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Sunday, June 20th, 2010
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The Second Sex

by Simone de Beauvoir

A Second Look

A review by Kristana Arp

A new translation of Simone de Beauvoir's magnum opus has appeared at last. The first English edition was published almost 60 years ago, its translator H. M. Parshley, a retired Smith College zoology professor who lacked a background in philosophy and French literature and who mistranslated key terms, obscuring the work's deeper intellectual dimensions. Responding to the publisher's demands, he also cut about 15 percent of the French original. These problems went unnoticed until Beauvoir scholar Margaret Simons pointed them out in a feminist journal in 1983.

The Second Sex has inspired mixed responses from feminists over the years, though most recognize it as a foundational text of second-wave feminism. Beauvoir was for a long time overshadowed by her fellow existentialist and lifelong companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, but in the early 1990s, feminist scholars began showing that she was a philosopher in her own right. A number of books and articles appeared interpreting, developing and debating her ideas. As the demand for a new translation grew, a consortium of women in publishing dedicated themselves to seeing the project through.

Yet The Second Sex retains its power to cause controversy. Some people were concerned that the two women chosen to do the new translation did not have the right qualifications. Their translations were mainly English-to-French textbooks and (gasp!) cookbooks, not French-to-English philosophy. When their translation was published in the U.K., Toril Moi, an academic who has written extensively on Beauvoir, tore it apart in the London Review of Books, pointing to numerous sentences, phrases, even words she claims were mistranslated.

There are places where one can debate Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's choices, but overall their translation works well. They retained Beauvoir's generous usage of semi-colons and pageslong paragraphs, which takes some getting used to. But one is soon drawn into the torrent of Beauvoir's prose. She wrote this long work at breakneck speed, and the new version brings out its sense of urgency. By comparison, Parshley's translation seems dry, mannered, even prissy.

When Beauvoir describes the way a girl experiences her body during puberty, Parshley's translation reads:

It is more fragile than formerly; the feminine organs are vulnerable, and delicate in their functioning; her strange and bothersome breasts are a burden, they remind her of their presence by quivering painfully during violent exercise.

The new translation goes:

It is more fragile than before; female organs are vulnerable, their function delicate; strange and uncomfortable breasts are a burden; they remind her of their presence during strenuous exercise, they quiver, they ache.

The new translation follows the French more exactly and captures the rhythm of Beauvoir's prose. The "strange and bothersome breasts" in Parshley's translation, with their "quivering," sound almost like something out of a romance novel.

While opinions on the new translation may vary, Beauvoir scholars are sure to be infuriated by Judith Thurman's claim in her introduction that Sartre's philosophy provided the "conceptual scaffold" for The Second Sex. So much has been written challenging this assumption. Why does a woman intellectual like Thurman automatically revert to it?

Quibbles aside, the real advantage of this volume is that it gives new generations of English readers a more accurate and complete understanding of Beauvoir's thinking. Even with the excised material restored, it is only 40 pages longer than the original -- bulky, but compact enough to fit in an undergraduate's backpack. Newcomers to Beauvoir should make sure to read her last chapter, "The Independent Woman." Then they can ask themselves: Do Western women today deal with the trade-offs, obstacles and challenges that Beauvoir describes? Have we really come a long way? And where are we headed now?

Kristina Arp is a philosophy professor at Long Island University and author of The Bonds of Freedom: Simone de Beauvoir's Existentialist Ethics.

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