Thursday, March 25, 2010

On The Second Sex

"There is a good principle which has created order, light, and man, and a bad principle which has created chaos, darkness, and woman." ~Pythagoras

"All that has been written about women by men should be suspect, for men are both judges and interested parties."  ~Poullain de la Barre

So run the two epigrams to The Second Sex, which do not appear in H.M. Parshley's translation. Just as "It is clear that no woman can claim, without bad faith, to situate herself beyond her sex" is deleted from its rightful place after this passage:
Surely woman is, like man, a human being; but such a declaration is abstract. The fact is that every concrete human being is always a singular, separate individual. To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today – this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality (p. xx).  
These omissions, and others (about 15% of the book by Toril Moi's estimation), along with Parshley's lack of command over the 'existentialist' vocabulary detract from such an important work of philosophy. Which is why many de Beauvoir scholars demanded a new, complete translation. In 2007, after years of resistance, the publishers of the English translation announced that a new translation would be forthcoming, and it appears that the news was received with caution. As Toril Moi writes, before the translation  had appeared, "The translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, are best known as cookery book writers. Let's hope they do justice to Beauvoir's masterpiece."

Now, in the London Review of Books, in an article entitled "The Adulteress Wife," Moi renders the verdict:
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.
In her article, she proceeds through a long list of problems with the translation, which I will leave to the reader to explore (they still make me panic about my own translations that I rendered above on the fly...).

Why my interest? I teach de Beauvoir in my "Great Philosophers" class, and this task is rendered a bit more difficult by having to reconstruct her argument, and her philosophical terminology against Parshley's translation. It's not heartening to hear that the trade off of the new translation is that it renders this vocabulary more consistent at the price of readability. It's too bad, because the discussion of de Beauvoir's work often brings the class to life a bit, due to its relevance to contemporary life (which is both good and bad: good because her criticisms remain lively, astute, and, for some, empowering, but bad because many of the problems faced by women-- and others-- sixty years ago are still problems for women today).

I've been thinking of switching to a different text, from the "Introduction" to The Second Sex to something else, more than likely the Ethics of Ambiguity. Any suggestions?

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