Reading texts from other cultures, languages, and time periods will help us gain new perspectives on the world: this is perhaps the single most commonly proffered defense of the humanities. (“Reading a book from another region of the world might help you think about the meaning of democracy,” posits the home page of the Stanford Humanities Center.) And the question of how such works enter our language – the political and cultural structures that dictate the terms of their transmission – has become increasingly central within literary study over the past three decades. Yet though Translation Studies theorists have denounced the invisibility of the translator and decried the scandal of the obliteration of the translator, the figure of the contemporary translator him- or herself has only quite recently become an object of serious study.
Michael Henry Heim (1943-2012) was the translator of more than sixty books, who devoted his life to what he called “the cause… of cultural mediation as represented by translation.” Heim advocated the art of translation as a central component of humanistic study and envisaged a future of passionate proactive translators within the university. A look at Heim’s work, the principles that guided him, and the impact of what he achieved challenges conventional ideas of academic success and offers the model of a humanist who not only expanded the cultural horizons of his language by bringing many new texts into it, but transformed the political and cultural structures within which those texts were received.