Posted tagged ‘literal translation’

Translation 20. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex

30 July 2010

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.


Mistranslation 19. Two Unusual Cases of Successful Literal Translators: Pedro Carolino and Basil Thomson

30 June 2010

In those language pairs where literal translation is possible, competent translators learn very early in their studies to discriminate between appropriate literal translation between the two languages (where the result is acceptable in the target language and fully conveys the meaning of the original text) and inappropriate literal translation (where the target language version is linguistically inappropriate or fails to convey the meaning of elements in the original).

Literal translation in this second sense usually leads to serious misunderstandings or gaps in the communication but it also has the potential to make people laugh! Given this potential, it is not surprising that inappropriate literary translation (like malaproprisms and similar genuine language errors) may not all be the result of ignorance but may be deliberately confected to amuse others. The two egregious cases chosen for description represent both types and they have provoked much laughter over a considerable amount of time (140 and 50 years, respectively): they may perhaps be dubbed celebrity literal mistranslations. The first was written by the Portuguese citizen Pedro Carolino, equipped with great initiative, chutzpah and ignorance of English. The second less well known example of published literal translations, on the other hand, was deliberately confected to amuse his fellow Argentine citizens by Basil Thomson.

Pedro Carolino

On the face of it, Pedro Carolino seems to have been an opportunist out to make money in the nineteenth century language tuition field. In 1855, he published (or self-published) O Novo Guia da Conversação, em Português e Inglês. This appears to be his adaptation of José da Fonseca’s 1853 O Novo guia da conversação em francês e português, and, indeed, the latter’s name is also on this first edition, but perhaps more as a courtesy.

The volume became famous in Europe for its constant and colossal language errors, which were based mainly on Carolino’s sheer ignorance of English and his daring literal translations of the Fonseca items into “English” using a French-English dictionary (à coups de dictionnaire!). In 1883, the exotic English part of his original Portuguese-English Conversation manual was published separately in Britain and USA as English as She is Spoke. Well over a century later, it is still in print, in English, as a work of humour.

My 1970 edition (London, St George’s Press), which bears only the name of Pedro Carolino, is subtitled “Extracts from The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English”. In his Introduction, James Millington comments: “…it has been reserved to our own time for a soi disant instructor to perpetrate – at his own expense – the monstruous joke of publishing a Guide to Conversation in a language of which it is only too evident that every word is utterly strange to him.” It is Middleton who offers the conclusion that, to produce his bizarre language teaching offering, Carolino had used the Portuguese-French phrase-book and a French-English dictionary mentioned above. [The contemporary US edition was published by Dover.]

Interested readers are invited to log on to to see the various editions of English as She is Spoke at present available, including a Kindle one (but “not available” when I looked yesterday).
(Update: A better informed correspondent has kindly sent me the link to a FREE download of English as She is Spoke but note Gutenberg’s Advice: “Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook.”)

Here are a few samples of Carolino’s ignorant genius. (Speakers of French and Portuguese will detect many literal translations from French and a few from Portuguese which underlie, and inspire! – the curious book.)

From the Author’s Preface:
“A choice of familiar dialogues, clean of gallicisms … ”
“We expect then, who the little book (for the care of what we wrote him, and for her typographical correction) that may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especialy of the Youth, at which we dedicate him particularly.”

From “Familiar Phrases”:
“Go to send for.
“Have you say that?”
“At what purpose have say so?”
“Put your confidence at my.”
“At what o’clock dine him?”
“Apply you at the study during that you are young.”

From “Familiar Dialogues”:
“With a gardener”
“It delay me to eat some wal nuts-kernels; take care not leave to pass the season.”
“Be tranquil, I shall throw you any nuts during the shell is green yet.”

From “Anecdotes”
“A man one’s was presented at a magistrate which had a considerable Library.
“What you make?” beg him the magistrate. “I do some books,” he was answered.”

Basil Thomson

The second successful practitioner of inappropriate literal translation was an expatriate Englishman who had settled in Argentina in 1949 and worked as a journalist for the English language Buenos Aires Herald (until1979 when he was expelled by the military junta). In addition to his (serious) news dispatches, Thomson published a number of columns in which he set out to offer his bilingual middle and upper class Argentinean, Anglo-argentine and Celtic-argentine readers the pleasure of laughing at the frequent inappropriate literal translations from Spanish in the English narrative of a character whom he called Ramon (no accent). These columns (“Ramon Writes”) were highly successful from 1949 to 1977 and were finally published in book form by the newspaper in 1979, ostensibly to raise funds for a charity but possibly as a tribute to Ramon, aka Thomson, after his harassment and expulsion by the military régime. (Ramon Writes, Buenos Aires Herald, 1979)

Although aimed at a much smaller audience than that achieved in the lifetime and perhaps a century after the death of Pedro Carolino, Basil Thomson’s deliberate liberties with literal translation may still be enjoyed by speakers of Spanish, in particular Argentinians.

Here are some samples of Basil’s work. It should be noted that the English sounds so peculiar not only because of inappropriate words and phrases (and specially coined English words) but also because of double negatives and Spanish patterns of word order for clauses and sentences. Some readers will also recognise echos of the fabled exotic English of some expatriate Latin Americans.

On page 10, Thomson describes how Ramon was born. After rejecting the idea of writing a dictionary of entertaining “Irish-Argentinianisms”, “I put myself in the place of a fairly advanced and confident but careless student and expressed myself as I imagined he would. This involved thinking in vernacular Spanish and writing in English.”

The compilers chose this extract as their favourite one. I have added a few glosses.
“I supplicate you that you pass of high [ignore] so much discourtesy of my part for not writing these past four months.

What passed was that I had planned to go to that one in person and because of that I desisted. It had of object my visit to see if I could accommodate myself in some ministry or gobernation after they happened the events that are of public dominion.

But in vespers of [on the eve of] absenting myself there writes me a friend of the faculty to tell me that my voyage would be to the divine button because the things have not changed themselves nothing: the milics have copated themselves everything.

As you can await, I felt myself disillusioned, because I give myself count [realise] that this life of camp [country] doesn’t fall me well, and of commerce I do not want to occupy myself. For me, who coursed three years of studies of public traducer there should always exist entry into the official life. With the patience of always, I will wait.” (p. 12)

Just one more:
“At my arrival I went to visit a known one who is familiar of another, who is vinculated with a man who knows all the world. He gave me a letter of presentation and I presented myself and was received very amiably. This man he gave me a card, we took the coffee together and he redacted a letter for me directed to the secretary of redaction of one of the principal pregonators of the country.

“I won’t molest you with the all the letter but it was something formidable. It said that I desire to associate myself with the profession and, it being possible, to incorporate myself to the paper “of your dignified direction”. And a lot more, ending as usual, with “with my motives expressed I make propitious the opportunity to salute you attentively without any other particular.”

(This work is listed as Out of Print by and on there is only one copy available, for $32. First come, first served!)