Thoughts on the new English Translation of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex announcing the new English translation
1) H. M. Parshley’s edition and translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, 1953, Knopf, a division of Random House.
2) ‘While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex’ by Toril Moi, Signs, v. 27 #4, (Summer 2002). Pp 1005-1035
3) Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, the 2009 translators of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex with an introduction by Judith Thurman, 2010, Vintage Books a division of Random House.
4) ‘The Adulteress Wife: a review’ by Toril Moi, London Review of Books, v. 32 #3, February 11, 2010
5) ‘The Grand Rectification: a review’ by Meryl Altman, The Women’s Review of Books, v. 27 # 5 (September/October 2010) pp 3-6
6) ‘Review’, by Dorothy Z. Baker, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, v. 31 #1/2, (Spring/Fall 2012), pp 248-250
7) ‘The Impact of the New Translation of The Second Sex: Rediscovering Beauvoir’ by Christine Daigle, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, v. 27 #3, (2013) pp 336-347
When I was married for the first time in my twenties I had bought a copy of Beauvoir’s book for my wife. She had read many other feminist texts but had never read this one. I knew of Beauvoir as being the companion and founder of the Existential philosophic movement with Sartre. I had not read anything by her, but only some essays and plays of his.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I borrowed the book from my wife and started to read it.
It was huge. An encyclopedic work on the topic of the nature and status of the human being that is female. It seemed odd to me. I had expected some more direct references to the philosophic concepts of Existentialism and didn’t really find that. In the introduction and opening chapter there was some philosophic material but overall it was just bereft of philosophy. I was puzzled.
Now after reading about this new translation it all makes sense.
H. M. Parshley who did the first English translation was a retired professor of zoology and not a philosopher nor was he familiar with French literature in general, and not familiar with Sartre or anything else of Beauvoir. It shows. Alfred Knopf the publisher I read in the introduction to the new edition was asking Parshley to ‘condense the text, noting, without undue masculine gallantry, that Beauvoir “certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea,”’ [pg xiii, of the 2010 Vintage book edition] according to Knopf. Parshley mistranslated the whole work by inadvertently removing the technical terms specific to Existentialism by treating them as ordinary words and translating them out of the philosophic terms that Beauvoir used and intended. Hence Parshley’s text was not an accurate translation of Beauvoir’s book – more a paraphrase of the text. As much as 15% of the original text was removed by Parshley.
Thus I was emotionally correct in my reading the prior edition of the book. It was not a philosophic work – all the philosophy and deep thought was stripped out of the prose that Parshley rendered.
Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier the front pages describes them as ‘They are both graduates of Rutgers University and were faculty members of Institut d’Etudes Politiques of France. They have been translating books and articles on social science, art, and feminist literature for many years and have jointly authored numerous books in English and in French on subjects ranging from grammar to politics…’
They were given the commission by Random House to create the new English Translation. They are not academics and do not have their mindset as they were not expected to, nor could they, render an annotated and academic edition of this important philosophic text as was done for Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophic texts.
Toril Moi’s review of the new translation rightly complains long and loudly about this mistreatment of Beauvoir’s important work. Moi s notes many issues with the new translation, as she did with Parshley’s. Though Moi does appreciate the fact that the new version does finally give us a complete and unabridged version of Beauvoir’s work. Moi is not satisfied with the new version and wishes for a proper academic text. ‘Whenever I try to read Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s translation like an ordinary reader, without constantly checking against the French, I feel as if I were reading underwater. Beauvoir’s French is lucid, powerful and elegantly phrased. Even in Parshley’s translation young women would devour The Second Sex, reading it night and day. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that with this version.’ This is how Moi ends her review.
Daigle ends her review this way: ‘Am I saying that the shape and form in which we receive her [Beauvoir’s] work do not matter? No. They do matter, I am not preaching for inaccuracy or careless translation work. But what I find most important is for the work to exist in such a shape and form that it can appeal to us. The Parshley translation allowed for some appeal to the reader. The new translation, as flawed as it is, has reinvigorated the appeal by putting the work on the map again, so to speak. It provides the English-speaking reader with a complete edition of the work for the first time. That is really important. It corrects mistakes that have hidden the philosophical and phenomenological import of the work. That is also very important. The new translation, even though it may not be the one we were hoping for, is an improvement over Parhley’s. ..People are paying attention again to what Beauvoir had to offer and are beginning to respond to it anew. The appeal is operating again. For this we must be thankful for the new translation of The Second Sex…As scholars, we need to criticize the new translation and point to its flaws. As scholars, we need to continue to push for a scholarly annotated edition of the work in French and then in English. But, as philosopher, we must carry on and think with and beyond Beauvoir. The world is there in need of changing. Beauvoir is appealing to us to see that and commit to act. We need to respond and not let ourselves be bogged down by what the Nouvel observateur has coined a venomous debate about the translation, as this would only serve to murder Beauvoir and annihilate her appeal.’ (pp 344-45)
I, and some others in the same issue of the London Review of Books, as well as the other academic reviews cited above, all disagree with Moi. I have begun to read the translation and find if fluid, accessible, thought provoking and highly readable. For the first time I feel I am hearing Beauvoir the existential philosopher. Though I agree that the text The Second Sex deserves to be treated as an academic and philosophic masterwork, thus fully annotated, I am not holding my breath. The editorial board of Random House, consciously or unconsciously, I believe will never let this happen. They are not interested in academic tradition and are not interested in seeing that this text be treated as it deserves.
‘The first English edition of The Second Sex was published in 1953. Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred Knopf, Beauvoir’s American publisher, had heard of the book on a scouting trip to Paris. Thinking that this sensational literary property was a highbrow sex manual, she had asked an academic who knew about the birds and bees, H. M. Parshley, a retired professor of zoology at Smith College, for a reader’s report. His enthusiasm for the work (“intelligent, learned, and well-balanced …not feminist in any doctrinaire sense”) won his the commission to translate it.‘ (p xiii, 2010 edition) The editorial board of Random House still have no respect for this ‘highbrow sex manual’, nor of its author, that they acquired. The fate of The Second Sex is ironic and a testament to all that Beauvoir was trying to tell us: Women, and the work of a woman, is still being treated as property.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Gary Jaron's musings.
In my High School Art Department someone had made an ornate sign on hung it on the wall that read: 'Ignore this sign completely.' A paradox couched in sarcasm and irony. This blog is for random musings on anything and everything that comes into my head.