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Professor Michael Heim Receives AATSEEL Award

CEES congratulates Professor Heim for receiving the 2011 Outstanding Contribution to Scholarship from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages!

AATSEEL Outstanding Contribution to Scholarship 2011:

Michael Heim, University of California, Los Angeles

Michael Heim has been a legendary figure in more languages, across more cultural communities, and in more high-profile “confrontations” than any other Slavist of his generation. The scope of his translation and mediation activities is astounding. He has worked actively in over a dozen languages — Russian, Czech / Slovak, Croatian / Serbian, French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Italian, Latin, Romanian, Hungarian, now and then even Chinese from an undergraduate major in East Asian Studies — and to each he brings a mastery of its literary and intonational registers. The depth and gentleness of his mentoring to students at UCLA has continued throughout this astonishing steady-state productivity.

Heim’s standing in the field is not, however, due only to his “products,” that is, to the page-proof side of things. With Michael Heim it is always the whole person, engaged up to the hilt. He was there — an active participant — during scandals over the “Englishing” of Vladimir Nabokov and of Milan Kundera, both world-class writers with world-class egos, possessive about their work. Kundera’s treatment of Heim in the nasty controversy over English versions of The Joke was shocking. Yet our translator, at the time a young vulnerable academic, kept his calm and served the interests of the text and its readers.

Heim was indispensable in launching and legitimizing Czech studies in this country, making that marvelous literature available in authoritative and captivating translations (his closest competitor is perhaps William Weaver in Italian). And Heim has never backed off when a cultural crisis threatened to become political in a controversial way. A case in point is the Gunter Grass controversy in 2007-2008, over that Nobel-Prize-winning novelist’s youthful membership in the Waffen-SS. As the translator of Grass’s memoirs, Heim weighed in thoughtfully on the debate.

Heim’s versions of Chekhov’s dramas, which began to be staged in the 1970s and were published in 1999 as The Essential Plays, have stood out in an ocean of competitors. His Kundera, Capek, and Hrabal are unmatched in their droll, prosaic, understated humor; and his capture of the novelistic voice of Dubravka Ugresic, simultaneously cynical and nostalgic, is magical. But there is also a piercingly lyrical side of Heim, when the text and topic is right (his fashioning into English of Predrag Matvejevic’s Mediterranean: A Cultural Landscape is a wonderful example).

Michael Heim is not “merely” a translator, of course, although his most stunning virtues as scholar and critic arise from that polylingual expertise. “Theory” per se does not interest him and he does not need it. He has the skills to work with primary materials. When Heim does comment at one remove from the primary text — on Bohumil Hrabal’s sense of estrangement, for example, or on Central Europe as both fragmented and universal — this commentary always has a solidly inductive flavor to it, steeped in sounds and contexts close to the ground. His long association with the international writers’ organization PEN and especially with its collective of Central European translators, at first traumatized by mandatory service to the Soviet Empire and then orphaned by the demise of that Empire and its reliable commissions, is emblematic of his human role in the liberation of Middle Europe from its masters on both sides.

A good translation, they say, reflects not just words but whole behaviors. Most of us can barely behave in our native tongue, with native-born equipment. Michael Heim “behaves” in fifteen different literatures and cultures, making them all available to one another. We are proud to recognize this world-building achievement.

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