heim says with a sigh, "It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we're rich enough to afford to study all these cultures."

Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov's "In Search of Melancholy Baby" from the Russian; Danilo Kis' "Encyclopedia of the Dead," from the Serb; and Gnter Grass' Nobel Prize-winning novel, "My Century," from the German.

Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: "I began with Chekhov's letters. I was the most lucky young translator!"

Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he's skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. "I'm pessimistic about the general mood," he admits. "As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading 'good' books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it's still 3,000 people."

Heim may be a skeptical host, but he's a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.

Most mornings when he's not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator's trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s ("many consider it still unsurpassed," he comments), the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary, the Random House Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, Webster's Third, the Oxford Concise, the Longman Dictionary of English Idioms and Rodale's Synonym Finder.

In all probability, you'll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place "behind the scenes" of the literary life.

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