TWO VOICES: Michael Henry Heim and the Three Eras of Modern Translation

Posted on September 15, 2011 by Scott Esposito



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Translator of Thomas Mann, Milan Kundera, Hugo Claus, and many more, Michael Henry Heim joined the Center for the Art of Translation in its new offices in downtown San Francisco. Heim has worked with translation since the 1960s, and his presentation focused on how he has seen the translator slowly been brought brought out from "under the carpet" since then. Throughout, Heim came across as a passionate advocate of translation, one who has had the pleasure of seeing it emerge more and more, to the point that now, in Heim's opinion, it has developed serious momentum and has a bright future.

Heim characterized the Cold War era of translation as a "reactive" time. He drew on the example of 1958's Dr. Zhivago, a work that clearly was translated in response to the news of the era. Heim related the time when he met the book's translator, Max Harward, who told him that he was "forced" to work in a hotel room, being kept there until he had produced his final translation. This anecdote, said Heim, very literally demonstrates the invisibility of the translator in that era.

Heim's second era in translation, the "active" era, began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Heim characterized this era with the Latin American Boom, saying that the books were published in English for apolitical reasons. This was also the first time that the translators themselves gained prominence--Heim singled out the biggest of the Latin American translators, Gregory Rabassa, who translated numerous works by the starts of the Boom. (As Heim noted, Gabriel Garcia Marquez even claimed that Rabassa's translation was better than the original.)

Heim's third and final era, one that continues up to the present, is the "proactive" era, characterized by various things: translators being accorded enough status by academia to translate from universities and teach the new generation; the development of major translation presses and organizations like the Dalkey Archive; and translators having enough status to get their own projects green-lighted.

In the audio you can hear Heim enlarge upon all of these points, plus hear about a number of other htings: his take on the Umberto Eco phenomenon (which led William Weaver, Eco's translator" to construct what he called "The Eco Chamber"); his thoughts about Amazon's new translation venture, AmazonCrossing, and things that anyone can do to help foster and promote translation.