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Opening Up The World

Michael Heim

Interviewed by Kate Griffin, BCLT

The British Centre for Literary Translation is delighted that in August this year, Michael Henry Heim will be coming to the UK to teach on Opening Up The World, a literary translation workshop at the Arvon Foundation, run in partnership with BCLT. Before Michael Heim arrives in the UK, I wanted to find out more about the Arvon course and about Michael’s own extraordinary career in literary translation.

KG: Michael, from your point of view, what is the idea behind this course?

MH: The languages participants will be translating from are potentially varied (as they are in the Workshop in Literary Translation I have taught at UCLA for the past thirty or thirty-five years), so the focus I envision will be on the English text. We will spend most of our time discussing participants’ translations with a view to establishing certain broad principles of translation that will help them when they go home to work on their own. No one can learn everything there is to know about translation in five days, but I hope the course will provide participants with enough of a taste of what is involved in the process to enable them to determine whether they wish to pursue it.

KG: How did you yourself come to translation?

MH: I take pleasure in reading foreign languages and writing English, and I enjoy providing new reading possibilities for the English-language audience and opening writing possibilities for the English language.

KG: From how many languages do you translate?

MH: I have worked from about ten. Given that I have never stopped learning languages and have been at it for over fifty years, that comes to about one every five years. Sticking to it is what counts.

The most recent one always tends to pose the most challenges, and my most recent is Chinese. But I would go so far as to say that Chinese is the most challenging in absolute terms as well: it is the only non-Western language I have tackled, and its linguistic and cultural assumptions differ so from even the other non-Indo-European language I have translated from, Hungarian.

KG: What relationship do you have with the languages, countries, cultures and literatures you translate?

MH: After French, the first foreign language I studied (a foreign language was required of all high school students), I never undertook the study of a language without a specific motivation in mind. I have therefore had a personal relationship with each of them.

When I was younger, I visited the countries where the languages were spoken, immersing myself in their cultures, and naturally enough I know those better than the others and can still speak four or five of them at the drop of a hat, but I continue to read in all of them.

[You can view a short video Michael was asked to make on the Role of Motivation in Learning Languages here.]

KG: What is your methodology for translating? Each time, how do you find the voice?

MH: First I “prep” the section of the text I will be working on, that is, I look up the words and cultural references I don’t recognize. Then I can focus on pinpointing the voice you rightfully inquire about. That necessitates first and foremost a close reading of the text, but I sometimes find it useful to read an analogous text in English as I proceed.

KG: What relationship do you have with the author (when living)?

MH: Generally speaking, I avoid consulting with the author: too many questions will shake the author’s faith in the translator. Besides, badgering authors is unfair. They’ve done their work; it’s our turn – and obligation – to do ours. Authors should be creating new works, not fiddling with this or that translator’s insufficiencies. When I have a problem I can’t solve with the standard reference tools, I go to an educated native speaker. Only if the native speaker is baffled do I consider contacting the author. And even then I never ask for a translation of the thorny word or passage, only for an explanation.

KG: Which author or authors’ work have you most enjoyed translating?

MH: Günter Grass, bar none. Immediately after completing a work, he gathers twenty or thirty of his translators, each representing a language, for a several-day, eight-hour-a-day seminar at which he outlines the background for the work and fields questions. Of course not every writer has the clout and funding possibilities of a Nobel Prize winner, but he began the seminars well before he was awarded the prize.

KG: What is the hardest thing you’ve had to translate and why?

MH: Each project has its pitfalls, and few are the projects I’ve begun without wondering, “How can this possibly come across in English?” I was particularly nervous about my first translation from the Chinese (a work in progress) for the reasons I listed above. But as it turns out, I immediately found the narrator’s tone, so in the end, other translations – because of the willed obscurity of their style or the prevalence of, say, word play – have proved more daunting.

KG: What is your view of the current state of translation into the English language? Are you optimistic?

MH: After a boom in the seventies editors fell into a kind of slough of despond, but I believe they are climbing out of it, partly as a result of recent translators’ more pro-active approach.

Michael Heim has been the recipient of numerous fellowships, including Fulbright and Guggenheim, and translation prizes, culminating last year in the PEN American Center/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, which is awarded once every three years to a translator “whose career has demonstrated a commitment to excellence through the body of his or her work.” He has also served on translation juries for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the PEN American Center, and the Goethe-Institut.

KG: Michael, how have these fellowships and awards helped you in your career?

MH: They have convinced skeptical university colleagues – especially administrators – that translation has merit.

KG: What kind of support do you think is most helpful in the career of a literary translator? Training, mentoring, fellowships, grants, university courses, or something else entirely?

MH: All of the above. But I would add one more thing: a fruitful relationship with a talented and sympathetic editor.

KG: What advice would you give people starting out in literary translation?

MH: Read, read, read. Read in the language you are translating from, of course, the better to feel at home with its nuances and cultural assumptions. But even more important, read in English, in all varieties of English, from all over the world, and in all periods of English, from Shakespeare and the King James Bible on. Only by reading broadly and deeply can you enrich the choices you have at your disposal when faced with a text to translate.