Heim who taught Slavic languages and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles for 40 years, died Saturday at his West Los Angeles home from complications of melanoma, the school said in an obituary.
"He was a theorist, a practitioner and a cultural activist, among the finest literary translators of the last half-century and a pioneer in the field of translation studies," said a statement from Ronald Vroon, the department chair.
Heim won numerous awards for his work translating Eastern European, Russian and German authors. He spoke or read a dozen languages.
"He put himself to sleep at night by learning vocabulary words in whatever language he was studying," said his wife, Priscilla Heim.
Heim translated Czech novelist Milan Kundera's bestselling "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting."
His German translations included Gunter Grass's "My Century" and "Peeling the Onion," the first volume of Grass's two-volume memoir.
His translation of Thomas Mann's classic "Death in Venice" from German won the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translation Prize in 2005.
He also translated works by Anton Chekhov and Bertold Brecht. His 1975 translation of Chekhov's letters was praised in the New York Review of Books.
"It is impossible to imagine intelligent American life from the 20th century's spectacular end until now without his translations. Michael Henry Heim brought us worlds that are now a permanent, natural feature of how we conceive our creative, philosophical, and ethical landscape," poet and National Public Radio commentator Andrei Codrescu said in a statement published on the UCLA International Institute website.
Codrescu, a Romanian immigrant, praised Heim's translations of his own work into "marvelous American English."
"He 'naturalized' me in a way that the official ceremony never could," Codrescu said.
Although he was praised for his translations, Heim said he disagreed with the view that translators effectively were creating new works and didn't consider himself a novelist.
"As long as there are people I can translate who are better fiction writers than I am, I'll translate them," he told UCLA Today in 2006.
In addition to his wife, Heim is survived by three stepchildren and seven grandchildren.