He graduated from Columbia in 1964 with a degree in Oriental studies and earned a doctorate in Slavic languages and literature from Harvard University in 1971. He joined the UCLA faculty in 1972.
In 1975 he married Priscilla Smith Kerr, a high school Latin teacher. He is also survived by her three children from a previous marriage and seven grandchildren.
In 1973 he made his debut as a translator with "Letters of Anton Chekhov," which was reissued in 1997. The New York Review of Books called it "still the best work in English on the Russian playwright."
Grass' choice of Heim after his longtime translator died placed the UCLA scholar in an elite league. He was one of 15 of the Nobelist's translators from around the world who were invited to Germany for an intensive three-day seminar with Grass about "My Century." Later, Heim's role in crafting the English version of the novel was praised by reviewer John Simon, who wrote in the Washington Post, "Heim's achievement is prodigious."
His relationship with Kundera was bumpier. He had produced a successful translation of Kundera's 1979 novel "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting." But the Czech writer was so unhappy with what he called Heim's "translation-adaptation" of his first novel, "The Joke," that he criticized the translator in the author's note for a new edition in 1992.
Heim insisted that his name be removed from the 1992 edition, even though, as he said in a 1999 article by Caleb Crain in the journal Lingua Franca, "I stand by the work I did."
He also was proud that he persuaded Kundera and his American editor to use the literal English translation of the name of Kundera's most famous novel. The phrase "unbearable lightness of being" was absorbed into the culture and became a popular riff, but Kundera initially had feared its abstract tone would be "a bit hard going" for American readers, according to an interview with Heim recently posted online by the Iowa Review. The author instead proposed using the title of one of the chapters, "Karenin's Smile."
"I protested," Heim said in the interview. "'We're not children,' I told the editor. 'If "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is the title, so be it.' And so it stayed."