Miles Groth

The Ereignis Interview

Miles Groth is an associate professor at Wagner College and chair of the department of psychology. He has published Preparatory Thinking in Heidegger's Teaching and The Voice That Thinks: Heidegger Studies, as well as many articles and reviews related to Heidegger and existential psychoanalysis, and his own poetry. His most recent book is Translating Heidegger. This interview was conducted via email.

Ereignis How did you come to be interested in Heidegger?

MG I began my undergraduate studies in philosophy and English literature.  During a two-semester independent study I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  That was my first sighting of Heidegger’s name.  My interests turned to psychoanalysis towards the end of my undergraduate years and eventually I trained as an “orthodox” (Freudian) psychoanalyst.  My interest in existentialism was strong then (1968) and among the existential psychoanalysts (among whom I’d number myself now) I heard about and read were Binswanger and Medard Boss, whom I eventually met in his office in Zurich not long after Heidegger had died.  For me, the link between Heidegger and psychotherapy gelled in Boss’s work.  I had heard about the “Zollikon Seminars” and was eager to read them when they were first published by Boss.  With the permission of his widow, Boss’s final bibliography will be published soon as co-authored by Boss and me (Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, forthcoming), along with a paper on Boss and Heidegger called “Medard Boss and Martin Heidegger. The Existential Analyst as ‘A Western Kind of Rishi’.”  My interest in Heidegger’s thought has continued through the years and in Translating Heidegger I have made available to scholars what I believe is the most complete bibliography of Heidegger in English.  It includes information on the occasion of composition of each text, German editions, and translations (as of December 2003). I hope it will be useful to scholars.

Ereignis In your book you draw our attention to a short description of Heidegger’s thought by Emmanuel Levinas. Although originally written in French about a German work, and then translated in English, it is clearer than the early translations of German directly into English. Many times I have found translations of Heidegger into other languages easier to follow than the English translations of the same text. Even though English is reputed to have the widest vocabulary of any language, is there something lacking in English that makes Heidegger particularly difficult to translate?

MG I think Heidegger is eminently translatable in English. He invites the full philosophical participation of the translator, however, since for Heidegger translation is perhaps the philosophical activity par excellance.  In my Translating Heidegger I show how his decades-long translation of Parmenides –a total of a few pages of text– can provide a model for rendering Heidegger’s German “into” English.  For Heidegger translating must work not syntactically but paratactcially, that is, word by word.  Each word’s thoughtfulness opens a way into a way of thinking.  Like the few Greek words he returned to again and again, there are a few crucial words that act as prisms by means of which his thought opens out–Sein, Seiende, Existenz, Dasein, Ereignis.  The reason Levinas’s text I mention is so clear is a result of his effort to think as Heidegger did.  In a sense no one has understood Heidegger’s way of thinking better than Levinas.  One must be reminded that, for Heidegger, a thinker’s way of thought is never fully grasped–even and especially by the thinker himself.  As for the reputed “difficulty” of Heidegger’s German–that is a myth perpetuated by professional philosophers who have rushed to get Heidegger into print in English before living with and in his way of thinking.  That takes years.  I think of Plato’s comment about not studying philosophy until one is in his 30s.  I would say that no one should attempt to translate Heidegger until at least then!  The first “mistranslations” of Heidegger’s key words were introduced by a very young Alfred Ayer in his review of Sein und Zeit.  Many years later he apologized for his by then admitted misunderstanding. The history of what happened in the next twenty years leading up to the first Heidegger translations in English in Existence and Being is recounted in Translating Heidegger.  In Preparatory Thinking in Heidegger’s Teaching (1987) I said already a bit about how accessible and generous Heidegger’s language is to English-reading writers if they will only be patient with the words.  Heidegger was a country lad, something often forgotten.  He loved the Alemannic dialect of his area of southwest Germany, reflected deeply on what we call colloquial expressions and common, casually used words as mines of the residues of thinking.  Bringing Heidegger into English means finding an “everyday,” informal, even slang, expression in English that reflects his thought.  Dictionaries and grammar books are of limited value in this.  Just one example: Holzwege, his second collection of essays has been recently translated as Off the Beaten Path.  This is certainly clever, but it misses the allusion to Luther that moved Heidegger to name his collection.  The essays in Holzwege are “failed,” “inauthentic” ways to what matters for thinking.  They are nonetheless valuable for that, of course.  Nor is the silly nonsense about loggers and forest clearings at all to the point.  This is superficial romanticizing, as is the yearning to have a “hut” in the Alps where one can work.  Heidegger needed the solitude and his wife’s gift of a cabin one had to walk through some fields to get satisfied the need.  No, Heidegger is, as William Barrett said, very clear in English.  I’ve always been embarrassed about the snobbish comment once made that Heidegger needed to be translated into German.  His “critics” have been quite superficial.

Ereignis You contributed to the book Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, 1981, edited by Thomas Sheehan, which has sadly been out of print for many years. Will it ever be re-published, or has it largely been superseded by your current book and other works?

MG Tom Sheehan’s Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker was a wonderful contribution.  Whether it should be reissued?  You’d better ask Professor Sheehan about that.  I only contributed the bibliographies to the book.  They have been developed and appear in Translating Heidegger.

Ereignis The English translations of Heidegger, especially Being and Time, are controversial with scholars, and their language is generally considered difficult. In your book you say that this is a misperception caused by bad choices in rendering German terms into English, and that Heidegger's works are in fact quite clear and concise. If that is the case, why haven't there been more, better, translations into English? In your book the history of English translations ends with the publication of Existence and Being in 1949. Why did you decide to end there?

MG I stopped my account of the history of Heidegger in English with 1949 since I believe that all the mistakes that were made in the two decades from the time of Ryle’s review to the publication of Existence and Being continue to influence translations of Heidegger.  Nothing has changed.  The most obvious example is, of course, the word Dasein.  A kind of cult of insiders’ understanding of Heidegger grew up in this country during the last half of the 20th century.  It was routinely said that the word was “untranslatable.”  If considered in balance with Heidegger’s other basic words from the period of Being and Time, it means existence, that is, the unique mode of be-ing (Sein) of human beings.  Existenz is the tricky word.  Sometimes spelled differently (latinized), hyphenated–it means a way of life of an instance of existence.  For Heidegger only human beings exist.  Birds don’t exist, God doesn’t exist.  With rare exceptions, translators refuse to think along with Heidegger in Sein und Zeit long enough to see what is going on there, where his way of thinking is heading–a place and a way he was critical of in the late 60s (see the recently translated Four Seminars).  Grasping the meaning of Existenz makes the translation of Dasein possible and useful as a way of giving _expression to Heidegger’s way of thinking in English.  Until the Heidegger translation industry is in different hands, I worry that the misunderstandings of 1929-1949 will continue for another fifty years.  There are exceptions, of course.  Another generation of translators is taking form.  I have had translations of Was Ist Metaphysik? with the revised Nachwort and the Einleitung as Heidegger presented them in his edition of the lecture and of the Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ ready for more than eight years.  No one will touch them since I am not part of the inner circle of Heideggerians.  Unlike the translations that have been published with the provision, I am told that they not have much editorial material, my translations are heavily annotated.  (They are available to anyone who cares to have a copy.)  In his courses Heidegger’s renderings of, say, a fragment of Parmenides are heavily annotated translations.  It should be obvious that I am still translating Heidegger’s way of thinking in the four texts mentioned above.  Most of the “secondary literature” amounts to a parroting of representations of Heidegger that have appeared in English since Sein und Zeit was first translated into our language.  Readers may want to know that even as superb a thinker along with Heidegger as Joan Stambaugh was stymied for years, many years, in seeing her translation of the work in print.  Meanwhile, there have been more than three times as many Japanese translations of the work.  Finally, I have to add that for someone who once made it clear that there was no “Heidegger’s philosophy”–I refer here to Heidegger himself–it is remarkable how many books have been written about that topic.  These books have been welcomed by the inner circle of those “in the know” who write for one another.  Who knows what may be lying in manuscript that did not meet with “party approval”?  There is a regiment of secondary “authorities” on Heidegger.

Ereignis I receive many messages through the Ereignis web site. A common question from people that are starting their investigations of Heidegger is "Where should I start?" In light of your views on Heidegger and translations, would you recommend that neophytes tackle Heidegger directly? Or instead should they choose a writer who has thought along with Heidegger and written an interpretation?

MG I think students looking for an experience of Heidegger currently have nowhere to start.  There are wonderful passages in some translations, but the overall problems I mention above permeate English renderings of Heidegger’s thought.  There is nothing in English that really “works” as a whole text.  That, I know, is a weighty statement and many will disagree with me.  Some of those who teach Heidegger, whom I have talked to, tell me that they always translate Heidegger for their students.  Of course, this is just what Heidegger requires.  I usually also tell students to learn German and eventually work with the “original.”  A guide who provides a very bright light on the horizon is Julian Young.  I would also still recommend George Steiner’s introduction to Heidegger. The most helpful and erudite helper in getting closer to Heidegger's way of thinking is Tom Sheehan.  I think that if a student wants to read a translation of Sein und Zeit, the individual would still benefit more by working with the Macquarrie/Robinson version, but also have close by Joan Stambaugh’s rendering, since it includes the marginal notes of the Gesamtausgabe edition.  We require a bilingual text.  I don’t know who would (or would be permitted) to undertake the task.  I hope there is a maverick out there with such a project in mind.  Given the ideology-free possibilities of the internet, such a version could easily be disseminated.  Copyright laws would probably stand in the way of in internet publication, though, I suppose.  I would encourage students to read my published reviews of fourteen book-length translations of Heidegger (most of them in The Review of Metaphysics) for some sense of where I believe the translations fail.

In a very general sense, the “problem” with Heidegger in English that developed during the second half of the 20th century and continues even now is that the early admirers of Heidegger, the man and the thinker, imagined that there was a “Heidegger style”–orphic, deliberately obscure, hyphenated–which they imitated in their translations and in the “Heideggerian” writing they published.  Much of it is incomprehensible, quasi-“poetic.”  The authentic students of Heidegger did not become Heideggerians.  Like Levinas, they became themselves and wrote from out of the experience of their own thinking as they were able to translate it into language.  With Nietzsche in mind here, I think we should understand that the last Heideggerian died in Meßkirch, a little town in southwest Germany.

Ereignis Thank you.

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