However intensely Anglophone feminists debated The Second Sex, the English translation, by H.M. Parshley, did not become an issue until 1983, when Margaret Simons, a professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, drew attention to it in her essay, ‘The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir’. Beauvoir had offered Parshley no help; she was already hard at work on The Mandarins before he was half-way through his translation. Now Simons estimated that Parshley had cut at least 10 per cent of the original text, and showed that the most savage cuts affected Beauvoir’s account of exceptional women in history. She also demonstrated that Parshley had made a hash of Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary. After reading Simons’s essay, Beauvoir replied: ‘I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.’At this point, it seems proper to interject, "you have to be fucking kidding me."
* * * Parshley should not be seen as the villain of the piece. A professor of zoology at Smith College, he was genuinely enthusiastic about Beauvoir’s book. It was the publisher, not Parshley, who insisted on cutting the text; in the end he cut 145 of the original 972 pages, or almost 15 per cent of the original.
The strength of Parshley’s 57-year-old translation is that it is lively and readable. Parshley was, on all evidence, an excellent writer of English. When he understood the French, he usually found the right phrase and managed to convey nuances of irony and poetry. The most serious weaknesses are the unannounced cuts; but his complete lack of familiarity with Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary and the deficiencies in his knowledge of French also undermine his version of the book.
Demand for a new translation gathered force, but the publishers resisted. In 1988, Ashbel Green, then Knopf’s vice president and senior editor, summarised their view: ‘Our feeling is that the impact of de Beauvoir’s thesis is in no way diluted by the abridgment.’ After all, the book was making money: ‘It’s a very successful book that we want to continue publishing.’
In August 2004, Sarah Glazer published an article about the situation in the New York Times. Whether her article was the deciding factor is hard to say. In any case, at the end of 2005 Ellah Allfrey, then an editor at Cape, the British publisher of The Second Sex, persuaded Knopf to split the cost of a new translation. According to Le Monde the final cost was €35,000 (£30,000 or $50,000), one third of which was paid by grants from the French state.
Given the profile of the book, Beauvoir specialists hoped that the publishers would turn to a first-rate translator with a track record in the relevant field * * * Instead, the publishers chose Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two Americans who have lived in Paris since the 1960s and worked as English teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. They have published numerous textbooks in English for French students (My English Is French: la syntaxe anglaise), and many cookery books (Cookies et cakes and Sandwichs, tartines et canapés among others). Their track record in translation from French to English, however, appears to be slim (I have found only two catalogue essays for art exhibitions in Paris, both translated by Malovany-Chevallier).
In a 2007 interview with Sarah Glazer, published in Bookforum, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier dismissed doubts about their competence. They explained that they first heard about the problems with the English translation at the 50th anniversary conference on The Second Sex in Paris. After the conference, they contacted a former student, Anne-Solange Noble, the director of foreign rights at Gallimard, to propose themselves for the job, and in due course Noble told Allfrey that she ‘already knew the perfect translators’.More examples at the link, if you have the stomach for 'em. Jessa Crispin is not going to be happy about this.
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. Here is a sentence, chosen almost at random:
Ordinarily she can be taken at any time by man, while he can take her only when he is in the state of erection; feminine refusal can be overcome except in the case of a rejection as profound as vaginismus, sealing woman more securely than the hymen; still vaginismus leaves the male the means to relieve himself on a body that his muscular force permits him to reduce to his mercy.
The sentence doesn’t stand out as immediately ‘wrong’. On my first reading, I felt that I got Beauvoir’s point, but only after a struggle, for the sentence is cumbersome, and several expressions, above all ‘the state of erection’, and ‘relieve himself’ struck me as strange. I checked the French:
Normalement, elle peut toujours être prise par l’homme, tandis que lui ne peut la prendre que s’il est en état d’érection; sauf en cas d’une révolte aussi profonde que le vaginisme qui scelle la femme plus sûrement que l’hymen, le refus féminin peut être surmonté; encore le vaginisme laisse-t-il au mâle des moyens de s’assouvir sur un corps que sa force musculaire lui permet de réduire à merci.
The translation turns out to have a number of problems. ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ should be ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’, since we are dealing with generic examples (as in ‘the woman leads, the man follows’), not with universals (‘woman is night; man is day’). ‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: we are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound’. The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merci; réduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will’. And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength’ not ‘muscular force’, which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit’.
This isn’t an isolated example. 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.
Where are the feminist millionaires to hire a couple of smart translators and set them up at Yaddo or wherever to produce a competent translation? Or, more easily, a revision of Parshley that restores the cuts and cleans him up?