Michael Henry Heim

Russell Scott Valentino

I debated with myself about whether to announce the content of this post in a title, the direct and somewhat implacable name + dates genre convention of memorial resolutions and tributes. It seemed somehow too harsh, especially with the wound this fresh, so let me leave that for the end.

In her recent Translationista post, Susan Bernofsky tells a story of Heim’s generosity, his recommendation of her as a translator for a book he knew she liked, a book he might have otherwise worked on himself. It is a familiar story. He did the same with me (for Predrag Matvejevic’s work), and with others I know, students and non-students alike. His generosity was authentic and deep-seated.

He was always very busy, juggling multiple projects at once. Many have his names attached, but there were others brought to him at embarrassingly late stages by desperate publishers in need of his expertise—for a reader report, a recommendation, or even a lengthy revision of someone else’s work—and these do not say Heim on them, though they have plenty of Heim in them. I asked him once if it bothered him that his work would not be recognzed. He said it was much more important that the work be done right. If his name wasn't on it, so be it.

This is how I see the absence of translators’ introductions or afterwords in his work. He certainly had plenty of opportunity to add his voice, introduce more of his presence, and he spoke and wrote eloquently about the work of translation in other venues, but not much about himself. This is what makes the reminiscences we publish here so remarkable—they deviate from a life-long pattern, a way of presenting himself in the world. It is no wonder that the interviewers had to “hound him with questions” to get his story. I am grateful that they did.

He gave his time freely to his many students, too. I was a beneficiary. He taught me how to translate, how to edit, how to mentor translators and teach translation, sometimes by tiny, apt suggestions for changes to a manuscript, often by providing a set of principles he had derived through long practice, always by setting an example. (He also filed my dissertation for me, when I had to catch a plane to get back to my first teaching job… which he had got for me through another former student...)

Now, it turns out his generosity was not even adequately recognized by many of us who knew it first-hand. As Chad Post recently noted in Three Percent, the anonymous donor who provided the bulk of the money for the PEN Translation Fund, was Michael Heim. Says Esther Allen, former Director of the Fund, “I had always thought that the Fund was exclusively the result of an investment of the death benefit Mike’s family had received when his father died in WWII, when he was just a toddler—that that money, invested in 1945, had simply grown until it was $734,000 in 2003.”

But it wasn’t just that, she would later learn. “There was no rich uncle in the background or killing on the market,” Mike’s wife Priscilla notes. “The accumulation of the money that made that fund came from our frugal living, though his Hungarian father, serving in the US army did leave a soldier’s legacy to begin with. We never went to restaurants, movies, though we lived a rich life in music, friends, and books--the best things, after all. Mike wore his clothes for years, including his good blazer after moth holes appeared. Those things add up.”

Indeed they do, and not just monetarily.

Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012): translator, teacher, mentor, friend.