LectureHop: Retranslating The Second Sex

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Translators Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier explained their efforts to faithfully render Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe, or The Second Sex. First published in 1949, it has been called the Bible of Feminism. Borde and Malovany produced the first translation of the entire work, and the first translation by women—answering the thirty-year-old call for a new translation truer to the original text. Hosted by the Barnard Center for Translation Studies, the event was moderated by Louise Von Flotow, a specialist on translation and writer in English. Bwog noob and tipser-extraordinaire Conor Skelding reports back.

L-R: Anna Bogic, Constance Borde, Sheila Malovney-Chevallier, Louise Von Flotow

In the United States, Von Flotow explained, translations go unheralded and translators unnoticed. Every translation is valuable not only in the work translated, she said, but as a triumph in itself which makes timeless ideas accessible to a new intellectual climate. Translations are interdependent with their time, affecting and being affected by the climate in which they are born.

The first English translation of Le Deuxième Sexe, by H.M. Parshley, dates to 1953. It was controversial and not without flaws. In 1983, Margaret Simon wrote an article exposing serious problems—namely, that 10 to 15% of the text was ignored in the translation without explanation and that the existentialist underpinnings of the work were ignored in favor of an over-scientific interpretation. English translations, both within and beyond the United States, either glossed over and excised the “perverse” sections or grossly exaggerated the sexuality and graphic nature of the book in male-oriented terminology. However, since Knopf owns the exclusive rights to Le Deuxiéme Sexe in the United States and the 1953 Parshley translation continued the sell well into the aughts, Simon’s criticism went unheeded. Around 2004, Knopf relented and Borde and Malovany entered the scene.

The history behind their endeavor established, Borde and Malovany told their story of how they approached the proposition of righting the wrongs of the much-maligned first translation. Whereas the 1953 translation aimed to lighten “the burden on the American reader,” Borde and Malovany recognize and embrace a complicated philosophical treatise. They strove to preserve Beauvoir’s tone and grammar and their unabridged translation conveys the author’s sometimes indiscriminate language. The pair described being one hundred pages into the translation and realizing that they needed to include the copious amounts of semicolons composing “[Beauvoir’s] very own grammar.” In Malovany’s words, “I truly believe Beauvoir could have used a better editor. Or [any] editor.”

After the pair of translators spoke about their experiences translating and Le Deuxième Sexe, Anna Bogic, who is involved in research on the first translation’s roots, rose to defend it. Translation isn’t one person’s sole work but rather a collaborative (and combative) effort including publisher and editors, she argued. Bogic expounded how Parshley recognized the import of Beauvoir’s existentialism, but a letter from higher up called the philosophy a “dead duck.” The letters elucidate that Knopf aimed for the book to be French counterpart to the Kinsey Reports, and thus scientific. Also, as books were priced by weight at the time, Knopf feared a book costing $10—so Parshley was ordered to make the encyclopedic work concise wherever possible. Parshley too attempted to correspond with Beauvoir by mail in order to consult her, but only received one response.

During the somewhat overzealous justification of the first translation, Borde and Malovany seemed doubtful. Indeed, it is hard to take seriously a “defense” that merely seeks to legitimize obvious omissions and failures on all sides. Borde’s head remained slumped in her right hand.

Photo by Conor Skelding

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