Vol. 32 No. 5 · 11 March 2010

Search by issue:

Beauvoir Misrepresented?

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.

The Worm Turns

I have no dog in the ring as regards Stefan Zweig; but as Gustav Klimt has come up in your correspondence, and even been claimed as ‘one of the greatest painters ever’, I do want to say that when I read Michael Hofmann’s verdict on the artist I found myself breathing a sigh of relief (Letters, 11 February). At last someone had dared state the obvious. As for ‘greatest painters ever’, there is a special place in the hell of reputations for those who tried hardest for the title in the first years of the 20th century: the Frank Brangwyns, the Eugène Carrières, the Anders Zorns, the John Singer Sargents, the Giovanni Segantinis. Not that these artists are uninteresting. Someone with a strong stomach and a taste for tragic irony should write a book about large-scale and mural painting in the two decades leading to Mons and Passchendaele. But taken at all seriously – compared with their contemporary Akseli Gallen-Kallela, for example, let alone the last achievements of Puvis de Chavannes – the greats of Edwardian Euro-America strike me as Kitschmeisters through and through: early specialists in the new century’s pretend difficulty and ‘opacity’, pretend mystery and profundity, pretend eroticism and excess. Klimt has a place of honour in their ranks.

T.J. Clark
Berkeley, California

The End of Research

Ross McKibbin rightly castigates Hefce for the absurdity of using ‘impact’ as a measure of research in the humanities (LRB, 25 February). It is right and proper that universities should be accountable for public funds, but the funding mechanism has for many years been exerting undue influence on the kind of research we do. It generates a form of self-censorship, whereby we aim for short-term benefit and ignore the truly valuable. We fight for our academic freedoms but betray them as soon as funding is at stake. Say you are a lecturer just starting out and you come to me as head of department for advice about research. I am now almost duty bound to warn you off a project that might take more than a year or two because it won’t be ready in time for its impact to be measured and, worse, you will be letting your colleagues down by having a nil return. If you do not toe the line and produce a quick article or two, the department will lose money and someone may be made redundant. Forget the book that may take ten years to produce but will last a lifetime; forget the dictionary that might take 20 years but last a hundred. I have a colleague and brilliant teacher who took early retirement not because he particularly wanted to, but because he was in the process of translating a major work for Penguin Classics at the wrong time. Big mistake. Took too long. No articles this time round? Letting the side down. The periodic reviews of research that we have seen imposed over the last 25 years have done untold damage to research in the humanities in this country.

There is another, possibly more serious, side-effect to this pressure to churn out ‘stuff’ all the time. It is research that brings in the money, not teaching, and parents and students alike should be on the warpath, because teaching is no longer being rewarded. And we now find that the government department that is supposed to represent our interests has neither ‘education’ nor ‘university’ in its title. The betrayal is complete.

Richard Bowring
Master, Selwyn College, Cambridge

Editorial zealousness caused us to introduce a pair of mistakes in Ross McKibbin’s piece. It obviously wasn’t the Free University of Berlin or Aston University in Birmingham that was, or rather wasn’t, driving the German or British economy before the Second World War, let alone in Victorian or Edwardian times.

Editor, ‘London Review’

The Quiet Philanthropist

I worked for Yukos for four years from June 2001 as one of the Western staff Khodorkovsky brought in to modernise a company that was still more like a Soviet enterprise than an international oil company five years after privatisation. Keith Gessen gets most of the facts right (except that Yukos was never listed in London, only as a US ADR; the predator Rosneft was listed in London), but doesn’t pay enough attention to the prevailing atmosphere of the Yeltsin-era economy (LRB, 25 February). If fear was the staple of personal experience, lack of clarity (neyasnost) was the leitmotif of everything to do with the economy, from heavy industry to the ownership of land and lodgings. The young MBK (as Mikhail Borisovich was known in-house) and all the other future oligarchs had the prescience to see through the murk, and to take advantage of it. That is what capitalists do, and it is never a pretty picture at the capital-formation stage. In the case of Yukos, MBK started with an unwieldy and irrational jumble of rusting oil infrastructure, bought for a fraction of its potential value, and gradually modernised and rationalised it through substantial further investment. To have realised that potential in a transparent sale (which would have had to be to a foreign investor) would have taken time, and that, along with money and credibility, was what the Yeltsin government had run out of.

MBK once told an interviewer that he was three generations of the Rockefeller family in one person. He is an extremely complex person, but the experts who regard Open Russia and all his philanthropic efforts as exercises in image-enhancement are seeing less than the whole picture. I moved to London in mid-2003, and thus missed the balaclava-clad tax police storming in with Uzis to seize computers (during one of the first raids, my colleagues told me, they took the monitors, thinking that was where the data were stored) and the catastrophe that followed. In London, as things began to deteriorate, I was contacted by some surprising people: the president of Magdalen College, Oxford, for example, who told me that MBK had endowed a scholarship fund to bring ten promising Russians to study there every year (being already fully endowed, this programme was apparently unaffected by what happened). This wasn’t the only instance of quiet philanthropy I came across, and if ten students a year won’t change Russia, the thousands of computers and IT-training courses he provided to provincial schools will over time have had a significant impact. It seems to me there must have been ways of improving his image that would have been more cost-effective and had a more immediate and more public effect, if that was all he was interested in. In any case, whatever his motives, they have no bearing on the merits of the judicial travesty that keeps him in Cell Block Four. He is certainly no worse a person than the arch-cynic currently running the country he obstinately refused to abandon.

T.J. Gorton
London N1

Keith Gessen writes that ‘as they saw their savings evaporate, Russians witnessed a civil war on the streets of their cities. Before Chechnya, before Turkmenistan, there was the war in Moscow, Petersburg and Yeltsin’s hometown of Ekaterinberg.’ Turkmenistan may have had a weird leader, but it was spared conflict. Does Gessen mean Tajikistan, which suffered full-scale civil war between 1992 and 1997?

Aidan Foster-Carter

No Surrender

There was no ‘capitulation’, as Glen Bowersock puts it, by Constantinople before the Turks in 1453 (LRB, 11 February). Constantine XI Palaiologos refused an offer of safe passage from Mehmed II, removed his purple robe, took up his sword, and remains missing in action.

Ian MacDougall

Hare-Brained? Sure?

It hardly matters now, but Jacob Ecclestone was wrong to correct Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the matter of who sold Times Newspapers to Rupert Murdoch (Letters, 7 January). It was Lord Thomson of Fleet – but the second one, Kenneth son of Roy – who decided he had had enough when Ecclestone led the Times journalists out on strike (I was one of them). He abandoned the use of the title, I believe, on returning to Canada.

Oscar Turnill

Like Alan Bennett

We celebrate Yorkshire Day regularly at our house (LRB, 7 January). My Dalesman husband sits glowering by the door and says: ‘Aye, well, I’m not bloody going.’

B. Goff
London W5

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences