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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

Emily Anne Parker has a second look at The Second Sex.

A retranslation of Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark feminist philosophical work of 1949, Le deuxième sexe, appeared in April. The original French edition unprecedentedly raised the question of woman: who is she, really? This dynamic question endures after centuries of struggles for equality. Beauvoir asked, why should a woman feel internally compelled to answer this question not in relation to her own lived singularity – as she exists for herself – but instead according to ill-fitting myths?

Retranslations of such important works are inevitably important. As the new translators Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier themselves point out, translations date easily because of the inevitable traces of the translator’s own voice. Thus, new translations on the basis of improvements in scholarship are necessary to reintroduce a classic to new generations of readers who cannot read the original in its original language. But this is not that sort of retranslation.

In this case, the original 1953 English translation, published by the Random House imprint Knopf, is in fact so deplorable that it has inspired its own enclave within Beauvoir studies documenting just how bad it is. This has been especially necessary in response to misreadings of Beauvoir’s work exemplified most recently in Francine du Plessix Gray’s piece in The New York Times of May 27, 2010. In 2001 literary theorist Toril Moi wrote an article entitled ‘While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex’. Appearing in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society(vol.27 #4), it was intended to accompany the botched English translation for classroom and other use in lieu of a new scholarly edition and translation. At that time Knopf, which holds the English language translation rights until Beauvoir’s work enters the public domain in 2056, had no plans to authorize a new translation. Why? They apparently feared that a new translation would not be cost-effective. This despite the fact that the first translation, for which Knopf enlisted H.M. Parshley, a zoologist marked by 1940s-era misogynism, was less a translation than a heavily abridged and altered rendering. In place of the fifteen percent of the text that Knopf had asked him to delete, Parshley often paraphrased what he apparently also misunderstood. To make matters worse, Parshley’s lack of sympathy shows itself in his edits and his comments throughout the text. But worst of all was that Parshley was not remotely conversant with the philosophical, psychoanalytic, and anthropological discussions in which Beauvoir’s work is consistently engaged, so he mistook key theoretical terms for ordinary French words. Thus even Beauvoir’s most basic philosophical and other formulations disappear in his English rendering.

The new translation by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier is not the edition for which Beauvoir scholars had hoped. To be fair, it is the first unabridged English translation. But aside from this it repeats in different form other shortcomings of the earlier translation, making it insufficient for classroom or scholarly use. It does not convey the razor’s edge of Beauvoir’s weave of the philosophical and the personal. Despite the aim, “to transpose [Beauvoir’s] philosophical style and voice into English” this book remains in English strictly the “deep and urgent personal meditation” to which Judith Thurman, the author of the introduction, reduces it. Thurman’s introduction likewise keeps the reader unaware of the larger body of work in which this text does after all have a place. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate The Second Sex as if it is the only philosophical text Beauvoir ever wrote. They insist on “bringing into English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir’s voice, expression and mind,” but how could this aim be reasonably executed without the years of study necessary to understand comprehensively Beauvoir’s intellectual projects? Toril Moi has argued in detail that this translation is in fact worse than Parshley’s due to its unthinking literalism (London Review of Books February 11, 2010). But it is most problematically not a translation of Beauvoir. For example, the question of whether to translate la femme as ‘woman’ or ‘the woman’ throughout the work, and relatedly the famous opening line of the second part, is precisely a question not so much of syntax as of how to translate Beauvoir’s “voice, expression and mind.” Questions such as these simply cannot be reduced to questions of syntax or isolated definition. They require interpretation. The translation itself as well as annotation should reflect and reflect on this inherent interepretation. For this one must be conversant with Beauvoir’s oeuvre and with what is at stake in feminist theoretical questions.

Thus while significant, this new translation is still not the scholarly edition which can bear witness to the multifaceted appeal of Beauvoir’s French. Though Borde and Malovany-Chevallier offer their own translation as the basis for a future annotated volume, it seems that yet another translation by a scholar or scholars of Beauvoir’s work, conversant in feminist, psychoanalytic, anthropological and philosophical discourse, will have to be commissioned. Knopf and Random House seem to have no appreciation of the importance of the work they have in their possession. Yes, this work is one of intimate meditation and popular appeal, but it also an exceptional work of feminist philosophical expertise. The two are not mutually exclusive. However naive this error in judgement appears to those acquainted with Beauvoir’s original text, it remains lost on Random House, and so lost on the students and scholars who unwittingly rely on them.

© Dr Emily Anne Parker 2011

Emily Anne Parker lectures in the Philosophy Department of Santa Clara University, CA.

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, 2010 translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Alfred A. Knopf, 805 pp, ISBN: 030727778X.

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