The Second Sex 
by Simone de Beauvoir and Constance Borde, translated by Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.
Cape, 822 pp., £30, November 2009, 978 0 224 07859 7
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In June 1946 Simone de Beauvoir was 38. She had just finished The Ethics of Ambiguity, and was wondering what to write next. Urged by Jean Genet, she went to see the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, on show for the first time after the war. Citizen Kane was also being shown in Paris for the first time, and Beauvoir was impressed: Orson Welles had revolutionised cinema. Politics was not an all-encompassing consideration, for the Occupation was over, and the Cold War had not quite begun. In the short space of time since the Liberation, Beauvoir had established herself as a writer and intellectual. Her first philosophical essay, Pyrrhus et Cinéas, had been well received, and in 1945, her second novel, The Blood of Others, had been praised as the first novel of the Resistance. In the public realm, her name was firmly linked to Jean-Paul Sartre’s, and to existentialism, which was becoming so fashionable that Sartre had to hire a secretary. No longer a beginner, no longer unknown, Beauvoir had nothing to prove; she could write about anything.

She decided to write about herself. She was inspired by Michel Leiris’s Manhood, which had just been reissued in Paris with a new introduction comparing writing to bullfighting (the torero and the writer need the same kind of courage). She would write a confession. Thinking about the project, she realised she had to begin by asking: ‘What has it meant to me to be a woman?’ At first, she thought of the question as a formality, a preliminary exercise to get her into the real work: ‘I had never had any feeling of inferiority, no one had ever said to me, “You think that way because you are a woman”; my femaleness had never bothered me in any way. “In my case,” I said to Sartre, “it hasn’t really mattered.”’ Sartre urged her to think again: ‘But still, you weren’t brought up in the same way as a boy: you should take a closer look.’ She did, and was amazed:

It was a revelation. This world was a masculine world, my childhood was nourished by myths concocted by men, and I hadn’t reacted to them in the same way I should have done if I had been a boy. I became so interested that I gave up the project of a personal confession in order to focus on women’s condition in general. I went to do some reading at the Bibliothèque nationale and studied myths of femininity.

The roots of The Second Sex are here, in Beauvoir’s realisation that her life had been affected in countless ways by her having been born a girl. This massive book was written fast: the first volume appeared in Paris in June 1949, the second five months later. But Beauvoir did not spend all the intervening time on her analysis of women’s condition. In January 1947 she travelled to the United States for the first time, and in 1948 she published America Day by Day, a deeply perceptive book about the experience. Moreover, she met Nelson Algren there. The writing of The Second Sex thus coincided with her discovery of America and with her passionate affair with Algren. It also coincided with Sartre’s transatlantic affair with the New York-based Frenchwoman Dolorès Vanetti, which caused Beauvoir much pain.

That much of Beauvoir’s personal experience went into the making of her investigation of the situation of women is beyond doubt. Judith Okely has drawn attention to Beauvoir’s ‘hidden use of herself as a case study’ in The Second Sex. The urgency of her style, the conviction that every scrap of evidence must be piled up to show the world the truth about women’s condition, surely comes from a sense that she was, after all, writing a kind of confession, offering the public intimate and unsettling truths about herself, and about other women.

In The Second Sex Beauvoir formulates three principles and applies them to women’s situation in the world. First is her foundational insight that man ‘is the Subject, he is the Absolute: she is the Other.’ Man incarnates humanity; woman, by virtue of being female, deviates from the human norm. The consequence is that women constantly experience a painful conflict between their humanity and their femininity.

The next principle is that freedom, not happiness, must be used as the measuring stick to assess the situation of women. Beauvoir assumes that woman, like man, is a free consciousness. In so far as the status of Other is imposed on her, her situation is unjust and oppressive. But with freedom comes responsibility: when women consent to their own oppression and help to oppress other women, they are to be blamed. The epigraph to the second volume is ‘Half victims, half accomplices, like everyone else’, a line from Sartre’s 1948 play, Dirty Hands. But Beauvoir’s true yardstick is concrete freedom: institutions and practices are to be judged ‘from the point of view of the concrete opportunities they offer the individual’. Abstract equality (the right to vote, for example) is not enough: to turn freedom into reality, women must also have the health, education and money they need to make use of their rights.

Finally, there is the insight that women are not born but made, that every society has constructed a vast material, cultural and ideological apparatus dedicated to the fabrication of femininity. Throughout The Second Sex Beauvoir attacks ‘femininity’ in the sense of patriarchal or normative femininity. To her, a ‘feminine’ woman is one who accepts herself as Other; ‘femininity’ is the badge of the unfree. For women to be free, ‘femininity’ must disappear. Taken together, Beauvoir’s major insights are the foundation of modern feminism. Whether they acknowledge it or not, all contemporary feminists build on Beauvoir’s achievement.

To face the French reception of her book, Beauvoir would need the courage of a bullfighter. The first volume was an unexpected success, selling 22,000 copies in the first week. But when the second volume appeared, with its detailed studies of female sexuality, Beauvoir was deluged: ‘Unsatisfied, cold, priapic, nymphomaniac, lesbian, a hundred times aborted, I was everything, even an unmarried mother. People offered to cure me of my frigidity or to satisfy my ghoulish appetites.’ The Vatican put the book on the Index; Albert Camus accused her of having made the French male look ridiculous.

When The Second Sex was published in the US in the spring of 1953, it leaped onto the the bestseller lists. It has sold well ever since. In the 1950s, it was the only book women who wanted to think about their status in the world could turn to. From the 1950s to the 1970s, women all over the world were exhilarated and shocked by Beauvoir’s message. ‘It changed my life,’ is the refrain. Curiously, some of the best-known feminist pioneers of the 1960s failed to acknowledge her influence: there are hardly any references to The Second Sex in The Feminine Mystique or Sexual Politics; it was years later that Betty Friedan and Kate Millett admitted that The Second Sex had been a major source of inspiration for them.

In the 1970s, Beauvoir’s book became controversial in new ways. Second-wave feminists interested in building a strong sense of female identity, committed to valuing women’s traditional activities and to various theories of female difference, took Beauvoir’s critique of patriarchal femininity to be an expression of her hostility to women. Beauvoir’s existentialism is incompatible with identity theory. Many 1970s feminists disliked Beauvoir’s emphasis on freedom, her claim that ‘femininity’ is a form of ideological oppression, and her insistence that women are often all too happy to collaborate in their own oppression.

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.’

Simons’s discovery had no impact on Random House, which owns the English-language rights to the book through its imprints Knopf (for the hardback) and Vintage (for the paperback). By the time of the 50th anniversary of The Second Sex in 1999, there were still no plans for a new translation: that year, Elizabeth Fallaize and I decided to draw attention to the situation again. Fallaize, whose premature death at the end of last year Beauvoir scholars mourn, analysed the effects of the vast cuts Parshley made in the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’. I wrote about Parshley’s philosophical confusions, drew attention to a number of elementary French mistakes, and showed the way his mistranslations had affected recent feminist theory. I also wrote about the publication history, and stressed that 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: maybe Carol Cosman, the translator of Sartre’s multi-volume study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, and of Beauvoir’s America Day by Day; Lydia Davis, a translator of Proust; or Richard Sieburth, translator of Leiris, Michaux and Nerval. 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’.

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.

Key terms first. Throughout The Second Sex Borde and Malovany-Chevallier confuse ‘woman’ and ‘the woman’, and ‘man’ and ‘the man’: le mythe de la femme is sometimes translated as ‘the myth of woman’ and sometimes as ‘the myth of the woman’, as if there were no difference; la femme becomes ‘women’ and ‘a woman’ on the same page. Even the most famous sentence in The Second Sex is affected. Parshley translated ‘On ne naît pas femme: on le devient’ as ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ This is an elementary grammatical mistake. French does not use the indefinite article after être (‘be’) and devenir (‘become’), but no such rule exists in English. (Comment devenir traducteur? must be translated as ‘How to become a translator?’) This error makes Beauvoir sound as if she were committed to a theory of women’s difference. But Beauvoir’s point isn’t that a baby girl grows up to become woman; she becomes a woman, one among many, and in no way the incarnation of Woman, a concept Beauvoir discards as a patriarchal ‘myth’ in the first part of her book. ‘I am woman hear me roar’ has no place in Beauvoir’s feminism.

The next mishandled key term is féminin. The translation teems with references to the ‘feminine world’, ‘feminine literature’, ‘feminine reality’, ‘feminine individualism’, ‘feminine magic’, ‘feminine destiny’, ‘the feminine body’, and so on. But this is very misleading: la littérature féminine really means ‘literature by women,’ not, as some readers might assume, a particular kind of ‘feminine’ as opposed to ‘masculine’ writing. While Borde and Malovany-Chevallier sometimes do translate féminin appropriately, they seem to have little awareness of the different ideological and cultural connotations of ‘feminine’ in English as opposed to féminin in French. Given that The Second Sex is intended as a critique of traditional femininity, this is a major problem.

Viril, consistently translated as ‘virile’, is another botched key term. The English ‘virile’ has much stronger sexual connotations than the French viril. In most cases the word in French simply means ‘manly’ or ‘masculine’, or as Le Petit Robert tells us, ‘having the moral characteristics often attributed to men: active, energetic, courageous etc’. In the chapter on ‘The Lesbian’, Beauvoir is constantly made to speak of ‘virile’ and ‘viriloid’ women, when she means women who are energetic and enterprising.

The second fundamental problem is the use of tenses. The translators stress that they decided to stick closely to Beauvoir’s use of tenses, particularly her use of the historical present. In the ‘History’ section, sentences lurch from past to present and back again without rhyme or reason. They don’t always respect Beauvoir’s use of the perfect tense and often overlook her frequent recourse to the conditional to indicate scepticism. When the translators write, ‘Engels retraces woman’s history from this point of view in The Origin of the Family; this family history depends principally on the history of technology,’ they ignore the more sceptical view that Beauvoir takes in her original sentence: ‘C’est selon cette perspective qu’Engels dans L’Origine de la Famille retrace l’histoire de la femme: cette histoire dépendrait essentiellement de celle des techniques.’ To convey this, something like ‘according to him’ or ‘supposedly’ is needed in the sentence. (That the second occurrence of histoire becomes ‘family history’ is another problem.)

The third fundamental problem is syntax, sentence structure and punctuation. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier decided to reproduce Beauvoir’s long sentences connected by semicolons in English, on the grounds that they are ‘a stylistic aspect of her writing that is essential, integral to the development of her arguments’. In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries. If English sentences are strung together in the same way, however, the impression won’t be the same. French and English differ significantly in their tolerance of relatively vague connections between sentence elements. The translation theorist Jacqueline Guillemin-Flescher has shown that English requires more explicit, precise and concrete connections between clauses and sentences than French and, conversely, that French accepts looser syntactical relations. In other words, if French syntax is imported directly into English, sentences that work in French may come across as rambling or incoherent in English. This is precisely what happens here.

While Borde and Malovany-Chevallier fetishise Beauvoir’s semicolons, they fail to respect the structure of the sentences and clauses between the semicolons. Throughout the book they habitually move sentence parts around so that words and phrases placed in a stressed position by Beauvoir no longer receive any stress in English. The consequences are evident on every page. Far too often the translation fails to convey the nuances of Beauvoir’s arguments and destroys the rhythm and balance of her prose. The last sentence of the book offers a striking example of the translators’ tin ear:

Within the given world, it is up to man to make the reign of freedom prevail; to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and above and beyond their natural differentiations, affirm their brotherhood unequivocally.

C’est au sein du monde donné qu’il appartient à l’homme de faire triompher le règne de la liberté; pour remporter cette suprême victoire il est entre autres nécessaire que par delà leurs différenciations naturelles hommes et femmes affirment sans équivoque leur fraternité.

The English version deprives ‘freedom’ and ‘brotherhood’ of the stress they receive in French, adds the extremely awkward ‘among other things and above and beyond’, and even manages to end Beauvoir’s book on ‘unequivocally’ rather than on the word she chose, ‘brotherhood’. The result is a rebarbative, bureaucratic sentence, rather than a utopian vision of a world of freedom and solidarity between men and women.

The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’ The translation is blighted by the constant use of ‘false friends’, words that sound the same but don’t mean the same in the two languages.

And then there are the howlers. A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’

At one point, Beauvoir discusses Hegel’s analysis of sex. In the new translation, a brief quotation from The Philosophy of Nature ends with the puzzling claim: ‘This is mates coupling.’ Mates coupling? What does Hegel mean? It turns out that in Beauvoir’s French version, Hegel says, ‘C’est l’accouplement’; A.V. Miller’s translation of The Philosophy of Nature uses the obvious term, ‘copulation’.

In a discussion of male sexuality, Beauvoir points out that men can get pleasure from just about any woman. As evidence she mentions ‘la prospérité de certaines “maisons d’abattage”’, which Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate as ‘the success of certain “slaughter-houses”’. But for a prostitute, faire de l’abattage is to get through customers quickly; as the context makes abundantly clear, a maison d’abattage is not an abattoir, but a brothel specialising in a quick turnover.

Aware of the widespread criticism of Parshley’s failure to recognise Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier claim that they have ‘maintained Beauvoir’s philosophical language’. This is not entirely accurate. First of all, the problems discussed so far also affect the philosophical aspects of the text. Mistranslation of key terms and unclear syntax do not promote philosophical clarity. But this isn’t all. Parshley mistook philosophical terms for ordinary words: Borde and Malovany-Chevallier treat ordinary words as if they were philosophical terms. They consistently translate s’accomplir (to ‘fulfil’ or ‘realise’ oneself, ‘to find satisfaction’) as ‘to accomplish oneself’; man is mysteriously said to be ‘unable to accomplish himself in solitude’; he also ‘hopes to accomplish himself as being through carnally possessing a being’. Parshley had no idea what ‘alienation’ means to Marxists, existentialists and psychoanalysts, and translated it as ‘identification’ or ‘projection’, or even, at one point, as ‘being beside oneself’. In contrast, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier doggedly translate ‘alienate’ and ‘alienation’ every time the word turns up, regardless of what it means. The result is that they translate ‘aliéner les biens immeubles’ (‘dispose of landed property’) as ‘alienate real estate’.

The translators fail to recognise many of Beauvoir’s references. Adler’s ‘masculine protest’ becomes ‘virile protest’; the ‘sexual division of labour’ becomes, on the same page, ‘the division of labour by sex’ and the ‘division of labour based on sex’; Bachofen’s ‘mother right’ becomes ‘maternal right’; and Byron’s epigram, ‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart; ’Tis woman’s whole existence,’ loses all its wit on the round trip from English to French and back again: ‘Byron rightly said that love is merely an occupation in the life of the man, while it is life itself for the woman.’

The treatment of quotations is baffling. The headnote of the bibliography claims to list books ‘we consulted to translate Simone de Beauvoir’s French quotes’. This is only partly true. It seems to me that they have used the originals for fiction in English (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield etc), and to a certain extent published translations for French fiction (Colette but not always Balzac), and for medical literature (Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman is quoted correctly), and sometimes, but not always, for philosophy. Some quotations from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit are taken from published translations, but, as we have seen, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier have translated quotations from Philosophy of Nature themselves, although they list A.V. Miller’s translation in their bibliography of ‘consulted’ works. In the chapter on biology a sentence from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception loses all meaning, since Borde and Malovany-Chevallier drop a vital ‘not’, which Colin Smith’s translation (not used, but still listed in the bibliography) preserves.

The notes, bibliography and index are riddled with mistakes. Names are misrecognised and bibliographical references are botched. According to the translators, Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman was first published in French in 1949; in fact it appeared in 1937 (Sartre quotes it in 1943, in Being and Nothingness). Oxford University Press may be amused to learn that A.V. Miller’s Hegel translation is listed as published by Galaxy Press, the publishing house of the Scientologists. In the index, references to Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet turn out to be references to Stendhal’s Mme Grandet, a character in Lucien Leuwen. There is one entry for Johann Bachofen and another one for a character called ‘Baschoffen’ with no first name. In general, far too many index entries fail to provide first names. After all, to find out who Samivel was, all it takes is to type the name into Google.

The best I can say about the new translation of The Second Sex is that it is unabridged, that some of the philosophical vocabulary is more consistent than in Parshley’s version, and that some sections (parts of ‘Myths’, for example), are better than others. The translators claim that their aim was to bring ‘into English the closest version possible of Simone de Beauvoir’s voice, expression and mind’. The ambition is laudable, but the result is what Nabokov, a great champion of literal translation, called ‘false literalism’ (as opposed to ‘absolute accuracy’). The obsessive literalism and countless errors make it no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley.

Whenever I try to read Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s translation like an ordinary reader, without constantly checking against the French, I feel as if I were reading underwater. Beauvoir’s French is lucid, powerful and elegantly phrased. Even in Parshley’s translation young women would devour The Second Sex, reading it night and day. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing that with this version.

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Vol. 32 No. 4 · 25 February 2010

Towards the end of Toril Moi’s brilliant and devastating critique of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex come a couple of sentences that baffle me (LRB, 11 February). Moi writes: ‘In general, far too many index entries fail to provide first names. After all, to find out who Samivel was, all it takes is to type the name into Google.’ This would seem to imply that Samivel had a first name that should have been included in the index. But Samivel, whose real name was Paul Gayet-Tancrède, never used any name except Samivel in anything he ever created. I would doubt that many people, including Beauvoir, had a clue as to his real name.

Samivel was a brilliant artist who specialised in drawings of the Alps that were at once funny and beautiful. He was also a gifted writer. The real mystery is why his name occurs in this index. Was Beauvoir a climber at some stage of her life?

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Vol. 32 No. 5 · 11 March 2010

We are the translators of the first complete English-language edition of Le Deuxième Sexe, reviewed by Toril Moi (LRB, 11 February). As other translators do, we had to make choices based on the interpretation of the French text and on principles of translation: in this case, the choices were made to convey Simone de Beauvoir’s vocabulary, voice, style, context and period. As we set out in our translators’ note, we did not improve on, add to or delete from her text. Nor did we annotate. This was the job our publishers, Cape in the UK and Knopf in the US, contracted us to do.

In doing our research for this encyclopedic work, we scrupulously consulted experts from many constituencies, particularly among philosophers and academics here in France, where we have lived and worked for more than 40 years, and elsewhere. We took a variety of points of view and interpretations into account until we found the best possible translation we could. The reviewer’s remarks about us and our qualifications – her words and tone – are personal and unwarranted. In truth, we knew from the start we were entering turbulent waters. We knew about the pressure put on the publishers to set up a board of consulting editors and to turn the translation into an annotated edition – all to no avail.

This new, comprehensive and unabridged translation will allow the English-speaking world to finally discover all of what Beauvoir wrote. The reviewer did not focus on this, but rather on a few mistakes that got past us all in this first edition, mistakes in footnotes and index entries, or misquoted citations, that will be corrected.

We would like to draw attention here to just a few specific points. Much ink has flowed about the complexities of translating la femme. In many cases, the word ‘woman’ (no article) is used to denote a state or a construct, as is ‘man’. The comparison the reviewer makes between comment devenir traducteur (‘how to become a translator’) and the translation of on ne naît pas femme: on le devient (‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’) is misleading. The division of human beings into ‘woman’ and ‘man’ is foundational, categories having nothing to do with other nouns.

As for the style and syntax of our translation, our choice, in keeping with contemporary translation practices, was to stay as close to Beauvoir’s as possible. In spite of Beauvoir’s complex language structures, the flow in English parallels the French. When the reviewer says Beauvoir’s ‘long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion and sheer delight’, one is incredulously led to ask if she really ever read Simone de Beauvoir in French. The reviewer is not always right in what she says: she questions, to take just one example, our understanding of maison d’abattage. Simple research would show that the translation ‘slaughterhouse’ exists in English for that kind of whorehouse. As for Bachofen’s term ‘mother right’, Beauvoir chose matriarcat or droit maternel, and ‘matriarchy’ or ‘maternal right’ are the words we used in English: we are not translating Bachofen but Beauvoir. Another example: to ‘alienate’ is a technical word in French when related to property, and it is so in English too.

Constance Borde & Sheila Malovany-Chevallier

I have rarely read such a mean-spirited, nitpicking review as Toril Moi’s. In 2002 in the journal Signs, Moi gave vent to her anger and frustration at the refusal of the American publisher of The Second Sex to commit to a new, unabridged translation that would correct the errors and re-establish the cuts made in the 1953 translation by H.M. Parshley. Her scornful indictment of Parshley prefigured the tone and criticisms of her current review, and the same ready-made phrases – ‘this isn’t an isolated example’; ‘there are mistakes on every page’ – appear in both pieces.

This time Moi is angry and frustrated with the publishers for refusing proposals for an annotated (academic) edition overseen by an ‘advisory board’, and for their choice of Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier as translators: authors of ‘cookery books’ of all things, and mere English teachers at Sciences Po, one of the most prestigious French universities. She insinuates that the translators’ credentials and skills had not been vetted by knowledgeable Beauvoir scholars, and that they had been chosen on the basis of personal connections rather than professional considerations.

It is only reasonable to expect that a translation of almost 1000 pages would contain some errors despite the attentions of professional readers and editors. However, Moi’s intention is to cast doubt on the entire project through innuendo, false assertion and highly debatable statements. To take one example ‘chosen almost at random’ (another Moi-ism), she damns the translators for not conveying the wit of Byron’s epigram, ‘Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;/’Tis woman’s whole existence.’ Yet if she had reread her Beauvoir in French she would have seen that Beauvoir herself had paraphrased Byron: ‘Byron a dit justement que l’amour n’est dans la vie de l’homme qu’une occupation, tandis qu’il est la vie même de la femme’ – a sentence the translators justly rendered. Is she now suggesting that the translators should have rewritten or improved on Beauvoir (the very charge she levelled against Parshley)?

Many of Moi’s criticisms of Parshley are valid, as other scholars have substantiated; her derision of Borde-Malovany-Chevallier, however, has a taste of sour grapes.

Michelle Sommers
Velogny, France

Other reviews of the new translation of The Second Sex have said that it stays right on the mark and translates Beauvoir exactly as she wrote, with no pandering to contemporary preferences. Just one of the things I noticed: in the old translation, Beauvoir’s treatment of motherhood appeared to be distant and cold. Parshley had Beauvoir saying that in spite of the availability of nurseries, having a child was enough to ‘paralyse a woman entirely’. But childcare did not exist in France or anywhere else when this was written, so I cannot imagine what Parshley was trying to say. Certainly not what Beauvoir said, which is now accurately translated: as ‘Given the lack of well-organised day nurseries and kindergartens, even one child is enough to entirely paralyse a woman’s activities.’

Deborah Frankel Reese
South Strafford, Vermont

Toril Moi makes an ‘elementary grammatical mistake’ of her own. French can use the indefinite article after être (‘être une femme’) and devenir (‘devenir un homme, pourquoi pas?’). The problem is with naître: you can neither ‘naître une femme’, nor ‘naître un homme’. Voilà.

Gabriel Kahn

Toril Moi goes to some length to demonstrate the inadequacies of the new translation by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier. In the various international institutions where I have spent my working career, we give applicants for translation posts somewhat shorter shrift. One glance at any of the paragraphs quoted by Moi, and the test script would go straight to the reject pile.

Timothy Johnston
The Hague

Toril Moi writes: Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier claim, as does Michelle Sommers, that I focus unfairly on a ‘few mistakes’ in the new translation of The Second Sex. Not so. In fact, I show that it suffers from pervasive problems concerning words for sex and gender, from incoherent syntax, loss of rhythm and clarity, unidiomatic expressions, and ‘false friends’, and that there are countless other errors. I say ‘there are mistakes on every page’ because there are mistakes on every page.

The translators defend their clunky English by blaming Beauvoir’s prose style. I am sorry they don’t think as highly of her style as I do. Certainly her French is infinitely better than their English. Given their constant recasting of sentences, it is simply not true that the ‘flow in English parallels the French’.

My review, they say, is fuelled by resentment that this is not an annotated edition. There is nothing in the piece to justify this. I reviewed the translation purely as a translation. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to celebrate a new translation of The Second Sex in the LRB.

The translators feel that I have presented them unfairly. Yet everything I say is purely factual, based on published interviews and research in library catalogues. To raise the question of their qualifications for the job of translating a major cultural landmark is hardly irrelevant. To require them to return Byron’s epigram to the original English is not to ask them to ‘improve’ Beauvoir, but to remind them of standard professional practice, which they follow only inconsistently. When Beauvoir quotes from novels by Virginia Woolf in French, the translators don’t retranslate from the French, but quote from Woolf’s original English. Why should Byron be treated differently?

Gabriel Kahn is right: I meant to write naître. I should have put the point differently: the absence of un or une after naître and devenir does not tell us whether to use the indefinite article in English. Deborah Frankel Reese’s example is a good one: I was the first to discuss it in my 2002 article on Parshley’s translation.

Vol. 32 No. 6 · 25 March 2010

In January 2008, I participated in a symposium in Paris celebrating the 100th anniversary of Simone de Beauvoir’s birth, at which Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, the translators of the new English version of The Second Sex reviewed by Toril Moi, discussed their strategy for rendering Beauvoir’s prose (LRB, 11 February). I was alarmed to hear them claim with pride that their intention was to translate the book as literally as possible. As any seasoned translator will tell you, faithfulness to the original is not a matter of literality. If it were, then anyone with a good dictionary and boundless patience would be ready to go.

After their talk, I conversed with the translators and found them to be sincerely – even desperately – interested in doing the best possible job. They listened attentively to my goings-on about the difficulty of recognising the philosophical moments in The Second Sex. (For example: in French, Heidegger’s signature concept Dasein is rendered ‘la réalité humaine’. Someone who didn’t know this – someone like the original translator or Borde and Malovany-Chevallier before I talked with them – would simply use ‘human reality’ and thereby bury the Heidegger connection.) They wrote to me after the fact and asked me for help with a sentence they were translating.

But, like many other people who were in a position to help them, I felt that I had to demur. The blame for this, and for the unfortunate translation itself, rests squarely with the publishers, not the translators, who were simply not the right people for this difficult job. Another philosopher and I had a long conversation at the Paris symposium with Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign rights director at Gallimard, who found the translators – her ESL teachers – and got an editor at Jonathan Cape/Knopf to take on the project. Noble upbraided us academics for being be so arrogant as to imagine that our participation in the project would be welcome, let alone necessary. She said that if the translators were to ask us for our help, we should be grateful for the opportunity and should expect neither compensation nor the right to review the way that our contributions were put to use.

Toril Moi’s review of the new translation is not ‘sour grapes’, as Michelle Sommers suggests (Letters, 11 March). Had the translators been able to pull off the impossible, Moi – and many others who care deeply about Beauvoir’s work – would have rejoiced. Moi fully acknowledges that the new translation has the advantage of being complete and, at times, philosophically more accurate than Parshley. But, in addition to lacking the annotations that would allow the interested reader fully to understand Beauvoir’s argument, it suffers from endless problems with diction and syntax and is clunky through and through. The awkwardness is not a function of ‘a few mistakes’ that ‘got past’ the translators, as they claim in their letter. It’s so pervasive that it makes reading the text painful on pretty much every page.

There is reason to be very unhappy with this new translation, not only because it is seriously flawed, but also because at every stage Gallimard and Knopf were uninterested in giving this project the care and due diligence it deserved.

Nancy Bauer
Tufts University, Massachusetts

Vol. 32 No. 7 · 8 April 2010

Both Professor Toril Moi’s vengeful review of the new translation of The Second Sex (LRB, 11 February) and Professor Nancy Bauer’s misleading letter (Letters, 25 March) call for a response.

I do remember meeting Nancy Bauer (who, by the way, falsely presents me as the translators’ student, which I never was) at a Beauvoir conference in Paris two years ago. I was cornered during a coffee break by this American academic obsessively insistent on two matters. First, that the new translation should be published by a university press. This was impossible, since Cape and Knopf had no reason to abandon their exclusive rights to the book’s English publication. Second, that this new edition should be fully annotated (which would have transformed this 800-page book into a 1000-page one) under the supervision of an editorial committee independent of Knopf and Cape. This committee would be headed by such distinguished professors as herself, who would be compensated for this service that neither Knopf nor Cape were asking them to render. I answered that, first, this book was not published in France by a university press but by a trade publisher and, second, that it was preferable that the first edition of the new translation be similar to the one Beauvoir originally published and which was still successfully selling 60 years later. Annotated editions and companion books can follow later, I said, but let readers first discover this essay in English the way French readers discover it in French – and people around the world in their own un-annotated editions. Nancy Bauer was furious. She obviously still is.

As for Toril Moi’s review, it was written by a professor who has spent much time and energy denouncing the Parshley translation (‘mistakes and omissions on every page’, she wrote in a 2002 article), and now takes the same tack – using the same adjectives! – with the new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier while the old translation suddenly becomes ‘lively and readable’. True, Moi had already started making derogatory comments about the two translators long before the translation was finished. Publish or perish: having now exhausted all the arguments against the old translation, Moi has many fruitful academic years ahead of her to savage the new one.

Could Moi’s grievance stem from the fact that she was not part of the project? Her 1999 letter to Random House suggesting they publish a new translation of The Second Sex led nowhere. And her essays on this subject never reached the general public. It was Sarah Glazer’s widely read and brilliantly titled article in the New York Times (22 August 2004), ‘Lost in Translation’, which brought the issue at last into the public arena; it helped Gallimard to keep up the battle, indeed the mission, which I initiated ten years ago and pursued obstinately until the final, happy outcome of this new unabridged edition.

For sure, academic conferences and roundtables can be organised for decades to come to debate the subtleties of translating philosophical terms, but since few of the millions of readers (since 1949) of Beauvoir’s essay are philosophers or even university graduates, these debates will remain limited to restricted circles. What is surely more important is that this extraordinary book, though not an ‘easy’ read (even in the original French), has changed the lives of many women, and hopefully some men, despite, no doubt, mistakes in all 40 existing translations around the world.

This new unabridged English edition is, quite simply, a small miracle. Most had despaired, over the past decade, of ever seeing it happen, except a handful of determined women, not least the two translators, whose drive, faith and commitment never wavered. In 2002, Toril Moi wrote an article entitled ‘While We Wait’ (for the new translation of The Second Sex). Had things been left to Moi and Bauer, we’d still be waiting.

Anne-Solange Noble

Vol. 32 No. 8 · 22 April 2010

As an Anglo-German brought up in Hamburg, where I still live, I was interested in the debate on the quality of the English translation of Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Letters, 11 March and Letters, 25 March, and Letters, 8 April). When Das andere Geschlecht: Sitte und Sexus der Frau (translated by Grete Osterwald and Uli Aumüller) was first published here we had a similar debate, though not so heated and largely confined to feminist circles. I was asked to read the old English edition and compare. I must admit that I found it more user-friendly than our German one, though not speaking French I couldn’t pronounce on the accuracy or otherwise of the translation. As a result of the debate in your pages I ordered the new English version, which did shock me a bit. It’s much less fluent even than the German translation, which is why I suppose Anne-Solange Noble is really angry. Instead of denouncing the American professors she should try reading the book in English. It’s bad.

Louise Hirsch

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