Translator Michael Henry Heim’s secret gift: more translations

Michael Henry Heim in 2001
(Stefano Paltera / Special to The Times)

Earlier this week, The Times reported on the death of Michael Henry Heim, 69, one of the leading figures of the small, unseen and largely unknown circle of men and women who translate the world’s literature into English. Heim, a UCLA scholar, spoke six language fluently and could read six more, and he translated works by authors such as Gunter Grass, Bertolt Brecht, Milan Kundera, Thomas Mann and Anton Chekhov into English.

But what the world didn’t know until his death is that Heim had privately funded dozens more works by other translators. Heim was the anonymous benefactor whose gift of $734,000 created the PEN Translation Fund in 2003.

On his translation-focused blog Three Percent, publisher Chad Post revealed the news Tuesday. The New York-based PEN American Center followed up the next day with a press release confirming the donation.

With their gift, Heim and his wife Priscilla “created a legacy that recognizes the unique place of translators and translation in our literary life,” Peter Godwin, president of PEN American Center, said in a statement. “He stood for that because he knew so well how translation serves us all by providing the key in our own language to all the world’s literature.”


Translating literature is a low-paid job that’s also highly skilled and labor-intensive. And the PEN Translation Fund has helped pay for some 100 translations in a variety of languages, including Armenian, Basque, Estonian, Farsi, Lithuanian and Mongolian. As a lover of Latin American literature, I’m especially grateful to the fund for helping to bring the works of writers such as Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya (arguably El Salvador’s greatest living writer) to English-language readers.

So how did Heim, who certainly didn’t get rich as a translator, come up with the money that established the fund? According to PEN, it began with the death benefit paid to his mother when Heim’s father, a Hungarian composer and pastry chef serving in the U.S. military, was killed in 1945.

Heim and his wife Priscilla were frugal with that small windfall.

“We never went to restaurants or movies, and Mike wore his clothes for years on end, including his good blazer after moth holes appeared,” Priscilla said. “Those things add up, and added to the fund.”

Many tributes to Heim have poured in. Thanks to Mike and Priscilla Heim, and his moth-eaten blazer, we readers of English have a significantly larger world of books to read.


Book review: “Too Loud a Solitude” by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Michael Henry Heim

“Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann, translated by Michael Henry Heim, reviewed by Michael Cunningham

Book review: “In Search of Melancholy Baby” by Vassily Aksyonov; translated by Michael Henry Heim and Antonina W. Bouis


-- Hector Tobar