Apr/May 2007

A Second Sex

Sarah Glazer


Since 1953, when The Second Sex first appeared in America, English speakers have been reading a botched translation written by a Smith College zoologist that reflects the mindset of a 1950s male. That, at least, has been the contention of a growing number of Simone de Beauvoir scholars since the 1980s. Duke University professor Toril Moi has found mistakes and omissions on every page of Howard Madison Parshley's translation, from elementary boo-boos to misunderstandings of philosophical terms.

(Untrained in philosophy, Parshley wrote his 1953 translation in isolation; he was also unfamiliar with the relatively new phenomenon of existentialism. Comically, he had been chosen for his expertise in sexual reproduction, since publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf thought Beauvoir's book was a sex manual akin to the blockbuster Kinsey Report, Deirdre Bair writes in her 1990 biography Simone de Beauvoir.)

Spurred on by the fiftieth anniversary of the book's 1949 publication and corresponding conferences in France and the United States, numerous scholars called for a new translation. For the next six years, their proposals fell on deaf ears at Knopf, which holds the English-language publication rights to The Second Sex in the United States and Canada. But in January 2006, Jonathan Cape, which holds the British rights, commissioned a new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two American-born translators living in Paris, for publication as early as next year. Knopf, which is under the same Random House corporate roof as Cape, will bring out the translation in the United States.

Yet Cape's choice of translators has roused concerns among Beauvoir scholars, who hope that a new translation will finally give the author broader recognition as a serious philosopher in her own right in America, where many still think of her mainly as Jean-Paul Sartre's girlfriend and disciple.

In an interview in Paris, translators Malovany-Chevallier and Borde discussed the challenge of rendering a new translation of the founding text of modern feminism and responded to scholars' concerns. They are currently a little less than halfway through the more than one thousand pages of the French text, which they hope to complete by early next year.

I met with them in the wood-paneled study of Borde's elegant turn-of-the-century apartment overlooking the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The women have known each other since their college days at Rutgers, from which they graduated in 1963. Since the mid-'60s, both have been in Paris, where they live a fifteen-minute bus ride apart. Borde, who has the French equivalent of a master's degree in English linguistics, has taught English for twenty-two years at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques. Malovany-Chevallier, recently retired from thirty-five years of teaching English at the institute, has translated works of art criticism and authored a book on linguistics. Committed and politically active feminists, they became interested in translating The Second Sex at one of the fiftieth-anniversary conferences.

Malovany-Chevallier phoned a former student of hers, Anne-Solange Noble, now director of foreign rights at Gallimard, the book's original publisher, to propose a new translation. Noble, who became a champion of a new English rendering, arranged for them to meet Judith Jones, the editor in charge of The Second Sex at Knopf. At Jones's request, the two submitted a sample translation and received a letter from Knopf in 2000 saying it was “accepted."Years passed, though, and they never heard from Knopf again. Malovany-Chevallier's explanation? “We heard Knopf was so fed up with feminists saying how terrible the translation was.”

In 2004, Noble switched tactics from her fruitless campaign directed at Knopf and urged a young editor at Cape to commission a new translation, telling her she already knew the perfect translators. Malovany-Chevallier and Borde got the job.

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On first reading The Second Sex in French, the biggest surprise for Malovany-Chevallier was “how apropos it is today."The duo agreed with many of Beauvoir's boosters that she was not polemicizing against motherhood, a charge that continues to be raised. For example, this passage is often cited as a token of Beauvoir's hostility to motherhood: “It must be said . . . that in spite of convenient day nurseries and kindergartens, having a child is enough to paralyze a woman's activity entirely."But this was a translation mistake. Parshley took the phrase faute de crèches to mean “in spite of"day care, when it actually means “given the lack of"said care, a far more sympathetic acknowledgment of the paucity of child-care choices at the time. Indeed, as the mother of six, Borde found the passage on motherhood “incredibly sensitive to the trials and tribulations"of having children. Together with Beauvoir's descriptions of labor pains, she said, “I've never read anything so sensitive about maternity."

Both women expressed surprise at the concerns about their lack of philosophical background and assistance. They said they are consulting with philosophers, including Margaret A. Simons, author of a groundbreaking article pointing out Parshley's errors. They've sought out a biologist to critique the chapter on the biology of sex, a friend with analytic training to go over the psychoanalysis chapter, and a medievalist to decipher the Old French quotations. They've commissioned translations by specialists of the extensive poetry citations from Paul Claudel, André Breton, and Michel Leiris. The job is so overwhelming, they said, that they've asked for grant money to fund additoinal assistance.

Both translators were leery of the conviction expressed by academics that a scholarly edition, complete with footnotes (or, at least, a glossary), is essential to understanding the philosophical terms Beauvoir uses. “I don't think it's the references,"Borde told me. “I think it's the language that didn't make sense"in Parshley's translation.

One doozy along those lines concerns the existentialist idea of the subject, a person who exercises freedom of choice. Parshley repeatedly translated this use of subjective instead in its ordinary English sense, to mean “personal"or “not objective."After reading Parshley's rendition, “readers may well wonder why women can't just be objective,"Moi wrote in a critical essay in The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir (2004). Parshley also cut 10 to 15 percent of the French text in response to Knopf's requests to keep the book to a manageable length. (In France, it has always been issued in two volumes.) But his cuts slashed much of Beauvoir's history of women, including the American suffragettes and little-known tales of Renaissance women who led armies. He also cut long quotes from Virginia Woolf, Colette, and Sophie Tolstoy. He often shortened and paraphrased these quotes without even acknowledging he was doing so. The new translation will restore these cuts. A Beauvoir oddity with which the translators have struggled is her tendency to write sentences that run on without periods for at least a page—a style some critics have found “madly sensible and brilliantly confused,"to quote Elizabeth Hardwick. Parshley inserted periods, an approach Borde and Malovany-Chevallier followed in their early drafts. “When we first read these pages by Beauvoir, we said they were unreadable,"Malovany-Chevallier says. But by the time the duo got through 150 pages, they realized, “A whole idea is developed within the semicolons; there's a flow,"according to Malovany-Chevallier. Beauvoir summarizes other people's ideas within semicolons and colons; then her own idea comes emphatically after a period. Learning of this from the translators at their first meeting, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, Simone's adopted daughter and literary executor, raised her glass and toasted, “Vive le point-virgule [semicolon]!"

What will surprise Americans about the new translation? “It's very heavy,"says Malovany-Chevallier. “We're not jazzing it up."To retain the formality of Beauvoir's voice, who used “vous"with Sartre and other intimates throughout her life, they reversed their original decision to introduce contractions. To give it a period flavor, they are steering away from words that came into common usage after 1949. That's the basis for their decision to avoid the word gender, which today is more commonly used in the places Beauvoir uses sex. “The Second Gender"doesn't sound quite like Beauvoir.The translators point out that for most young readers, this translation will be their first experience of The Second Sex. “The new reader will read Simone de Beauvoir's voice,"says Borde. “We hope that's what we're conveying.”

Sarah Glazer is a writer currently based in London.

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