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I’ll show you the life of the mind!

July 24, 2010

From Carlin Romano comes this tale of two translations of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. For 50 years the only English translation of The Second Sex was that of H.M. Parshley, a zoologist with no background in philosophy and a tenuous grip on the French language. This fact rankled Beauvoir experts, in part because of Parshley’s questionable editorial decisions:

Parshley tended to cut Beauvoir’s examples of women’s anger and oppression while preserving references to men’s feelings.

But just as galling was the symbolism inherent in knowing that the foundational text of modern feminism had been translated by a man whose academic speciality was non-human organisms.

So scholars rejoiced when Knopf Publishing commissioned a modern translation of Beauvoir’s masterwork: this time by two women, native speakers of French. Yet this new translation has provoked more ire than the last. A leading Beauvoir scholar – and Norwegian – publicly upbraided the Parisian translators for, mirabile dictu, failing to appreciate the subtleties of the French language. Romano offers a sample:

‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: We are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound.’ The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merciréduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will.’ And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength,’ not ‘muscular force,’ which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit’ . . .

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 . . .

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.

I admit, a part of me thrills to academic blood sports. But more of me doubts that this scene from Barton Fink is a worthwhile model for academe:

One might think that scholars, believing in the life-changing potential of their work, would act like ecumenical priests spreading their gospel far and wide. But a lot choose to act like petty warlords, carving out fiefdoms through raids on weaker neighbors, then surrounding their conquered lands with linguistic minefields through which the semi-barbarous fear to tread. Still others go on scorched-earth campaigns and generally act like John Goodman with a shotgun.

Which is to say, I don’t see how the Norwegian scholar has done anything but drive potential readers away from Beauvoir – and that’s a shame, because The Second Sex is a powerful enough work no matter which translation you read.

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