Imagine a world without the benefit of translation--the Bible is available only in Greek, Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” only in Spanish. You could read Dante’s “Inferno” if you knew Italian, or Kafka’s “The Trial” with a sure command of German.
Today, if you wanted to read a recent novel by an Afghan writer, and you didn’t happen to know either Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, it would be a world without translation. There aren’t any contemporary Afghan novels in our public libraries or bookstores; none listed on Amazon. None have been translated into English, says S. Wally Ahmadi, editor of Critique and Vision, a journal of Afghan culture and history. Nor will any be translated soon, he says.
“All of a sudden we want to know about Afghanistan, and we know precious little. We haven’t prepared enough translators,” says Michael Henry Heim, one of the nation’s most respected literary translators. “It could take 10 years to train proper translators for Pashto and Dari.” Heim fears the quick fix. “The government will send people to language schools. They’ll start with first-year Arabic. We’ll have instant scholars and instant experts. But this is reaction rather than the constant steady flow of knowledge.”
Chairman of Slavic languages and literature at UCLA, Heim remembers another time when events in the news piqued the country’s interest in knowing more about foreign cultures. “It was Aug. 21, 1968, and the Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia. Suddenly, everyone was interested in Czech literature.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the national curiosity about Slavic languages waned. “As soon as a country goes out of the news, the interest flags,” he says. “Russia is no longer the Evil Empire, just a future Third World country. There are fewer students studying Russian because there are less fellowships available, fewer jobs. The State Department is not as interested in hiring Russian translators.” Heim says with a sigh, “It just seems to me that in a country of 250 million, we’re rich enough to afford to study all these cultures.”
Heim, 58, has been a translator for 30 years. As an undergraduate, he studied at Columbia University with the great translator Gregory Rabassa, acclaimed for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Heim obtained his PhD in Slavic languages from Harvard. Among his many notable translations are Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” from the Czech, Vassily Aksyonov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” from the Russian; Danilo Kis’ “Encyclopedia of the Dead,” from the Serb; and Gnter Grass’ Nobel Prize-winning novel, “My Century,” from the German.
Heim is fluent in six languages (Czech, French, German, Italian, Russian and Serbo/Croatian), with a reading knowledge of six more. Asked about his very first job, he lights up with pleasure at the recollection: “I began with Chekhov’s letters. I was the most lucky young translator!”
Though Heim has agreed to an interview, he’s skeptical that many will find the subject of translation to be of much interest. “I’m pessimistic about the general mood,” he admits. “As a friend of mine says, there are 3,000 people in any country who are interested in reading ‘good’ books, by which he means difficult books. No matter what size the country, you have the same 3,000. And since my friend is Dutch, the 3,000 people in his country are proportionally a much larger group than ours, but it’s still 3,000 people.”
Heim may be a skeptical host, but he’s a gracious one. He pours coffee and serves up a plate of dark red Romanian tomatoes to his guest, then settles his lanky frame into a chair. Butterflies dart through the luscious tangle of the flower and vegetable garden behind the comfortable Westwood home he shares with his wife, Priscilla, for many years a teacher of high school Latin and Greek.
Most mornings when he’s not teaching, Heim can be found in front of his laptop in his home office, deep in concentration. Within easy reach on the cluttered shelves above his desk are the tools of the translator’s trade, among them a four-volume Russian dictionary compiled in the 1930s (“many consider it still unsurpassed,” he comments), 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 Rodale’s Synonym Finder.
In all probability, you’ll find translated literary works on the bookshelves of many Americans. The Bible is a ubiquitous example. Yet there is little public awareness or understanding of the demanding art of translation. Translation is an art form that takes place “behind the scenes” of the literary life.
In his 1998 polemic, “The Scandals of Translation,” Lawrence Venuti, professor of English at Temple University, lays it out: “Translation is stigmatized as a form of authorship, discouraged by copyright law, deprecated by the academy, exploited by publishers and corporations, governments and religious organizations.”
It’s not uncommon for a book critic, in reviewing a book, to neglect to mention that the book is a translation, a fact that once prompted novelist Joyce Carol Oates to complain in a letter to the New York Times: “Those who imagine that foreign-language works are transposed into English by a mysterious chemical process, without the efforts of gifted translators, are kin to those who imagine that film actors speak their own lines, without the benefit of screenwriters.”
The traditional view holds that the translator should be “invisible,” merely a conduit for the work. “There’s a new ideological ‘take’ on that nowadays,” Heim comments. “The postmodern stance is that the translator creates a new work. That’s where I disagree. I believe that 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.”
Is creating the same work even an option? Heim smiles patiently. “‘As much as possible’ is what I said.” As one might expect from a man whose job is to find the right phrase, Heim chooses his words with care. “It’s possible enough so that a good translation will allow a person who has read the work in the original and a person who has read the work in translation to have an intelligent conversation about it. I think that’s the most that we can hope for.
“The reader must believe he or she is reading a work in French or Japanese and yet be reading it in English. That’s the real paradox. It’s a scam, if you like. A feat of legerdemain. But I think it can be done.”
There are those who argue that there are too many differences among cultures for a translation to ever be “true.” Say “bread” " to one person, and she’ll conjure up a package of plastic-wrapped white bread. Say “bread” to another and she’ll imagine a crusty baguette. The oft-used pun about translation is tradduttore, traditore, literally, “the translator is a traitor.” The translator is unfaithful.
In a 1985 essay titled “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” Barbara Johnson suggests a more apt metaphor: “The translator ought ... to be considered not as a duteous spouse but as a faithful bigamist, with loyalties split between a native language and a foreign tongue.”
What attracts Heim to a particular work is an author’s interesting use of language. “I don’t think I’d translate an incendiary piece that goes against my beliefs, no matter how beautiful the language was. However, I have translated authors with whom I haven’t agreed 100%.” Milan Kundera comes to mind. “Kundera’s language is very pristine, and that’s what attracted me to it. I was also attracted by his ideas, even though I didn’t agree with all of them. And yet Kundera introduced a number of ways of looking at things that were completely new to his audience at the time.”
Heim is diplomatic when discussing Kundera, a writer notorious for stormy relationships with his translators. In an oft-cited essay published in the journal Lingua Franca (October 1999), Caleb Crain chronicles Kundera’s decade-and-a-half crusade against “unfaithful translations.” Some in the literary world have characterized the novelist’s crusade (which has included public condemnation of his translators, including Heim) as an obsession.
In his own defense, Kundera has replied, “An undue obsession? I can’t say. My books lived their lives as translations. As translations they were read, criticized, judged, accepted or rejected. I was unable not to care about translation.”
Gnter Grass provides a quite different example of the kind of relationship an author can have with his translator. For his most recent work, “My Century,” Grass brought together 15 of his translators from all over the world for a seminar in his publisher’s offices in Gottingen, Germany, spending 15 hours a day for three days with them. “Grass told us what he had in mind. He asked us what we had in mind. He asked us our advice, as the novel wasn’t finished when we began work translating it.”
Heim recalls a long debate between the Danish translator and Grass about the East Berlin workers’ uprising in 1953. “In the end,” Heim chuckles, “Grass won the argument.”
For the last five years, Heim has been translating the diaries of Kornei Chukovski from the Russian. “Chukovski was a children’s book writer, a critic and a translator--which puts the fear of God into me. He translated Mark Twain, among others.”
Chukovski knew most of the great writers of his time--Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak--and his diaries, which run from 1901 to 1969, “are a wonderful testimony to his own attempt to remain honest throughout the period, a period that almost required dishonesty,” says Heim. His long labor nearly done (Yale University Press will publish the diaries in 2002), Heim must soon decide what to take on next. “It’s a real problem. You don’t want to take on the wrong project, because you’re with it for so long.” He pauses a beat. “It makes me anxious.” As if to amplify his sentiment, the phone rings in Heim’s office. It’s the American publisher of an Eastern European novel, eager to know if his book is next on Heim’s agenda. Heim explains that he can’t commit yet and soothes the caller with suggestions of other possible translators.
Heim worries that American readers are afraid of tackling literature in translation. “An editor once told me that he resented the assumption on the part of foreign writers who don’t get translated that Americans are not interested in what goes on outside their borders. He said, ‘Americans are as interested as any other people, but they just don’t trust those damn foreigners to tell them about it.’ So they’re more likely to read James Clavell about Japan, but they won’t read Kenzaburo Oe, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning author.”
Fear of the unfamiliar, and mistrust of the translator, are factors in those choices, Heim says, and he regards teachers and librarians as crucial allies in the struggle to break down barriers. “Teachers because they can show you while you’re still learning--that these barriers don’t need to exist. Librarians--and booksellers--because they can help you at the time when you’re choosing the book.”
Every two years Heim teaches a workshop at UCLA in literary translation. “Out of each workshop has come one or two professional translators,” he says with justifiable pride. He considers it scandalous that American universities (including UCLA) require only one year of a foreign language. “We need people to study languages for our own sophistication as a country, for our own broad-mindedness, for our own awareness of what language per se is. Not for practical purposes--English is the world language. Americans who go abroad will not need to order coffee in Urdu.”
He notes that America is less hungry for works from other cultures than are other countries. English language works are by far the most translated literature into every other foreign language.
By comparison, little foreign literature is translated into English. Increasingly in this country, the publishing of literature in translation falls to academic presses. Among the few major American publishing houses still committed to publishing literature in translation is Farrar Straus & Giroux. When reached for comment in New York, gutsy co-founder Roger Straus said, “You can’t call yourself a proper publisher unless you publish world literature!”
“While it’s true that that Anglo American literature is extremely vibrant,” says Heim, “it doesn’t mean that nothing else of interest is being written. We ignore what else is being written at our own peril. To our detriment. We’re missing a lot.”