Michael Henry Heim

The news of Michael Henry Heim’s death and the disclosure that he was the anonymous donor of the PEN Translation Fund hit me like lightening, as though he were a friend I knew well.  I remember reading Heim’s translation of a book on the Russian formalists in my mid-twenties, and many decades later his marvelous translations from  Kundera.

The PEN Translation Fund is a national treasure, one of whose beneficiaries was Hagop Oshagan’s Mnatsortats in the groundbreaking translation by G.M. Goshgarian.

Below is the PEN announcement of Heim’s death and the details of the Fund he established.


PEN American Center announced today that the recently deceased Michael Henry Heim, 69, one of the world’s greatest translators and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at U.C.L.A, was the “anonymous donor” who created the PEN Translation Fund in 2003, with a gift of $734,000. Over the past nine years, the Fund has awarded over 100 grants to translators to help sustain new work and thereby encourage the publication of more translated works.
Peter Godwin, president of PEN American Center, said that “the visionary generosity of Michael Heim, strongly supported by his wife, Priscilla, has created a legacy that recognizes the unique place of translators and translation in our literary life. He stood for that because he knew so well how translation serves us all by providing the key in our own language to all the world’s literature.”
PEN is deeply saddened by the loss of this luminary translator, PEN member for the past thirty years, and (until now) the anonymous benefactor of our single largest endowment. Mike died on September 29 of brain cancer, which he had battled successfully for over two years, remaining productive to the very end. A prodigious linguist who admitted to working “actively” with ten languages, but whom colleagues credit with having mastered sixteen, he brought to the English-speaking world such authors as Milan Kundera, Günter Grass, Danilo Kiš, Karel Čapek, Péter Esterházy, George Konrad, Jan Neruda, Sasha Sokolov, and Bohumil Hrabal, in addition to new translations of Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekhov, and Thomas Mann. He received the 2010 PEN Translation Prize for his translation from the Dutch of Wonder by Hugo Claus (Archipelago, 2009). In awarding him the 2009 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for his body of work, the PEN Translation Committee praised Heim for bringing “clarity, beauty, and honesty to his exceptional range of translations,” including novels, poetry, theater, mathematical treatises, essays, and his own extensive literary criticism. The Iowa Review credits him with “shap[ing] the face of contemporary world literature in English.”

Michael Henry Heim was also an activist who believed in the power of translation to advance humanitarian goals. In 1999, he organized a conference in Romania, funded by the Soros Foundation and attended by representatives from former East-bloc nations to promote the mutual translation of literature.  In fact, according to current PEN Translation Committee Chair, Susan Bernofsky, “It was Mike who received a call from the Czech government during its divorce from the other half of Czechoslovakia wanting to know what words to use in English to name its new country—the one we now know as the Czech Republic.”

As a professor at U.C.L.A., Mike was a dedicated mentor to generations of students, many of whom he shepherded into the art of literary translation in classes and workshops. Though he clearly loved teaching, he described it as “that day job that pays for my translation habit — in this country ‘full-time literary translator’ is still an oxymoron.”

In 2003, to help translators pursue their art, Mike and his wife Priscilla did something extraordinary. They created the PEN Translation Fund to award competitive grants to translators each year. Mike and Priscilla Heim endowed the Translation Fund personally and anonymously with a gift of $734,000.  Esther Allen, chair of the PEN Translation Committee when the Fund was created, describes Mike as “enormously embarrassed at the thought of being publicly associated with the donation, having as he did a visceral horror of money, which he associated with excess and waste and all of the things he most deplored.”

The money donated for the Fund grew from a death benefit that his mother received in 1945, when Mike’s father, a Hungarian composer and pastry chef serving in the U.S. military, was killed. Mike and Priscilla, through careful investment and the most frugal of lifestyles, slowly built up the money with the dream of supporting future generations of gifted translators and prodding publishers to share their art with the world. As Priscilla, who gave permission yesterday to reveal her husband as the Fund’s donor, explained, “We never went to restaurants or movies, and Mike wore his clothes for years on end, including his good blazer after moth holes appeared. Those things add up, and added to the fund.” Since 2003, the PEN Translation Fund has supported more than 100 translations, a good many of which have now been published. In addition, it has attracted generous support from Amazon.

Jason Grunewald, a past PEN Translation Fund grant recipient for a translation from the Hindi, provides this tribute: “Mike’s work has inestimably enlarged and enhanced the worldwide conversation of literature. The kindest of spirits, he has inspired so many, both with his voice on the page and his smile in person, and he will live on in many languages and countless souls.”    
Speaking for all who knew him, loved him, and had their lives transformed by him, Esther Allen said, “Mike never sought any kind of recognition in his lifetime—in fact he shunned it.  Now that he’s gone, we have an opportunity finally to acknowledge him fully.”


Readers of this blog may also want to check Michael Cunningham’s introduction to Heim’s translation of Mann’s Death in Venice. It’s on the PEN website.

About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
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