If you’ve read that feminist classic, “The Second Sex,” in English, you’ve been reading a faulty translation that distorted Simone de Beauvoir’s message. Now you can finally read a new translation that is far more faithful to the French author’s original intent—the fruit of a long struggle by feminist scholars.
The new translation, by Americans Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, has just been released
in England by Jonathan Cape, which owns the British rights. It will be published in the U.S. this April by Knopf, which owns the American rights.
How did we get such a weak translation? It was the work of a zoologist, chosen for his expertise in human sexual reproduction. Comically, when Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred Knopf, went to France to buy the rights to the sensational 1949 bestseller, she assumed it was a sex manual like the Kinsey Report. After all it had “sex” in the title.
For the American translation, who else to ask but a man who reviewed sex books for the Herald Tribune? That’s how we got Howard Madison Parshley, a retired professor with only high school and college French, as the translator in 1953. And a man whose interpretation was often clouded by the stereotyped sex roles firmly planted in the 1950s.
For years, feminist philosophers and Beauvoir scholars tried to persuade Knopf that it was time to do a new translation, as I reported
in the New York Times in 2004. They pointed out that there were translation errors and omissions on almost every page. In some cases, Parshley’s translation directly contradicted Beauvoir’s meaning. And Parshley sprinkled the text with references to “feminine nature,” which would have been anathema to Beauvoir.
Beauvoir had received rigorous training as a philosopher. But Parshley was unfamiliar with Beauvoir’s philosophical terminology and even less familiar with the thinking of the new existentialist circle where Beauvoir was prominent.
Some of his translations converted serious philosophical terms that are familiar to us today into inanities. Discussions of the woman as “Subject” got turned into discussions of women’s overly subjective-- i.e. emotional, non-rational-- nature.
Parshley also cut up to 20 percent of the text, according to Cape, slashing descriptions of powerful women in history. For the first time, this new translation restores all the cuts. It was a thrill to pick up this volume and finally read about Renaissance women who led 3,000 female troops to defend their city of Siena.
Why did it take so long to get a new translation? One has to wonder if the fact that Beauvoir was a woman—and best known to most Americans as the girlfriend of Sartre—meant that few took her seriously as a philosopher. Yet reading the two thinkers side-by-side today, I’d wager that Beauvoir has a more enduring message than Sartre. It remains to be seen whether this relatively straightforward translation will meet the demands of feminist scholars who want Beauvoir restored to her rightful place as a serious philosopher.
It was largely due to the persistence of a very determined editor at Beauvoir’s French publisher Gallimard, Anne-Solange Noble, that we have a new translation. She persuaded a young editor at Cape that a new, accurate version was needed. Once Cape was on board, Knopf, which is under the same Random House corporate roof, agreed to share expenses and bring out the American edition.
A recent article
in Le Monde describes Cape mysteriously as having cold feet-- bringing out barely 5,000 copies for the first printing. Perhaps publishers still need to be convinced there’s a demand for the new version of this book, which has sold more than a million copies since its first printing in English and remains essential reading in college women’s studies courses.
How different will Beauvoir’s message be in this new version? For one thing, you’ll find her treatment of motherhood—which some criticize as cold-- more sympathetic than in the old translation. Parshley had Beauvoir saying that in spite of convenient nurseries, having a child was enough to “paralyze a woman entirely.” It was one of his more egregious translation errors and a particularly odd one considering that day care would have been scarce to non-existent in France at the time.
The new translation has it right: “[G]iven the lack of well-organized day nurseries and kindergartens, even one child is enough to entirely paralyze a woman’s activities,” Beauvoir writes in a passage on the difficulties of maintaining a professional life along with motherhood. Sound familiar?
Some Beauvoir experts say it’s these kinds of translation glitches that make so many readers think of Beauvoir as hostile to motherhood. Others, including those who read her in French, may still think of her that way.
But at least now we’re all on the same page.