Different translations have different audiences and different purposes. When I work with classical texts, I use the Loeb editions, which have the Greek on one page and an English version on the facing page that sticks closely to the original. Borde and Malovany-Chevallier have produced something like the English half of a Loeb Beauvoir. Parshley was doing something different: trying to turn Beauvoir’s text into one ordinary Americans would buy. An accurate, word-by-word account, though, is what scholars and students have urgently needed. We may not agree with everything we read in it, but at least we’ll know we’re disagreeing with Beauvoir, not her translator.
The new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's foundational feminist work The Second Sex was published in the UK in late 2009 (I wrote about it here). It took some time for Beauvoir scholars to work their way through it, and one critic in particular–feminist scholar and Duke professor Toril Moi– found the re-translation to be mostly a failure, tearing it apart in a recent essay in the London Review of Books.
Moi's essay has made such waves that Margaret Simons, philosopher professor and Beauvoir expert (and author of the original essay alerting everyone to the fact that the Parshley translation was incomplete and inaccurate), sent out a call on a philosophy list-serv for corrections to the UK edition, "which
the translators have another day or two to correct in the US edition." It's a relief, then, to know that although this translation may not be ideal, the howlers which Moi identified can at least be put right for the US edition (and future UK editions). I tend to think Moi will consider the flaws to be more than simply cosmetic; Simons, on the other hand, calls it a" tremendous advance over the Parshley translation in accuracy and completeness."
I guess we'll all have to stay tuned for la suite.
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.)
*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.
…Heard Simone de Beauvoir talk on the novel (is it still possible) last night at the Sorbonne (with Jaffe). She is lean and tense and black-haired and very good-looking for her age, but her voice is unpleasant, something about the high pitch and the nervous speed with which she talks…
Woke up this morning to find Maud Newton had posted a video of Simone de Beauvoir discussing her book La vieillesse (translated as The Coming of Age), and had asked for a translation of its contents. Ever one to oblige, and procrastinate, I got right to it. Questions, comments, and critiques of my translation welcome.
Q: Simone de Beauvoir, what does "aging" mean to you?
SdB: Many things at once. I wrote a 600 page book to explain, I can't answer you in 60 seconds. Ok, we can say first of all that to age is an organic phenomenon. The organs evolve, which leads to a slowing down and even the disappearance of the principal biological functions. This is connected to social and economic conditions. Because an older man no longer has the same ability to [deal with] fatigue and work, he is retired or he retires, he stops working. Which is good for some people, because it allows them to have some more free time, but which is a [terrible?] thing for most people, because not having a job generally signifies a large decline in the quality of life, which is terrifying, and the pensions they receive are insufficient.
Q: You wrote this essay on aging, Simone de Beauvoir, to fight against a society that sees the elderly as pariahs, is that the case?
SdB: Yes. For the most part, we don't say it, but we treat them as pariahs. Unlike in myths and stories where they appear as wise, full of experience, someone venerable and respectable, but when we retire them we prevent them from working, it would be good to give them a decent amount of money on which to live. But we give them nothing, and there is a considerable number of eldery people who are paupers in France and the US.
Q: You say that Western society treats the elderly as pariahs, but is this not the case in Socialist nations, like Soviety Russia?
SdB: IT's not exactly the same thing. In Soviet Russia there is the slightest difference between the salary of a worker and the pension he receives after he has been retired [sa mise à la retraite]. There are also retirement homes, which are, if not more comfortable, more enjoyable, because the residents have the chance to get together, play games, take part in discussions. We do this too, but there is a much smaller quantity of hospices and retirement homes in which the residents can enjoy their free time. [truncated, she gets repetitive]
Q: Do you consider that intellectuals like yourself, like most writers, grow older in a privileged fashion?
SdB: Absolutely. On one hand, we generally belong to a privileged social and economic class, which means we have more money, we don't suffer from the same privations. But on the other hand, as has remarked [many a?] gerontologist, the more engaged intellectually the aging person is, the more slowly their faculties decline. If you have a good memory, if you exercise your memory, you will continue to keep it. And then you are someone who is curious, you know how to keep your mind occupied, which is very important, because, sadly, many elderly people, it's tragic for them, they literally die of boredom.
Q: But for you personally, Simone de Beauvoir, does it seem terrible to you to age?
SdB: No; it seemed terrible to me at one time, I said to myself "I'm going to get older," and there is a stage in my life, which is now, to get over. This happened around age 50-55. I think we think of it as a kind of obstacle you have to get past [ligne à franchir]; everyone feels it, male or female, at a certain point in their life.It can come very late, at 70 or 75 years old, or very early, there are people who are old by around 40 years old, it depends on one's health, economic conditions, their job status, on their circumstances. At this time, I feel there is a line I have just passed, there are some things I can no longer do, or no longer want to, like walking [around the city], which I did a lot in my youth. But that's it, I'm not going to spend my time saying this line has been passed, I'm alive and I do my work and I look around me and don't think about what's over, I think I have this time to live, and I prefer to put it to the best possible use.
Q: Do you not think it's more difficult for a woman to age than for a man?
Q: Because it's terrible to no longer please.
SdB: That's a widespread idea, but the moment a woman thinks her life as a woman is over actually comes much earlier, they experience a terrible crisis at the moment of their menopause. They can no longer have children, they imagine that they are no longer desirable– it's very often at this particular moment [that the crisis takes place]. 50, 55 years old, that's not really old age. But generally after this passes, they are more serene than they were, now that they no longer have to fight to stay in the category of 'young women', when they were disadvantaged in this category.
Q: So how old is "old age"?
SdB: I can't give an exact number. Socially, we place it at 65 years old, because that's the average age of retirement. It's at that age that we think men should stop working. So we say that old age begins for everyone at 65 years old. But chronological old age is not the same things as biological old age, nor is it the same for everyone. You have some people who at 55 years old are terribly used-up, who have the body of an 85 year old, and you have 85 year olds who are extremely vigorous, who can keep up with someone aged 50. So there is an enormous difference, and we cannot say that old age arrives at one age or another.
Q: In fact, Simone de Beauvoir, this essay on aging is important because it is a comprehensive work, the consummate text on aging. Do you think it will do for the elderly what The Second Sex did for women?
SdB: Yes, that's what I had envisioned. I wanted to think about [the subject of ] aging in all of its aspects the way I did [the subject of ] woman. From a biological, anthropological, historical, social perspective– that is, how it exists in our society today; and then on the other hand I wanted to treat the "being in the world" [l'etre dans le monde] of the elderly person, a little like what I did for women, the lived experience, that is to say, look at how he reacts in different situations, his relationship to his body, his self-image, his sexuality, his relationship to time, to what is past and what is to come, his activities, his plans, and his daily relationships with other people, his loved ones, everything that has to do with money…
Q: You say that society condemns the elderly. But according to your historical analysis, every society has always condemned them.
SdB: That is to say, there have been periods when there were only privileged old people, where we didn't speak of old age; in France in the Middle Ages your life was over at 35 years old. So in this case we can't say that the elderly were mistreated, since men didn't live to see their old age. And the rare privileged ones, as in Greek and Roman times, since they were rich and had property, since they were at the head of the family, they were respected, not because of their age, but because of the role they played in society. Except in feudal times, because the vassals, when they had to defend their earnings, by the sword at times, the father would step aside [s'éffacer] in favor of his son.
Which is what we see, for example, in [Corneille's tragedy] Le Cid.
Q: Do you think your book could have an effect on the situation of elderly people in our society?
SdB: Unfortunately, I don't think so. Books are never enough. It can have echoes in revolts, in movements of public opinion, so it seems to be efficacious, but in itself The SEcond Sex didn't change anything about the female condition. It only helped certain women to become aware of their condition. I know it helped them a lot because I've received many letters. So I think this book will help, on one hand, adults and young people, to see the elderly from a different perspective, to treat them in another way. And perhaps it will help the elderly as well to understand the reasons why they live the way they do. But for the mass of [elderly] people for whom this is a material and economic problem, who really have nothing to eat or to heat themselves with in the winter, it is obvious that this book won't change anything.
We must pay homage to the woman who, as Philippe Val noted in "La
Transmission Beauvoir," buried the ghost of Madame Bovary, her
hysteria, her "woman's illness," her suffering, which at the time
people thought was innate, eternal–and this in in Freud's time, before
modern thought appropriated his movement.
Don't miss BHL's homage to Simone de Beauvoir in The New Republic.
(and don't miss mine in The Quarterly Conversation!)
You will also find an essay on an overlooked influence on Borges, Nigel Beale's review of Roberto Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas, Ravi Shankar on what comes after postmodern literature, and an essay on Donald Barthelme by Dan Green.
I have so much to say about the Simone de Beauvoir centennial this week, among other things, but we are leaving for Tokyo today and my morning has to be taken up with more mundane activities like going to the pharmacy, packing up toiletries, figuring out exactly how many books I can hide in the bottom of N’s backpack before he catches on to me, etc. So I will leave you with a few links and a promise to write more, soon. Sayonara for now!
The Guardian’s really useful overview of the centennial and the issues raised this week.
Ahoy. Just back from the south of France, where I spent some quality time with my parents lounging by the pool with my nose in a book.
Just like old times!
Here’s the round-up. What has everyone else been reading? Consider yourselves memed.
1. Hors-série edition of Le Point on Erotisme and Le Magazine Littéraire‘s issue on Désir. Great summary of both (in French) here. While trying to hide the bare-breasted cover from my parents so they didn’t think I was reading French porn, I was particularly struck by LML’s interview with Slavoj Zizek and his distinction between the desire to consume and the desire to desire. According to Zizek, children don’t bother to eat the chocolate part of the Kinder egg; they just want the prize inside. True, semi-True, False, semi-False? Discuss.
2. Selections from The Stones of Venice in The Genius of John Ruskin.
This was more difficult to concentrate on due to the presence of two squealing British children and their mother’s incessant mothering: "Allie, come ‘ere, you’ve got your knickers on the wrong way ’round!" Ruskin, an extreme purist, believes the city began its decline in 1418 when its artists stopped making spiritually religious art and started concentrating on form and color, albeit continuing to use religious icons as an artistic vernacular. So Venice, then, has been in decline for nigh on 600 years. She looks pretty good, for all that.
3. Casanova était une femme: the letters of Sonia Rykiel and Régine Deforges. The back cover copy was intriguing: "Pourquoi, à l’heure des contacts rapides, ont-elles choisi de s’écrire plus de cent lettres? La réponse est dans leurs échanges [Why, in this age of instantaneous communication, did they decide to write each other over a hundred letters? The answer is in their exchanges]," but after reading their over a hundred letters I’m still not sure why they didn’t just email. I think it has something to do with the fact that the letters were written by two women contemplating the ends of a lifetime of creativity, and encouraging each other not to worry as much about the end product as about the process, reminding each other of the fine moments in one’s daily life and the importance of an all-orienting friendship, apart from one’s husband and children. Really well-written: this was great for my French, and although there were a few moments this past week when I was really glum, missing my partner-person, it helped me refocus and recenter a little bit. When I finished reading I vowed to write more articulate letters to my friends.
4. The first 200 pages of Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, the first volume in the autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir. Once you read this volume of her formative years, you can better understand both where La Deuxième Sexe came from and how the founder of French feminism could have lived such a self-denigrating relationship with Sartre.
the view from the terrace of the hotel, Le Manoir de l’Etang in Mougins.