Anglophone feminists, rejoice! The new English translation of Simone de Beauvoir's masterpiece The Second Sex was published in the UK this week by Jonathan Cape (with the American edition set for publication by Knopf in April 2010).
Viewed by many as feminism's foundational text, Gallimard published The Second Sex in two volumes (to mixed reviews) in 1949. It sold extremely well (200,000 copies in its first week), and garnered Beauvoir followers in sectors of the French population who might otherwise have avoided the kind of philosophical treatises she was trained to write. The Second Sex broke down barriers, not least those of class and education.
An English translation appeared in the US in 1953, and was a bestseller there, too. Except that the translation was performed by a zoologist, one H.M. Parshley, who struggled no doubt valiantly but produced quite a sub-par rendering of Beauvoir's idiosyncratic French prose. Also, he cut about 20% of the book, which he felt was irrelevant.
Beauvoir scholars have been saying for years that a new translation was desperately needed,* but it took Sarah Glazer's watershed 2004 New York Times article to raise general awareness of the problem. Glazer writes,
In addition to misconstruing words and phrases, the American edition
deleted nearly 15 percent of the original French text (about 145
pages), seriously weakening the sections dealing with women's
literature and history — Beauvoir being one of the first to declare
these as legitimate subjects for study. Gone were numerous quotations
from women's novels and diaries, including those of Virginia Woolf,
Colette and Sophie Tolstoy, that she used to support her arguments.
Little-known historical accounts of women who defied feminine
stereotypes, like Renaissance noblewomen who led armies, also vanished
from the English edition.
What went wrong with ''The Second
Sex''? The answer may be as simple as the word ''sex.'' When Blanche
Knopf, wife of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf and an editor in her own
right, bought the book on a trip to France, she was under the
impression that it was ''a modern-day sex manual'' akin to the Kinsey
report, Deirdre Bair writes in her biography ''Simone de Beauvoir''
(1990). Alfred Knopf, who thought the book ''capable of making a very
wide appeal indeed'' among ''young ladies in places like Smith,''
sought out Howard Madison Parshley, a retired professor of zoology who
had written a book on human reproduction and regularly reviewed books
on sex for The New York Herald Tribune, to translate Beauvoir's book.
Parshley knew French only from his years as a student at Boston Latin
School and Harvard, and had no training in philosophy — certainly not
in the new movement known as existentialism, of which Beauvoir was an
Capitalizing on the momentum kicked off by Glazer's article, Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign rights director of Gallimard, convinced Jonathan Cape and Knopf that they had to do a new translation, this time by translators who were feminists, who understood Beauvoir's arguments, and who would restore the missing 20% of the book. Sheila Malovany-Chevallier and Constance Borde, two Americans living in Paris, won the commission, and, with the support of the Centre National du Livre, the contracts were signed and the re-translating began. (See also Sarah Glazer's 2007 article in Bookforum for more on how this came about.)
Le Monde has the up to date story here.
*For a scholarly accounting of what's missing from the Parshley translation, and some of the issues at stake in translating Beauvoir, here is Margaret Simons's groundbreaking 1983 article, and here is one by Toril Moi from 2001.
I haven't seen the new translation yet, but I hope to get my hands on a copy soon.