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  • Talking to Ourselves, Over Her (Dead) Body:On Heidegger, Borges, and Seeing the Other
  • David E. Johnson (bio)

In a text that stages a conversation or "dialogue" between himself (the "Inquirer") and Tezuka Tomio (the "Japanese"), Martin Heidegger remembers the visits of another Japanese who had come to Germany to study with Husserl, the Count Shuzo Kuki, who occasionally came to Heidegger's house to talk with him outside of the academic context. Heidegger recalls: "Our dialogues were not formal, scholarly discussions. . . . The dialogues of which I am thinking came about at my house, like a spontaneous game" (1971, 4). On such occasions Count Kuki came with his wife, who, Heidegger says, "wore festive Japanese garments" (4). He comments that "They made the Eastasian world more luminously present, and the danger of our dialogues became more clearly visible" (4). The dialogue between the Inquisitor and the Japanese, hence an intercultural dialogue, what Heidegger called "a dialogue from house to house" and that according to him "remains nearly impossible," nevertheless became possible in the presence of one who never spoke and to whom no one addressed himself, in the presence of the Asian woman [End Page 143] (5). With his comment about the near impossibility of dialogue, Heidegger recognizes that the risk or danger of distortion is the condition of possibility of dialogue, that is, that dialogue will be distorted. In the necessary translation between the two houses constitutive of dialogue, the possibility itself of dialogue—that it be the effect of translation—threatens to ruin the dialogue.

Heidegger underlines that the fact that the dialogue was sustained in German meant, according to the Japanese, that the properly Japanese, the essence of Japanese culture, was translated to a conceptual system foreign to Japanese, a conceptual system within which inevitably it proved impossible to say precisely the essence of Japanese. Heidegger admits, "The danger of our dialogues was hidden in language itself, not in what we discussed, nor in the way in which we tried to do so" (4). The Japanese interlocutor adds that the danger of dialogue lies in the fact that "[t]he language of the dialogue constantly destroyed the possibility of saying what the dialogue was about" (5). Although Heidegger presents the difficulty or the danger of dialogue as a problem proper to translation—the effort "to say the essential nature of Eastasian art and poetry" in a European language—the constant destruction of the possibility of saying that which dialogue wants to say is even more general (4). It is a problem inherent to language itself. This means that translation—or the problem that translation proposes to dialogue—is consubstantial to language. The possibility, the chance, of a dialogue without translation does not exist; therefore, there does not exist the possibility of a dialogue in a single language that avoids the problem of translation and, thus, that eludes the danger of dialogue.

In this context it is worthwhile to recall the first sentence of Jorge Luis Borges's "Las Versiones Homéricas" (The Homeric Versions): "There is no problem as consubstantial with letters and their modest mystery as that which a translation proposes" (Ningún problema tan consustancial con las letras y con su modesto misterio como el que propone una traducción) (1996, 1:239, translation mine). As consubstantial with letters (letras), but also literature (letras), translation does not necessarily imply transit between two languages: that is to say, the effect of translation is legible even within a single language. Nor is this an exclusively Borgesian—hence fantastical, fictional—position. Rather, Heidegger also shared this position. In the 1942 [End Page 144] lecture course devoted to Hölderlin's hymn, "Der Ister," Heidegger notes, "translating does not only move between two different languages, but there is a translating within one and the same language" (1996b, 62).

But if language is understood as necessary translation—that is, if it is the case that there is no single language that is not marked, within itself, by the movement of translation—then it is also the case that language, qua translation, constantly destroys the possibility of saying what the dialogue wants to say even as language makes dialogue possible. There...


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