Translating La Deuxieme Sexe

Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was first published in English in 1953.  Blanche Knopf, the wife of Alfred A. Knopf, discovered the book on a research trip to France, though she apparently thought that it was a sex manual.

Alfred A. Knopf tapped H.M. Parshley as the translator.  Parshley wrote on subjects like genetics and human sexuality, but was trained as a zoologist (he studied Heteroptera, a fairly large grouping of insects categorized by the texture of their wings).  His translation has been widely criticized.  Two of the most significant criticisms are his word choices — which do not always adhere to Beauvoir’s language — and the excision of 75 pages of the original text.  These reflect both Parshley’s inexperience as a translator of philosophy, and Knopf’s pressure to make the book more readable.

Texts on the 1953 translation:

  • Margaret Simons first drew attention to the flaws in the translation in “The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing From The Second Sex.”  (Women’s Studies International Forum 6.5 (1983): 559-564.)  One of the issues she points out is that a key term, “for-itself,” was mistranslated as “in-itself.”  This erases an important distinction between Beauvoir and Sartre.
  • Toril Moi offers a delicious takedown of Parshley’s translation in “While We Wait: The English Translation of ‘The Second Sex.’” (Signs 27.4 (2008): 1005-1035.  Note that the link is to a PDF.)
  • Sarah Glazer’s 2004 essay for the New York Times, “Lost in Translation,” may have been part of what finally convinced Knopf to reissue the book, since it was a more public critique.
  • There is a more generous discussion of Parshley and Parshley’s translation in Richard Gillman’s “The Man Behind the Feminist Bible” (irritating title!), which is also for the New York Times.  Gillman points out the pressure he felt from the publisher to make cuts, elaborates on Parshley’s career, and discusses why Knopf chose him for translation duties.

Despite consistent criticism of the 1953 translation, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., refused to publish a new one. They only succumbed to pressure in 2009!  The translators for this edition were Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier.  These translators are unfortunately best-known for their work on cookbooks.  There has been some criticism, again, for the translation, although it is slightly less vitriolic.

Texts on the 2009 translation:

  • In an in-depth review for the London Review of Books, Toril Moi begins by summarizing the importance of the book.  She offers a surprising compliment to the first edition, writing that it was “lively and readable.”  She then points out key issues with the translation in the second edition, particularly mistakes in terminology and an overall loss of readability. Beauvoir apparently wrote to Moi after reading her review, saying that “I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.”
  • Carlin Romano is critical of Moi’s response in his essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Second ‘Second Sex.’”  (I think he gets a little too ad hominem with Moi, but I take his point.)
  • Francine du Plessix Gray also reviewed the book for the New York Times.  (Massive caveat: I really don’t like her response to the book itself. She is fair in calling it pessimistic, but then goes on to note that Beauvoir was influenced by men, who were “central to her happiness” — as though that were relevant! — and says that Beauvoir’s claim that “one is not born, but becomes, a woman” is “preposterous,” because gender roles are innate from infancy.  To be honest, I was enraged.)  She gives several examples of this translation’s syntax and “flow” issues, including this atrocity: “Moments women consider revelations are those where they discover they are in harmony with a reality based on peace with one’s self.”

I have both editions of the text, and have bought the original French volumes.  I agree with Colbert that the 2009 translation is probably our best bet, but it’s neat to see the hullabaloo over such an important feminist text.

— Written by Jess!

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