Languages, Translation, and Philosophy

Oftentimes, I go on book-purchasing sprees.  Sometimes this is due to visiting used bookstores in great academic cities.  Others, its due to an influx of cash and dropped prices from my extensive book wishlist on Amazon.  But this week, I spent a painful amount of money (for a po’ un[der]employed academic like myself, at least) on just three books: German copies of Heidegger’s 1923 Ontologie: Hermeneutik der Faktizitat (Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity), 1925 Prolegomena zur Geschichte die Zeitbegriffs (Prolegomena to the History of the Concept of Time), and 1927 Die Grundprobleme die Phänomenologie (Basic Problems of Phenomenology).  These three lecture courses are often considered key to understanding Heidegger’s “early” thought, and especially the obscure passages in the 1927 Sein und Zeit.  I’ve owned English copies of all three for years, but in the course of revising on my forthcoming Peirce and Heidegger in Dialogue, I have come across several terms which require clarification, and for which I find the published translations to be suspect.

It raised a phrase from the murky, buried depths of early grad school days–and I cannot for the life of me remember it was said by my dissertation director, John Deely, or another professor, Ed Houser.  That it seems equally likely to have come from either, being men often opposed to one another, suggests just how important a truth it is–namely: if you cannot read a philosophical work in its original language, you are a slave to the translator.

Heidegger, working on confusing people

For instance, in the “standard” English trnaslation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, by Macquarrie and Robinson, translates Heidegger’s use of the German word Zeug with the English “equipment”.  This isn’t ideal, but it isn’t horrible, either.  Stambaugh’s “alternative” translation renders it “useful things”–which is far worse.  English lacks any word which precisely matches the German, and especially as Heidegger uses it.  Macquarrie and Robinson go on, in a footnote, to note that Heidegger seemingly uses the term only in a collective sense, by saying that there is no such thing as “an equipment” (ein Zeug).  It can be inferred from context, and especially if one has the German text, this is clearly not what Heidegger means.  Rather, he means that to be ‘equipment’ has little to do with the nature of the thing itself and has to do instead with its referential context.

Relying only on the available English translations, one would have a hard time seeing this meaning of Zeug–a point which has dramatic consequences for understanding a key thesis being exposited in Sein und Zeit, the “world” as phenomenologically investigated.

The task I have before me now, in examing the aforementioned three lecture series (as well as the 1929 Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik, for which I thankfully found a German text some months ago in the “Commonwealth Bookstore” in downtown Boston), is sorting out which of two commonly used German terms–Sinn and Bedeutung (and very occasionally the verb meinen)are translated by the single English word “meaning”.

Good times.


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