Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



In association with Amazon.it - Italia

the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical / translation


The Man Between
Michael Henry Heim &
A Life in Translation

edited by
Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and
Russell Scott Valentino

general information | our review | links

To purchase The Man Between

Title: The Man Between
Author: various
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2014)
Length: 315 pages
Original in: various
Availability: The Man Between - US
The Man Between - UK
The Man Between - Canada
The Man Between - India
  • Michael Henry Heim & A Life in Translation
  • Edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino
  • Includes selections from A Happy Babel, originally published in Romanian as Un Babel fericit (1999); translated by Sean Cotter
  • Includes a bibliography of Heim's translations
  • With numerous photographs

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : nice tribute to the man, and good overview of life, work, and influence

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Man Between is, as Sean Cotter writes in his Introduction, "not a Festschrift, but a conversation", with and about eminent translator Michael Henry Heim (who passed away in 2012). The polyglot Heim translated from German, French, and a variety of eastern European languages, but was also an important figure in the teaching of translation, and in working towards a better understanding of its significance, both in the academy and outside; as the (long-anonymous) benefactor funding what are now known as the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants his financial support was also extremely generous (and important).
       The Man Between is a three-part book. The first part, 'The Man', includes a long Q & A with Heim, 'A Happy Babel', that was first published in Romanian. In his own words, Heim offers a great deal of biographical detail, giving a good sense of the man and his life. His love of literature readily comes across -- he notes: "What would my life be without books ? Absolutely bland and uninteresting" -- as does his concern about Americans' lack of awareness of and interest in foreign languages and literature in translation. He also notes (this in 1999 -- though the situation has not yet improved as much as one might wish) that:

In America, there is no such thing as a professional translator. Of course, there are people who translate mechanical manuals and the like. But there is no job as a literary translator. You can't make a living at it. So everyone has to have another profession, as well. I am a university professor. Everything I translate, I do in my free time.
       He -- a student of both Gregory Rabassa and Roman Jakobson -- speaks about the art and craft of translation itself, insisting, for example, that:
The most important thing is to master the language you translate into.
       This philosophy is also reflected in how he conducted translation classes, which is also described at various points in the collection.
       A 2011 talk by Heim, The Three Eras of Modern Translation, is a nice complement to the earlier piece -- and allows him to note that: "We've made some headway" -- a point reinforced by Esther Allen in the volume's concluding piece, 'Michael Henry Heim: A Theory'.
       A bibliography of his translations concludes the first section -- an impressive list from a diverse group of languages, and with many of the titles still in print. Among those that helped him break through were his translations of several Milan Kundera titles -- including a new translation of The Joke (a significant bit edited out of the original translation, so that that version pretty much missed the point entirely) and, most notably, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Kundera's relationship with Heim and Heim's translations also crops up repeatedly -- and among the most interesting contributions is Michelle Woods' look at 'Translation and all that Palaver: Michael Henry Heim, Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal'.
       The second part of The Man Between, 'Community', collects short tributes from a variety of people, ranging from colleagues to authors he translated (Dubravka Ugrešić), fellow translators (Celia Hawkesworth), and others (such as Andrei Codrescu). These add a nice personal touch, and often include wonderful observations and reminiscences, such as Ugrešić noting that: "Languages were his pets, and he attended to them daily".
       The third part of The Man Between, 'Impact', takes a broader look at translation, with Heim's own significant role in that world a starting or focal point of many of the pieces. There are some fascinating insights into the business and practice of translation here too -- from William Weaver's translation of Umberto Eco's The Name of The Rose, whose manuscript, while soon bankrolling Weaver his own 'Eco-Chamber', is described by Breon Mitchell as: "the most heavily edited I have ever seen, with Drenka Willen at Harcourt revising practically every line", to Alex Zucker's observation about the gender imbalance in what gets translated, finding that a bibliography of Czech literature published in English up to 1980: "cites roughly one hundred and seventy works by men versus seven by women". It is interesting to hear also -- as is repeatedly noted -- how significant even a relatively small-scale series like Penguin Books' 'Writers from the Other Europe' (with 'General Editor' Philip Roth's name prominently emblazoned on the covers ...) was. Meanwhile, while there is also repeated mention of Heim's study of Chinese and his ambition to translate from the Chinese, most of the discussion is very localized to the European (and, most often, the Central European) experience -- understandable, but also a reminder of how much more difficult the situation is farther afield, geographically and linguistically.
       The Man Between is a nice tribute volume to (and portrait of) a man of considerable accomplishment who also seems to have been a very supportive colleague and teacher. There's considerable variety here -- though it stretches a bit thin on occasion, and there is also some overlap (as, for example, one mention of Heim's bottle- and can-collecting hobby/obsession -- admirable though it too was -- would well have sufficed). Nevertheless, its looks at translation into English (in the US, basically) over the past few decades make for an insightful collection that suggests some of the shifts and advances that have come (if also how much further there is to go ...)

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 September 2014

- Return to top of the page -


The Man Between: Reviews: Michael Henry Heim: Books translated by Michael Henry Heim under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

© 2014 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links