Michael Henry Heim (21 January 1943 – 29 September 2012)

It is with great sorrow that we report the passing of Michael Henry Heim on 29 September 2012, after a long struggle with cancer. Among the many spaces, both academic and personal, that will feel bereft without him over the next months is our AATSEEL Boston conference, where he was planning to deliver the keynote address on “The Role of Slavic and East European Literatures in the Development of Literary Translation in the US.” Heim was wonderfully equipped to tell that story. The scope of his translation activities was astonishing. He worked actively in over a dozen languages — Russian, Czech/Slovak, Croatian/Serbian, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, Latin, Romanian, Hungarian, occasionally even Chinese from an undergraduate major in East Asian Studies. But none of this erudition was bookish or dry. Heim invested his entire person in every literary project, relishing those moments when translation became a matter of moral principle — as it did in scandals over English versions of novels by Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Günter Grass. His long association with the international writers’ organization PEN and especially with its collective of Central European translators, first traumatized by service to the Soviet Empire and then orphaned by the demise of that Empire, is emblematic of his human role in the liberation of Middle Europe from its masters on both sides.

The depth and gentleness of Heim’s mentoring of PhD students at UCLA was legendary in the field. One of his PhDs in Nabokov studies currently teaching at Princeton, Stanislav Shvabrin, offers this epitaph to Michael Heim:

“Michael’s scholarly deserts are many and varied indeed, yet it was his capacity for kindness and empathy that is unmatched: he felt personally responsible for every empty classroom left brightly lit on a vast campus, and corresponded with foreign graduate students’ children to ensure that they grow literate in their mother tongue. Quixotic? Perhaps; this single man’s relentless pursuit of ‘small deeds,’ however, has certainly translated into a number of momentous, positive changes in other people’s lives.”

A good translation, they say, reflects not just words but whole behaviors. Most of us can barely behave in our native tongue, with our native-born equipment. Michael Heim behaved in fifteen different literatures and cultures, making them all available to one another. He will be sorely missed