Ivo De Gennaro: The Weirdness of Being

Marilyn Stendera


The Weirdness of Being: Heidegger's Unheard Answer to the Seinsfrage Book Cover The Weirdness of Being: Heidegger's Unheard Answer to the Seinsfrage
Ivo De Gennaro

Reviewed by: Marilyn Stendera (University of Melbourne)

In The Weirdness of Being, Ivo De Gennaro stakes out a pilgrimage of sorts through the stark, shadowy terrain mapped out by what he calls the “pentalogy” (2) of recent Heideggerian publications. These are the five works – the Beiträge (GA 65) as well as Besinnung (GA 66), Die Geschichte des Seyns (GA 69), Über den Anfang (GA 70) and Das Ereignis (GA 71) – whose gradual release over the past few decades brought with them so many questions and complications that Heideggerian scholarship birthed a subfield dedicated to their study. De Gennaro’s book touches upon many of the familiar landmarks of that discourse, from the implications of the pentalogy for readings of Heidegger’s ‘project’ as a whole (especially those that reference the increasingly criticised narrative of the so-called Turn), to the difficulties of connecting the concepts used within ‘the five’ to the better-known vocabularies of Heidegger’s other works (and the new light this could shed upon well-trodden themes such as the critique of metaphysical thinking).

At its heart, however, The Weirdness of Being is a treatise on translation. According to De Gennaro, something “has happened” (2, DG’s italics) in the Beiträge and its companion texts that redefines both the role that we should ascribe to translation within Heidegger’s thought, and the approach that the translator of this thought ought to take. The pentalogy, De Gennaro maintains, manifests “the truth […] of the Denkweg” (2) in a way that shows the latter to be “a work of translation, namely, of a language translating itself into the world of that issue”. (3) This, he claims, needs to be reflected in the work of translation. The translator of Heidegger’s words must embark upon the same kind of process that led to the original formulations in order to bring their “necessary and fundamental transformation of our relation to language” (3) into tongues other than German. It is this task that occupies most of The Weirdness of Being, where De Gennaro – who has also worked on Italian editions of Heidegger – puts forward a series of new and often controversial English translations of key Heideggerian terms.

A map for the reader
The book is divided into a preface, six chapters, a brief epilogue that summarises De Gennaro’s translations, and an appendix detailing a conversation between De Gennaro and fellow scholar/translator Parvis Emad. Five of these chapters and the appendix have been previously published as papers or book chapters, while the sixth chapter is adapted from a keynote address De Gennaro gave in 2006. According to the author, each piece has been significantly reworked for this book “in order to work in […] more sufficient translations of certain key words” (ix).

This is a work that is best read out of order. Anyone not readily conversant with De Gennaro’s project is strongly advised to start at the back, tackling the appendix first. There, he sets out the theoretical framework of his approach to translation in more accessible terms than elsewhere in the book. The exchange with Emad – perhaps most likely known to the reader as the co-translator of the first English edition of the Beiträge – also serves to provide a foil for De Gennaro’s approach. The contrast between their perspectives helps to contextualise and hence clarify some of De Gennaro’s analyses. Indeed, one often feels that the chapter explicitly dedicated to Emad (Chapter 4) is not the only one addressing him as a silent interlocutor. An awareness of this connection will enhance one’s reading.

De Gennaro’s model of translation: The appendix
Turning to the contents of the book, this review will take its own advice and begin with the dialogue between Emad and De Gennaro. There, several key motifs emerge which together form a model of translation that informs that informs the main chapters of the book.

One such theme is the idea that translation involves an act of “saying again” (131), rather than just an approximation of a given content. De Gennaro, an advocate of the former, claims that dealing with Heidegger’s words requires the translator to say “’anew’ that which has been indicated and says itself in those German words.” (133) The focus should not be on dictionary-bound accuracy, but rather on re-enacting the thinking that brought forth the original word and expressing “the trait of Being” (136) they reveal in a way that reflects the target language’s particular relation to and understanding of Being. This is contrasted to Emad’s process of translation, which seeks to approximate the meaning of the original term without severing the translation’s dependence upon – and recognition of – the otherness of the original language. De Gennaro claims that approximation clings too much to the idea of the “transfer” of a set conceptual content from one vehicle into another, which he relegates to Vorhandenheitsdenken. Instead, he suggests that the original term itself is already a translation of the “soundless silence” of being into German, meaning that this – rather than the original language – is the source of any “otherness” which must be maintained. (137) This helps to situate the unusual and, as said above, often controversial translations that populate the main chapters of the book. Rather than focusing on conventional methods, De Gennaro’s method of ‘saying again’ involves an almost playful mining of connotations, etymologies and grammatical reconstructions, a delving into and piling up of associations in both German and English until one connection stands out as the most fruitful path of the saying anew of this “trait of being”. (136) The resistance to the idea of a ‘mere’ transfer and the striving towards capturing that Ur-otherness which renders Heidegger’s words strange even to German ears run through De Gennaro’s disquisitions like silver threads.

The second and related motif through which the appendix frames the preceding chapters is that of a porousness of the boundary between translation and interpretation. In contrast to Emad’s insistence on the duty of the translator to maintain a distinction between themselves and the author, De Gennaro suggests that translation and interpretation are as inseparable as “a wave and its crest”. (148) This means, too, that De Gennaro rejects the need for what he calls an “external criterion” (141) of the validity of a particular translation. In opposition to Emad’s plea that “demonstrability” is vital to philosophy as such (142), De Gennaro claims that translation must be “nachvollziehbar […] but it can never be a demonstration”. (143) This reverberates through De Gennaro’s six chapters; his translations, as he freely admits, often seem initially counter-intuitive and even “repulsive” (139) to German and English ears. To get the most out of his project, therefore, the reader must be prepared to be confronted by a method that does not reflect the kinds of justifications one normally expects as either a translator or a reader of translations. It is only after one follows the intricate paths of De Gennaro’s almost-poetic discourse for a while that one gains a sense of whether these words can speak as resonantly to oneself as they do to him.

Finally, the appendix orients the book by marking out its intended audience. This takes place in De Gennaro’s responses to what are arguably some of Emad’s most significant objections. Emad suggests that De Gennaro’s refusal to demonstrate the aptness of his translations deprives them of pedagogical value. The endeavour of ‘saying again’ is not one that would help students, for example, grasp the meaning or worth of particular translations, let alone the outlines of Heidegger’s thought. More perilously, the esoteric nature of De Gennaro’s approach summons the dual demons of obscurantism and elitism. De Gennaro refuses to banish these spectres entirely. He states bluntly that “our principal preoccupation must be to devote ourselves to the task of thinking rather than catering to the demands of the editors, the public, and the universities.” (142) The categories of elitism – of “’private opinion’ vs. ‘general accessibility’” – are, he claims, not worth raising, since “the truth of being […] is by definition accessible to any human being.” (144) As for our students, De Gennaro writes, the best we can do is demonstrate thinking with the hope that they will follow – and, if we fail, at least show them what a failure to follow the Denkweg looks like. This, again, is worth bearing in mind in approaching the substance of De Gennaro’s work. His book is neither teaching nor demonstrating, but rather asking us to enact a particular kind of thinking. Whether this justifies the difficulty of parsing its content is left to the reader to decide.

‘Saying again’: The six chapters
With this conceptual framework in place, a summary of the chapters themselves is in order. The six chapters can mostly be read in any order according to the reader’s interests, though each carries its predecessors’ translations forward, which will necessitate some going back and forth; here, the epilogue is a useful guide.

In Chapter 1, De Gennaro sets out his claim that the pentalogy has a unique role in Heidegger’s thought, revealing the truth of the Denkweg and showing what it means to carry out this thinking. This chapter traces out what De Gennaro takes to be three senses of Sein that feature in Heidegger’s pursuit of the Seinsfrage before defending a translation that will be key to the rest of the book – a rendering of Möglichkeit as ‘likelihood’ rather than ‘possibility’. According to De Gennaro, the former better captures the German term’s connection to capacity (Vermögen) and liking (mögen), as well as many other associations too numerous to mention here.

Chapter 2 sees De Gennaro defend his approach against the accusation that it simply reiterates Heidegger’s claims by asserting the importance of “rethinking” the Denkweg, something that “can unfold only when our ordinary relation to language is unsettled”. (30) This ‘unsettling’ is at the heart of De Gennaro’s translations here, which seek to ‘say again’ Seyn as ‘Beȝng’, Geschichte as ‘wyrd’; and Geschick as ‘the weird’. The first of these replaces the ‘y’ of the more commonly seen ‘Beyng’ with the Middle English ‘yogh’, which is also used to stand for the Anglo-Saxon ‘gyfu’. The latter, a runic symbol for “gift, generosity”, lets Beȝng express “the original trait of generosity” of “es gibt”. (35, DG’s italics) ‘Wyrd’ and ‘weird’, meanwhile, are derived from the Old English use of ‘weird’ to mean either “the principle, power, or agency by which events are predetermined” or (as a verb) “to preordain by the decree of fate”. (42) De Gennaro also wants to preserve the contemporary connotations of the word, giving us a sense of something as fated and yet also ineluctably strange – a wordplay that lends the book its title.

Chapter 3, originally part of a paper co-authored with Frank Schalow, offers a series of reflections on the relations between tradition, translation and interpretation. In Chapter 4, De Gennaro takes the book’s only step away from its focus on Heidegger to briefly compare the latter’s conception of Dasein with Husserl’s use of the term. Concluding that Husserl remains caught up in Vorhandenheit (which is here translated as ‘contingency’), De Gennaro then proceeds to argue that the shifting meanings of Dasein and Da-sein across Heidegger’s works can best be ‘said again’ as ‘there-being’ (rather than ‘being-there’).

Chapter 5 focuses upon Das Ereignis (both the text and the concept). Here, De Gennaro tests and ultimately accepts Emad’s famous translation of Ereignis as ‘enowning’ before suggesting that we should render Wesen as biding. This, De Gennaro thinks, captures the important “trait of ‘staying’ that the word owes to a sense of resistance, suffering, and enduring”, and preserves the connection to the ‘abiding’ of Anwesenheit. (170n24) Along the way, De Gennaro draws upon the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to suggest that ‘inscape’, instress’ and ‘sake’ can describe traits of being in ways that would enrich Heidegger’s German, showing that ‘saying anew’ is not neither unidirectional nor fixed. This is not the first appearance that poetry makes in The Weirdness of Being; Hopkins and Emily Dickinson feature throughout, with De Gennaro suggesting that English poetry has a way of ‘saying’ that both English and German philosophy could learn from. Finally, Chapter 6 sees De Gennaro connect his interpretation of the ontological difference to his claim that “the capacity for silence [forms] the ‘origin and ground’ of speech.” (122)

Selected reflections
Any reader with an interest in the translation of Heidegger’s works will find something of value and interest in De Gennaro’s work. The questions it raises crystallize choices familiar to the translator and the reader of translations. These are struggles that we have had with others, with critics and with ourselves as we grapple with the unique intertwining of content and form we find in Heidegger’s texts – a problem brought to dizzying heights in the enigmatic proclamations of the pentalogy.

Moreover, the transpositions and connections that De Gennaro draws out in his process of translation offer riches to the persistent reader. At the very least, they shed new light on terms that have become too familiar. There is insight in the idea that the works of Heidegger involve “intralingual” translation that must be connected to any “interlingual” renderings of his concepts, and that this requires acknowledging and maintaining the uneasy strangeness of certain formulations. (132) The startling nature of De Gennaro’s wordplay often proves to be refreshing and bracing even as it can be frustrating, recalling the experience of reading Heidegger for the first time. One certainly looks at well-read texts with new eyes afterwards. Of particular note is the first chapter’s discussion of the Seinsfrage and Möglichkeit. The rendering of the latter as ‘likelihood’ is intuitively appealing to some extent, an impression strengthened by the many resonances that De Gennaro traces out. Whether or not one agrees with this translation in the end – whether one thinks it perhaps too concrete a transposition of the radical openness of Möglichkeit – the connotations that it picks out and the contrast to the history of ‘possibility’ are worth considering. De Gennaro’s comparison of Husserl and Heidegger is also especially noteworthy. While its overarching argument – that Husserl remained caught up in Vorhandenheitsdenken and (for De Gennaro) a misguided search for transcendental grandeur – is not novel, it is made in an especially illuminating way that uses the book’s idiosyncratic style to full advantage.

However, this style is not always so well used. De Gennaro’s writing is extraordinarily complex. At its best, it is poetic and almost meditative as it weaves dense networks of associations, metaphors and histories. At times, though, De Gennaro’s formulations are more labyrinthine than Heidegger’s own. Indeed, it often seems that Heidegger’s own cited musings are islands of clarity that the reader can cling to before being swept up once more in the swirling intensity of De Gennaro’s prose. This is heady stuff, and it is not always clear that it needs to be expressed this way. Of course, one might make allowances for the fact that De Gennaro’s philosophy of language requires counter-intuitive formulations. Yet even then, some passages are so involved, so caught up in self-referential terminological interplay, that Emad’s concerns about elitism and pedagogy come to mind with renewed urgency.

This is not the only point of Emad’s that is reinforced when one is working through De Gennaro’s chapters. The worry that the line between translation and interpretation becomes too blurred, and the thought that some kind of criterion for judging the accuracy or demonstrability of a translation is necessary, press in upon one when confronted with De Gennaro’s more radical renderings. ‘Contingency’ may capture something important to the core of Vorhandenheit and ‘biding’ reflects something of the underlying stability we might associate with Wesen. However, it seems that appreciating the full value of De Gennaro’s translations requires a discussion as full and detailed as his. If we don’t have those chapters to hand but only see a sentence about the ‘contingency’ of objects, it seems as if there would be the danger of something missing. While translation is never a completed endeavour – while the very importance of a term is often inversely proportional to the possibility of finding a single satisfactory candidate for it in another language – it seems precipitous to cast oneself adrift with a ‘saying again’ commensurate to the Denkweg as the only guidance. This is especially so when the latter’s lighting upon a particular a connection or allusion at times seems worryingly underdetermined by anything other than intuition.

Of course, De Gennaro – in a particularly compelling discussion of the limits of translation – notes that he welcomes the possibility that his own translations will eventually be superseded in the progress of thinking. Therein, however, lies the rub. These are translations that position themselves so that they can only be properly evaluated or challenged from within the scope of thinking by fellow travellers along the Denkweg. Critical attempts that originate outside of this perspective – and that indeed seek to challenge that perspective itself – may well find themselves lumped in with the editors, universities and public that these translations do not address, or with supposedly benighted attempts at mere conceptual transfer, approximation or dictionary-pointing. This does not leave much space for critical engagement. Perhaps anyone who disagrees with the rendering of Wesen as biding, for example, has simply not heard the silence of being or not succeeded in taking up the Denkweg. Yet what does this mean if there is no concrete way of telling or demonstrating that one has really done so; if there are no criteria for an apt translation beyond some kind of Nachvollziehbarkeit?

There is another potential danger here. The idea that Heidegger’s original words enacted a powerful revelation of some kind and set out a path for us to follow suggests a reverential attitude towards Heidegger’s writings that is rather troubling. It may seem contradictory to make this point after previously suggesting that De Gennaro’s translations were not bound tightly enough to the original words. However, that was a point about semantic accuracy. The ‘reverential attitude’ in question is more one of endowing Heidegger’s key words with such unique power that translation threatens to become a novice’s faithful imitation of the master. This is cemented by the way in which Heidegger himself is discussed throughout the book by both De Gennaro and Emad. In one passage in their conversation, for example, the latter describes Heidegger as “exception”, a rare and “favoured” “recipient” of “’be-ing’s enowning-throw’ (der ereignende Zuwurf des Seyns)”. (152) Here and elsewhere, Heidegger is almost treated as a prophetic figure, the chosen witness of a rare, fated dispensation of being in whose steps we can only hope to follow. This seems like a problematic tendency, particularly in view of who it is that is being treated as the ‘favoured recipient’. Surely someone with Heidegger’s life, views and deeds is not fit to be a sage of any kind, not even of being.

All in all, The Weirdness of Being is a rich, unsettling text that is true to its title and that rewards those who persist – though whether taking up the Denkweg is an endeavour worth pursuing remains for the reader to decide.