I own a number of translations by Michael Henry Heim, who died at the end of September, but his name had somehow not stuck with me, so when I read Margalit Fox’s NY Times obituary I was shocked to learn about “the wide array of languages with which he worked. Conversant with a dozen tongues, he translated from eight of them, spanning Slavic (Russian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian); Germanic (German, Dutch); Romance (French, Romanian); and Hungarian, a non-Indo European language.” How did he do that? His translations include “from Russian, the novel The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov; from Serbo-Croatian, a volume of stories, The Encyclopedia of the Dead, by Danilo Kis; from Czech, the novella ‘Too Loud a Solitude,’ by Bohumil Hrabal; and, from Hungarian, the novella ‘Helping Verbs of the Heart,’ by Peter Esterhazy.” I pulled down a couple of his translations and was struck by the elegance of the English; here’s a sentence from the opening of The Encyclopedia of the Dead: “It cannot be denied that he himself contributed to the confusion, answering the most innocent questions about his origins with a wave of the hand broad enough to take in both the neighboring hamlet and half the horizon.” Susan Bernofsky has a nice reminiscence of him at her blog; I can’t help but wish that when the Czech government called him up to ask “what words to use in English to name their new country,” he had told them to go with Czechia rather than the Czech Republic, but that’s water under the bridge. Thanks for the link, Eric!


  1. He signed my copy of “Contemporary Czech” once, remarking self-deprecatingly that it was the first time anyone had ever asked him to sign a grammar.
    He also sent me a very nice letter with recommendations for a neophyte translator from Czech. He will be missed.

  2. Garrigus Carraig says

    Literary translations from eight languages — that seems remarkable. Are there many people like this? Were there more in the past?
    When I am King, I shall call it “Czechland”.

  3. I couldn’t agree more about Czechia, that’s what everybody else says in Europe. It’s a cop out when the name of a country is an adjective that isn’t derived from a noun. Actually, I don’t like adjectives at all: “United” Kingdom – haha, how ironic. The same with “United” States, it’s more of an exhortation than a description. I’m glad to see “Democratic” Republic seems to be on its way out.
    When I am king (which I am), I’ll call it The Bouncing Republic of Czechia.

  4. mollymooly says

    Wikipedia suggests the Western Romance also have “Czech Republic”; so, oddly, does the Srpskohrvatski wiki, though not the Српски, Hrvatski, Bosanski, or Црногорски ones.
    The Anglo-Saxons OTOH say Cecland.

  5. John Emerson says

    I think that these all names should be redone on the regular Afghan pattern:
    Afghanistan – Afghan — afghani.
    By that you would get:
    Korunistan – Korun – koruna.
    Euristan – Eur – euro.
    The US would be:
    Dollaristan – Doll – dollar.
    COuntries with identical names for currencies would just merge.
    People laugh now.

  6. Jeffry House says

    That wouldn’t work for Latin America. peso is okay, but pes and Pesistan sound a lot like “fish” for the citizen, and Fishiland for the country.
    Countries with “escudo” for currency would end up with citizens called “escos” far too close to “ascos” or “disgustings”.

  7. You will not mollify JE’s stern soul with such petty objections. I’m pretty sure he has no problem calling citizens “fish” or “disgustings.”

  8. Czechia sounds wrong somehow.
    Polish spelling probably optimal for English – Czechy.

  9. Rhymes with “cheeky”

  10. I see that wiki has a separate article Czech lands for Czechia-before-it-became-a-republic.
    Maybe the solution is for Bohemia and Moravia to have a second velvet divorce. But who would get custody of Silesia?

  11. Trond Engen says

    Czechia sounds wrong somehow.
    When I am King, I shall call it “Czechland”.
    I wished for Tsjekkland in Norwegian at the time of dissolution, but one gets used to everything.

  12. Jeffry House says

    How would John’s stern soul react to a citizen of Brazil being called a “really”? On the other hand, his suggestion is inspired when applied to Guatemala, where resplendent citizens would be “Quetzallis”

  13. John Emerson says

    The currency has the suffix, so Brazil would be Realistan, its currency the real, and its citizens Reas.

  14. Garrigus Carraig says

    Do the Moravians and Silesians get annoyed about the apparently exclusionary name of Česko?

  15. John Emerson says

    There are two or three families around here that call themselves Bohemians, which was the name when their families emigrated. I always thought they were Germans, but they probably are Czechs.

  16. I suspect Emerson would like Cirbozoid.

  17. They might have been Czechs who spoke German, like Kafka.
    Just a universe away, the official and majority (1 million speakers) language of the Bohemian Kingdom is ta pémiš šprochna, roughly defined as “German with a Czech superstrate”. Only about 20,000 people, mostly rural, still speak Czech. Here’s a few links:
    A brief history of Bohemia
    A set of correspondences between Standard German and the five dialects of Bohemian
    Political map
    Linguistic map

  18. Brazil would be Realistan, its currency the real, and its citizens Reas
    or Rheas, depending on your spelling preferences.

  19. John Emerson says

    The Bohemian Kingdom deleted Hus and Zizka, so no thanks!

  20. In the UK, “Poundland” is a super-cheap “price-point retailer” with everything for £1 – so naming the country Poundland would about fit in with the state of the economy right now.

  21. John Emerson says

    In my system it would be “Poundistan”, and the citizens “Pous.”

  22. The Bohemian Kingdom deleted Hus and Zizka, so no thanks!

    no way! höns hus is bohemian national hero and saint, he is the most pronounced saint in the common bohemian church (ta öalkmejna pémiša kirchna). höns šiška foncu trocnau is also a national hero, because his armed forces supported emperor sigismund of luxembourg in his fight for a new church during sitting of the council in konstanz and without him, it would not be possible, he broke all the resistance in france, italy and germany and helped pope martin V. to take place in the history by decentralising church and forming new unity between west and east under pope eugenius IV. and emperor joannes VIII. palaeologus! 🙂

  23. (Hi there, Jan.) Yes, the Czech national heroes have not been deleted, far from it.

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