Translation 20. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

An interview with writer Sarah Glazer on (Australian ) ABC Radio’s “Bookshow” on 29 July 2010 provided the trigger for the following short but fascinating investigation of a long-running and multifaceted publishing controversy about the translation of the renowned French intellectual’s seminal feminist and existential work (Le Deuxième Sexe). The radio programme dealt with the longevity of the original unsatisfactory 1953 translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s work and the publisher’s decades-long unwillingness to replace the translation of this bestselling work with a more accurate and unabridged one. Topics covered: the frequent distracting translation errors, the publisher’s decision to omit between 10% and 15% of the original, and the final appearance and mixed reception of a second translation of the long text last year. Read all about it on the “Bookshow” for 29 July 2010.

Further examination of these different issues reveals evidence of a tussle between the original publisher of the English translation (Alfred Knopf), which has allegedly sold one million copies over 50 years (mainly to college students taking gender and feminist courses) and American feminist academics who, in view of the book’s importance and density, had been advocating an annotated edition produced by, or subject to, guidance from a committee of experts in philosophy and feminism.

In the end, the academics appear to have lost this battle (although an annotated edition is still possible in the future) and a fresh controversy has arisen over the quality of the new translation.

In a 2008 article celebrating the centenary of de Beauvoir’s birth and advocating a much wider audience for The Second Sex, Professor Toril Moi (author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman) announced that a new translation was finally in preparation.

“Unfortunately, the only English translation of The Second Sex, done in 1953 by the zoologist H. M. Parshley, is seriously defective. Almost 15 per cent of the text is missing. The philosophical inaccuracies are such that it is difficult to get a clear sense of Beauvoir’s thought. For decades, Random House, Beauvoir’s US publisher, resisted every suggestion that the translation was flawed. Last year, however, it suddenly announced that a new translation has finally been commissioned.”

The professor added: “The translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, are best known as cookery book writers. Let’s hope they do justice to Beauvoir’s masterpiece.” (Following that acidic comment, puzzled outside observers should take note that this controversy is 100% American in character, given that the two recent translators emigrated from America to Paris four decades ago and have held French university positions teaching English and literature. As for fellow American and the only male in the dramatis personae, Professor Parshley, he has not suffered at all from the criticism of his work, having died in 1953.)

Two years later, following the publication of the new 800-page translation (The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Cape, 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 07859 7), the main London newspapers, The Times, The Independent, and The Guardian praised the efforts of Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, while one or two U.S. broadsheets were less welcoming.

Shortly afterwards, Professor Moi wrote a vigorous 5,000-word essay in the The London Review of Books (LRB), ‘The Adulteress Wife’ .

This article re-introduces The Second Sex and its importance as a feminist text as well as sketching the 25 years of efforts to persuade the reluctant publisher to replace the first translation (“lively and readable”, but full of errors and incomplete) with a more accurate and unabridged one.

Professor Moi mentions a few of the other protagonists in this long quest, including Professor Margaret Simons (‘The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing from The Second Sex’ in Beauvoir and The Second Sex (1999), pp. 61-71) and the more accessible 2004 article by Sarah Glazer in the New York Times, which was followed in 2005 by the announcement that British publisher Cape and Knopf in U.S.A. had jointly commissioned a new translation (with a partial grant from the French government).

Moi then confirms her misgivings about the credentials of the two contracted translators by devoting more than half of this review-essay to an aggressively detailed analysis of her reasons for pronouncing the new translation to be unsuitable, and in some aspects less readable than the universally criticised version by Professor Parshley.

“Now we have the new translation. Many will turn to it with high hopes. Is it the definitive translation? Does it convey Beauvoir’s voice and style? Unfortunately not.”

“After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation.”

On that third aspect, Moi criticises the translators’ decision “to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements.” (In this connection the reviewer refers to research by the translation linguist Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher.)

The final dismissive verdict:
“The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley’s version, and that some sections (parts of ‘Myths’, for example), are better than others. The translators claim that their aim was to bring ‘into English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir’s voice, expression and mind’. The ambition is laudable, but the result is what Nabokov, a great champion of literal translation, called ‘false literalism’ (as opposed to ‘absolute accuracy’). The obsessive literalism and countless errors make it no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley.”

The replies from readers in subsequent issues of the LRB are mixed (and include one by the two translators and a reply by Toril Moi) but more than one hint like the following (from a French reader) refers to the unfulfilled academic publishing demands: “Many of Moi’s criticisms of Parshley are valid, as other scholars have substantiated; her derision of Borde-Malovany-Chevallier, however, has a taste of sour grapes.”

For a refreshingly urbane overview of this translation saga, with further interesting revelations, see Professor Carlin Romano’s recent article on The Second ‘Second Sex in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His concluding remarks are a plea for an end to the heated discussion:

“Beauvoir’s point, like most in the book, comes through in either translation. And so it’s a shame that the Second Sex Translation Follies are turning into a well-made play in which everyone acts the role assigned by theatrical cliché. Maybe a wiser way to look at things is that it’s precisely because all have done so that we find ourselves in such a happy place.”
“Pardon me, then, if I applaud Beauvoir scholars, translators, and rights people alike …”

Footnote for Encyclopedists
The article on de Beauvoir on the “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy” website, which styles itself as “A Peer-reviewed academic source” (U.S- based), refers to The Second Sex as “one of the foundational texts in philosophy, feminism, and women’s studies” but fails to warn the prospective reader about the quality of the first translation or of omissions, except for the ambiguous statement: “Published in two volumes in 1949 (condensed into one text divided into two “books” in English) …” Consequently, there is no mention of the lengthy campaign for a second translation into English nor of last year’s publishing event.

On the other hand, in the Wikipedia article on Simone de Beauvoir and a separate one on The Second Sex, the inadequacy of the first English translation, the prolonged lobbying for a replacement translation, and the 2009 publication are briefly documented:

“Chapters of Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) were originally published in Les Temps modernes.[53] The second volume came a few months after the first in France.[54] It was very quickly published in America as The Second Sex, due to the quick translation by Howard Parshley, as prompted by Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Because Parshley had only a basic familiarity with the French language, and a minimal understanding of philosophy (he was a professor of biology at Smith College), much of Beauvoir’s book was mistranslated or inappropriately cut, distorting her intended message.[55] For years Knopf prevented the introduction of a more accurate retranslation of Beauvoir’s work, declining all proposals despite the efforts of existentialist scholars.[55] Only in 2009 was there a second translation, to mark the 60th anniversary of the original publication. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier produced the first integral translation, reinstating a third of the original work.”
[Attention, Wikipedian editors: “a third” should be whittled down to “15%” and check whether the Professor’s appointment was in biology or zoology.]

The websites of fledgeling online Encyclopedias Citizendium and Knol have nothing of interest to offer.

Credit where credit is due.

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