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Obituary: Michael Heim, 69, professor and award-winning translator of Kundera, Grass

Obituary: Michael Heim, 69, professor and award-winning translator of Kundera, Grass

Michael Henry Heim, a distinguished UCLA professor best known for his translations of Eastern European, Russian and German novelists, died Saturday, Sept. 29, at his home in Westwood of complications from melanoma. He was 69.

Heim translated Milan Kundera's best-loved novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," as well as the author's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" from Czech. He also translated from German Gunter Grass' 1999 materpiece "My Century," a sweeping look at the 20th century published the year the author won the Nobel Prize for literature. Heim later translated "Peeling the Onion," the first of Grass' two-volume memoir.

"Professor Heim was an internationally recognized scholar whose translations from a dazzling array of Slavic and other European languages into English placed him among the foremost ranks of the profession," said Ronald Vroon, chair of the UCLA Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. "He was a theorist, a practitioner and a cultural activist, among the finest literary translators of the last half-century, and a pioneer in the field of translation studies."

A lifelong student of languages, Heim mastered 12 of them and produced award-winning translations from eight: Russian, Czech, Serbian/Croatian, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian and Romanian.

"It was an honor to have had among us such a major scholar who put translation studies in the forefront of academic studies and whose translations have been admired the world over," said Efrain Kristal, chair of the UCLA Department of Comparative Literature.

Heim's 1975 translation of Chekhov's letters was praised in the New York Review of Books as the best English guide to Chekhov's thought. His translation of the monumental 600-page diary of Kornei Chukovsky, a late 19th-/early 20th-century children's poet sometimes called the Russian Dr. Seuss, is considered an important window into Russian society from 1901 through the period of Soviet power.

His 2004 translation of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice" received the prestigious Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize the following year.

Yet, for all his acclaim, Heim had an old-fashioned view of his efforts, shunning the auteur status claimed by other high-profile translators.

"The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work," he said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "That's where I disagree. I believe the translator is a creator, but I'm not so sure that I'd want to create a new work. I would like to create, as much as possible, the same work."

He also insisted that he had no illusion about writing novels himself.

"As long as there are people I can translate who are better fiction writers than I am, I'll translate them," he told UCLA Today in 2006. 

By all accounts, the activity thoroughly absorbed him. In the Los Angeles Times profile, Heim said he spent most mornings when not teaching in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration.

"Within reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator's trade," wrote author Louise Steinman, "among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s ... 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 Rodal Synonym Finder."

Up to his last waking moments at night, the intricacies of foreign languages occupied his thoughts.

"He put himself to sleep at night by learning vocabulary words in whatever language he was studying," said Priscilla Heim, his wife of 37 years.

Heim considered his selection as the translator for Gunter Grass' "My Century" the pinnacle of his career.

"It brought me utter joy," he told UCLA Today of Grass' collection of vignettes in which fictional narrators gave their perspectives on historical events. "I woke up every morning awaiting a new adventure: a new character telling a new story in a new year."

Although Heim's reputation rests primarily on his translations, his early scholarly studies of 18th-century Russian writers and their philosophies of translation continue to be highly regarded by specialists who study that critical period in Russian history, when the process of literary creation occurred largely through the prism of translation, Vroon said.

In addition to being an active translator and scholar, Heim was an inspiring teacher and a dedicated mentor who contributed to his students' intellectual development both in class and outside.

"There was never a moment during Mike's office hours when a student felt pressured to cut short what she or he had been saying, to get up and leave," said Boris Dralyuk, a UCLA lecturer in Russian who had once been Heim's student. "His commitment to his students knew no bounds."

Graduate students rated his courses, especially the translation workshop he offered in the comparative literature department, among the best at UCLA.

"He was so generous with his time and energy, always keeping my studies and interests in mind. He was tirelessly giving," said Thomas Chen, a fourth-year doctoral student in comparative literature. "He will remain my standard in what a professor can accomplish. In him, I see that there is no conflict between research and teaching, for he reached the highest heights in his own work, and at the same time, he indefatigably worked for his students. I am forever indebted to him, and I know there are innumerable others who feel the same way."

From 1999 to 2003, Heim served as chair of the Slavic languages and literatures department, where he taught for 40 years.

Among the many honors he received during his last decade at UCLA were his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2003), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2006), the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Award for a Lifetime in Translation (2009), and the Special Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award, which he received at the January 2012 convention of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. Shortly before his passing, he was promoted to the rank of UCLA Distinguished Professor.

Heim was a frequent sight on the campus. Until his health began to fail, he swam laps daily at UCLA's Sunset Canyon Recreation Center, challenging himself to master eight vocabulary words during each session. He also was a devotee of recycling. The highly regarded scholar could often be seen fishing improperly discarded bottles and cans from campus trash cans, which he and Priscilla later recycled.

"It pained him to see that so many young people were so wasteful and thoughtless," Priscilla said.

As passionate as he was about his career and the environment, Heim also found time to be a devoted father to Priscilla's three children from a prior marriage and to entertain a constant parade of dignitaries, scholars, authors and students.

"He felt it important for interesting people to meet each other," Priscilla said.

Born in New York in 1943, Heim lost his father, a composer, at age 4 and was raised by his mother and his stepfather, a businessman, in Staten Island. Both spoke only English at home, Priscilla recalled.

Heim studied French and German at the public school he attended. While working in a French bank as a high school student, he befriended the bank's janitor, an educated Frenchman who discussed Chinese philosophy with him, according to Priscilla. The meeting, she said, "began a lifelong quest to understand problems of good and evil that colored forever his reading of literature." It also led him to study Chinese at Columbia, where he also studied Spanish and Russian.

At Columbia, Heim studied with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." With little opportunity to visit China after graduating in 1964, Heim put aside his Chinese studies and cast his lot with Russian, a language he went on to pursue at Harvard. While completing his Ph.D. there, his mentor was Roman Jakobson, one of the leading linguists of the 20th century and a seminal theorist of literature and translation.

In the past decade, Heim had resumed his study of the language that he had abandoned after college. At the time of his death, he was working on a system to help Westerners more readily master Chinese — an effort that received a shot in the arm from his 2006 Guggenheim award.

In recent weeks, Heim had reached out to several colleagues who he hoped could take over the project for him, Priscilla said.

"Let's hope this can go on," she said.

In addition to his wife, Priscilla, Heim is survived by his three step-children —  Rebecca Kerr, Jocelyn Thandrakul and Michael Kerr — and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is being planned on campus for Heim; details are pending.

Center for European and Eurasian Studies