Translator and Polylinguist Michael Heim

An obituary piece about a very interesting and impressive guy:

See also:

He must have been an extraordinary guy. Being able to translate at that level demands a considerable sensitivity in the languages he worked in.

Yes, I imagine doing literary translations would require something akin to complete mastery - a level way beyond conversational fluency.

And he was able to work at this level in no fewer than SIX languages! (While being merely “fluent” in another six besides.)

What was his secret, I wonder?

I often wonder about translators, do we have literary translators here, @alsuvi perhaps? I know that my husband used to be the better interpreter, whereas I used to be the better translator - although both of us only did day-to-day stuff, nothing literary.

Kato Lomb was able to translate literature in 6 languages too, and interpret in 8-9 languages…
Not bad !!

See there : Kató Lomb - Wikipedia

Is there a rule of seven?

I am not sure, but I think a person is considered as a “hyper-polyglot” when he/she can speak 7 languages (and more)…

Getting into the literary translation business is tough. You can get in easily if you work for pennies, and publishers favor cheap translators most of the time, but that’s no way to make a living. I once dreamt of becoming a literary translator, but soon found out that I had been born in the wrong country for that.

@ Elric :
“but soon found out that I had been born in the wrong country for that.”

What do you mean ?

Translation work is badly paid in Brazil. Publishers here always go for the cheapest prices.

What about working with companies on the net ?

I’ve done plenty of translation work for American agencies, but it was mainly technical material. Literary work always comes from local publishers, and they’re cheapskates.

@Elric: “…Publishers here always go for the cheapest prices”

Is there any significant market for books by bestselling foreign authors in Brazil, Elric?

A really big-selling author (Grisham or Le Carre, say) would surely have to be translated into Portuguese by an expensive star-translator?

It seems to me that it would be a false economy to do something like this on the cheap, because the publishers would end up selling fewer books. (And I’m guessing the author of the original would, in any case, veto a ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ translation on the grounds that it could seriously damage his/her professional reputation!?)

There’s a sizable market for many genres of fiction and non-fiction in Brazil, but translation is not really respected.

Publishers seem to think that it’s cheaper to hire a so-so translator, and do some major copy-editing afterwards than to hire top translators. So-called star-translators aren’t even proper translators, they’re mostly writers or scholars with supposed deep knowledge of the source language and of the target language who do translation when they’re offered enough money (meaning the least that a good professional translator should accept for such a job).

My position regarding translation in Brazil is quite negative because I’ve seen how things work from the inside. It’s an economical, but also cultural issue. As it happens in many other countries, people thing that all you need to translate a book is a dictionary or Google Translate. That’s not to say that all Brazilian translators are bad, there are many excellent professionals, but the top money is elsewhere.

“El Gobierno brasileño invertirá 35 millones de dólares en difundir la literatura de su país”

no suena mal!


No suena mal para los traductores de otros idiomas. :wink:

I’m pretty sure we can circumvent this rule by learning all the languages in each language group, so that each group will only count as one language. :wink:


Thanks for those links. In a way, I think it could actually be very liberating if there were an absolute upper limit to foreign languages (whether 5, 6 or 7) because it would help to combat the problem of ‘language-wanderlust’. It would help us to focus on a smaller and more realistic list of target languages.

I can’t help wondering what I would choose if I had to limit myself to 5 target languages?

Two slots are already taken - German and Italian. Just what would the other three be?

Arabic + Turkish + Ancient Greek? OR Hebrew + Turkish + Ancient Greek?

Turkish + Chinese + (a Slavic language) perhaps?

Hebrew + Chinese + (Swedish or Norwegian)…?

It would be tough to choose, but it might also bring a kind of certainty (a bit like getting married, perhaps?! :-0)

I believe that with language learning, unlike in marriage, you can’t be happy without wandering around a bit.

I think this rule of seven is nonsense. If you’re a native speaker of any of the Romance languages, you can get pretty proficient in any of the others pretty quickly, and to really master one of them would take a fraction of the time that it would take to master Russian or Chinese.

If you include Catalan and Galician, for example, along with the other big ones, there are your seven languages: Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian (this one would probably take longer to master), Catalan and Galician.

You can apply that to at least the Germanic and Slavic group, although with those it would be a ‘bit’ tougher going.

Now if we were talking here about unrelated languages, each coming from a different family, then maybe this rule could apply. I don’t doubt that mastering one Romance, one Germanic, one Slavic, one Indo-Iranian, one Fino-Ugric etc. would take a couple of decades maybe.

@Elric: “…If you’re a native speaker of any of the Romance languages, you can get pretty proficient in any of the others pretty quickly”

Yes, I think this is certainly true. (There is a quite well known saying: “he who learns one Romance language learns them all”!)

Maybe the “rule” does indeed apply to language-families rather than to individual languages?

(Even so, I guess there must be an upper limit somewhere…?)