Michael Henry Heim in the Classroom

At the ALTA conference earlier this month I ran into Brent Sverdloff, now the executive director of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco, and formerly a student of Michael Henry Heim‘s at UCLA. I know that Mike Heim was incredible in the classroom because I once had the opportunity to sit in on his graduate translation workshop when I was on campus interviewing for a job in the German department I wasn’t offered in the end. My two vivid memories of that day are being asked during the interview luncheon why people kept insisting on teaching that “overrated” writer Franz Kafka; and sitting in Mike’s workshop, observing in awe as he went over one brilliant exercise after the other with his students. I didn’t take notes, since it was obvious that I would never forget any of his brilliant classroom gambits. But of course the stresses of the day took their toll, and one week later I discovered a blank spot in my brain when I tried to remember what exactly it was that Mike had done with his students before my admiring eyes. So I was delighted to hear that Brent Sverdloff still had copious notes documenting his studies with Mike and was willing to guest-blog about them. Here is what he writes:

“Plump” is a word that I will always associate with Michael Henry Heim. Not because it had anything to do with his tall, lanky physicality, but because it was one of the first examples he gave us about context. Michael reminded us that in certain countries and time periods, heaviness could be considered a sign of robust health and not a negative trait. “Plump,” not “fat.” “Stout,” not “overweight.” It’s a simple point, but one with vast ramifications, and one that sticks with me 25 years after taking his workshop as a grad student at UCLA.

Michael told us of a time early in his career when he’d mistranslated “sun-burned” for “sun-tanned” and was let go from the project. The mistake was regrettable, but he bore no resentment toward the decision-maker. He took this incident as an opportunity to heighten his sensitivity to the subtleties of language. I can honestly say I’d never met anyone before or since with such an exacting yet kind-hearted respect for linguistic nuance.

In our translation workshop, a dozen of us brought a variety of mostly European languages to the table. As a Romance Linguistics major, my primary language was Spanish. I chose a section from Platero y Yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez. In the passage about the eponymous burro in his pastoral habitat was the phrase “las florecillas rosas, celestes y gualdas.” In a misguided effort to render my translation more colorful, I translated “celeste” as “turquoise.” I remember Michael gently placing the tip of his index finger on this handwritten word in my notebook. He touched it as if it were a wounded bird. “You’ve taken a delicate flower,” he said, “and turned it into a hard mineral.”

In September 2011, when the Center for the Art of Translation inaugurated our new offices in a Beaux Arts mid-rise in downtown San Francisco, we invited Michael to be the first speaker at our Two Voices events series. (You can read a summary of his talk about what he terms “the three eras” of translation” and listen to the audio here.)

At this event I asked Michael if he still used what was arguably the most popular exercise in our 1987 workshop: a reverse translation from French of a passage from a novel originally written in English. He and Priscilla enthused that it remained a class favorite year after year. Even though students were bringing wildly more diverse languages to his class—Turkmen, Indonesian, Korean—they were still expected to muddle their way through fairly literal French with the aid of a dictionary and collaboration with their classmates. We were given no context whatsoever—country, region, time period, etc. You can imagine how disparate our results were. Try it yourself and compare your version with the original at the end of this post.

Here’s the text to translate back into English:

Le rosbif avec pommes rôties et haricots verts était excellent ce soir-là, et, après avoir rappelé comme il convenait le temps de la journée, son gain de cinq cents dollars, son déjeuner avec Paul Riesling et le merités prouvés du nouvel allumeur de cigars, il se sentit porté à l’optimisme et dit :

« Je songerais volontiers à acheter une autre voiture. Je ne crois pas que ce soit avant l’année prochaine, pourtant ce ne serait pas impossible.

— Oh! papa, cria Verona, si vous faites ça, pourquoi n’auriez-vous pas une conduite intérieure? C’est ça qui serait chic! Une voiture fermée est tellement plus confortable.

— Oh! ça, je ne sais pas… j’aime assez une voiture découverte, on a plus d’air.

— Pensez-vous! C’est parce que vous n’avez pas essayé une auto fermée. Achetons-en une. Ça vous a bien plus d’allure, dit Ted.

— Une voiture fermée, fit observer madame B., ménage bien plus les vêtements.

— On n’est pas toute décoiffée, ajouta Verona.

— C’est bien plus sportif! lança Ted, et Tinka la plus jeune :

— Oh! oui, une conduit intérieure. Le père de Marie-Helene en a une. »

Et Ted conclut :

« Tout le monde a une voiture fermée maintenant sauf nous. »

And here’s the original:

The roast of beef, roasted potatoes, and string beans were excellent this evening and, after an adequate sketch of the day’s progressive weather-states, his four-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fee, his lunch with Paul Riesling, and the proven merits of the new cigar-lighter, he was moved to a benign, “Sort o’ thinking about buyin’, a new car. Don’t believe we’ll get one till next year, but still we might.”

Verona, the older daughter, cried, “Oh, Dad, if you do, why don’t you get a sedan? That would be perfectly slick! A closed car is so much more comfy than an open one.”

“Well now, I don’t know about that. I kind of like an open car. You get more fresh air that way.”

“Oh, shoot, that’s just because you never tried a sedan. Let’s get one. It’s got a lot more class,” said Ted.

“A closed car does keep the clothes nicer,” from Mrs. Babbitt; “You don’t get your hair blown all to pieces,” from Verona; “It’s a lot sportier,” from Ted; and from Tinka, the youngest, “Oh, let’s have a sedan! Mary Ellen’s father has got one.” Ted wound up, “Oh, everybody’s got a closed car now, except us!”

(Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis, 1922)

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