Simone de Beauvoir is a renowned feminist icon and French Existentialist philosopher. She worked amongst the likes of Camus and Sarte. She didn’t spear-head dyed armpit hair or Miley Cyrus’ nipple tassels, but rather did something almost greater than that; her corpus of feminist, ethical and political writings articulately attacked the passive sphere of ‘imminence’ which females have been relegated to acceptingly- everywhere apart from Matriarchal tribes.
The Second Sex stands alone as a revolutionary text which heralded the sunrise of feminine liberation- socially, mentally, personally, politically, poetically, ideologically. Even spiritually. The book is one to trigger rage-full thoughts even in the most right wing of us all.
However, TO THIS VERY DAY, it has no adequate translations. Zero. I’m not talking about a few grammatical mistakes here and there or some awkward sounding sentence structure. I mean the first translation reeked of almost SEXIST censorship, in terms of the huge amount cut from it, the interchangeable words which almost condone some patriarchal interpretations and the inclusion of male writing excerpts over female ones.
The second one, while more tolerable, is also not a perfect text and has a number of problematic errors. Angloscentric feminists stay weeping.
Is translation reliable?
Translated texts may often be untrustworthy or unreliable due to inaccuracies in the translation itself. It is often the case that little credit is given to translators due to a suspicion towards the quality of the representation of the original text, which paints the author as superior voice of both authenticity and creativity. In contrast, the translator is seen to have a duty of fidelity to the source text which may perhaps be broken due to faulty interpretations or perhaps even artifice.
As readers don’t necessarily know what approach the translator has taken, they may be left with feelings of suspicion towards the translator’s method or background motive, feeding into the integrated bias that the content of the original text may become ‘lost in translation’ in the mediation process between languages.
A primary example of this stems from inaccurate and perhaps ideologically influenced translations of ground-breaking theoretical texts, such as H.M. Parshley’s 1953 translation of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. When compared with the newer edition by Borde and Chevallier (2009), the average reader would be able to spot a vast amount of significant differences which, while perhaps subtle at first glance, hugely inform the reader’s experience of the text and cognitive interpretation of its meaning.
Linguistic errors which may skew feminist interpretations:
In Parshley’s edition, the chapter on The Married Woman (the section on housework) includes much milder, less powerful language whereas the 2009 edition includes numerous images of imprisonment and illness, creating a lexical field that vividly illustrates the domestication of women, such as that of an “isolated cell” (Borde and Chevallier, 2009, 482). The domestic interior depicts a woman “locked into the conjugal community” in a “condition” she must “abdicate” and “conquer” by “changing this prison into a kingdom” (Borde and Chevallier, 2009, 483).
In contrast, Parshely omits the detail of this passage to a woman being merely “confined” (as opposed to “locked”) “within the conjugal sphere”. Whereas they associate the house with “imprisoning”, he chooses the word “encompassing” and changes her prison, not into a “kingdom”, but a “realm” (469). Although the words are technically synonyms, a kingdom has greater connotations of rulership by a king or queen and arguably creates a greater sense of dominion.
This is supported further down in the passage as Parshley writes “the wife feels herself queen” (469) whereas Borde’s edition states that “woman feels like a queen” (483). The simile suggests that the housewife, in her present state, falsely uses this degree of freedom to feel as powerful as she can, like a queen, whereas reality dictates that her subjugated position lacks power. In contrast, Parshley’s metaphor perhaps suggests that the housewife genuinely becomes a queen, arguably benefitting from this feeling psychologically through a gain of confidence.
Furthermore, he uses “the wife” as opposed to “woman” and, although the French word “femme” does indeed have a double meaning that stands in for both words, his choice of limiting the housewife’s position by referencing her role directly confines her more greatly to the domestic space, especially through the determiner which denotes woman to the title of ‘wife’, assuming it to be the status quo. Likewise, where Parshley translates “the whole countryside was her homeland”, Borde chooses “the whole world was her kingdom”. Both use “whole” but the use of “countryside” and “homeland” instead of “world” and “kingdom” adds domestication to the female image created and emphasises his label of women as “the poets of the home”, whereas Borde seems to elevate women with a subliminal sense of autonomy and power.
Likewise, Parshley chooses the past tense of a man who “objected” in vain that curtains without windows are useless, in contrast to Borde’s present tense “objects”; she suggests this male/female dynamic is still a contemporary problem that should not be dismissed.
While this handful of detailed examples may not make a huge impact, he uses “wife” far more than “woman” and, over 770 pages, this accumulates to create a problematically different message than originally intended by de Beauvoir.
Even by separating paragraphs and shortening them, the change in layout influences a reader’s perspective as the way someone organises their thought is important. Some may utilise these numerous contrasts to argue that this inability to correctly interpret the same text, creating disparages between the literature, indicates that the form of translations makes them unsuitable to treat them as accurate literary texts that may be commented on.
Technical, Sociological and Philosophical Mishaps:
Parshley also limited the translation contextually by eliminating over 10% of the material, cutting out stories from the edition and failing to distinguish between freedom and more license- and it is no simple task to determine what has been deleted (Simons, 1983, 1).
Parshley’s translation is not culturally or philosophically competent as he was a zoologist who had never translated from French before, knew nothing of either the language of existentialism (which alienation was an example of) or of Hegel (Moi, 2002, 1018) and was unable to suitably recognise philosophical terminology (Moi, 2002, 1014). Not only are there elementary mistranslations of French, but sentences are misleadingly edited so that it would be easier to form a critical argument accusing de Beauvoir of a feminism which advocates females becoming more ‘man-like’ (Moi, 2002, 1017) and misrepresenting motherhood (Moi 2002 1024).
This obscures her genuine opinions on important feminist issues, damaging both her reputation and that of feminist philosophy (Moi, 2002, 1005).
In The Married Woman, there are 7 translations cut, such as that of Virginia Wolf, whereas quotes by men such as Bachelard (Parshley, 1997, 469) are included. Simons (1983) highlights how Parshley eradicates eighty-seven women’s names as well as practically every reference to socialist feminism, reducing misogynist diatribes and descriptions of women’s anger and oppression in favour of references to male feelings (562) so that the text seems less rooted in female experience.
This allows a reading of de Beauvoir as male identifying or perhaps even hostile to women (Moi, 2002, 1010). While Parshley was probably not ideologically influenced as he respected de Beauvoir (Moi, 2002, 1026), ignorance was at the root of this translation as he was unable to grasp that women’s lived experience is a serious topic.
Is there even an adequate English translation of de Beauvoir??
Even Borde and Chevallier’s new translation does not accurately preserve de Beauvoir’s voice and style as some of the sentences are awkward and unclear. Translations of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ should also contain ‘the’ as they are generic examples (Moi, 2010). While this edition is unabridged and there is a better handling of philosophical terminology, they make several translation errors such as an inconsistent use of tenses, syntax and punctuation as well as a limited awareness of the ideological connotations which the French ‘féminin’ carries in contrast to the English ‘feminine’ (Moi, 2010).
There are many important things which are ‘lost in translation’ that would carry great weight to one’s formulation of a literary critical argument as readers would not be able to accurately analyse word choices and the overall meaning because it differs from de Beauvoir’s concentrated critique on traditional feminine norms.
Ironically, Borde and Chevallier had previously translated cookbooks and were neither philosophers nor experts, which plays a part in the lack of riveting and powerful phrasing expressed in the original French edition. As Moi points out, the translated version, if not constantly checked against the French, creates a feeling of reading underwater.
Are these mistakes ideologically motivated??
Although these errors were presumably innocent, there are many other cases of ideologically untrustworthy translations. Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of Arabian Nights includes very Orientalised and racist footnotes that seem to fetishize the East and construct an image of ‘the other’ from a Colonial perspective (Mediacommons.futureofthebook.org, 2018).
Likewise, translations of Pierre Bourdieu’s Sociology of Class extremely anglicised his concepts so that specific examples were transformed into their Western counterparts, such as the use of Marilyn Monroe over Brigitte Bardot (Jenkins 1992, Webb 2002). Cultural specifics are important for understanding this sociological topic which looks at the class of taste as French and Anglicised examples will differ; it is problematic to collapse France into America. These examples suggest that translation can be an inconsistent practice which doesn’t require complete accuracy on the translator’s behalf, leading to incorrect interpretations of the original text that would demean the accuracy of one’s critical argument.
However, this untrustworthiness is not due to translation as a form as there are reliable insights into the original source text. Many critics such as Moi have been able to spot Parshley’s mistakes and aim to educate others to be able to read the “epochal essay” without being influenced by the translation’s limitations (Moi, 2002, 1007) and more sensitive translations of ‘Arabian Nights’ have been attempted (Mediacommons.futureofthebook.org, 2018).
Parshley’s untrustworthy edition nevertheless did manage to convey some nuances of poetry and irony when he accurately translated the French (Moi, 2010). Translation does not necessitate instability and the inadequacy which arises is usually a result of the external circumstances of the individual translator themselves and the refusal of publishers to fund new editions.
Our only hopes are that justice is eventually served and the publishers dole out enough cash to a translator who can actually grasp the nuances of Existential French philosophy.
• Simons, M. A. (1983) ‘The silencing of Simone de Beauvoir – guess what’s missing from The Second Sex’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 6(5), pp. 559–564. doi: 10.1016/0277-5395(83)90081-X.
• Parshley, H. M. and Beauvoir, S. de, trans. (1997) The Second Sex, London: Vintage, pp. 466-75.