Chances are, if you’re an American feminist, you’ve never read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Even if you’re a highly educated feminist who takes pride in having read at least a sample of all the important first- and second-wave feminists, you probably haven’t read her. Neither have I, even though I thought I had (it was assigned reading back when I was a Women’s Studies student).
You see, the real Simone de Beauvoir isn’t available in English – only in the original French. The English version I and many other English-reading feminists have read, is translated so badly that at times it says the exact opposite of what de Beauvoir intended. From a New York Times op-ed by Sarah Glazer:
”Parshley didn’t read anything about existentialism until he’d finished translating the whole book and thought he should find out something about it to write his introduction,” says Margaret A. Simons, professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and author of ”Beauvoir and ‘The Second Sex’ ” (1999).
A close student of Hegel and Heidegger, Beauvoir often referred to their work using specific terms French philosophers would have recognized, but that Parshley did not. Toril Moi, who has made a detailed analysis of the translation, noted for example that the word ”subject” generally refers in existentialism to a person who exercises freedom of choice, whereas Parshley understood ”subjective” in its everyday English sense to mean ”personal” or ”not objective.” In his hands, Beauvoir’s discussions of woman’s assertion of herself as a subject become platitudes implying women are incapable of being objective.
More damning, when Parshley encountered existentialist terms for existence — such as pour-soi, or ”being-for-itself” — vis-Ã -vis women’s lives, he often rendered them as woman’s ”true nature” or feminine ”essence,” notions that would have been anathema to Beauvoir, according to Moi. ”The idea of existentialism is ‘experience precedes essence.’ Existentialism means ‘You are what you do,’ ” she says.
In addition, about 150 pages of The Second Sex is cut out of the English language edition.
There are qualified translators who’d love to take on the project; there are publishers, such as Harvard University Press, eager to publish a better-translated, complete Second Sex.
But the publishing house Knopf has the exclusive English-language rights locked up until The Second Sex goes into the public domain – in 2056. Knopf refuses to do an updated transation themselves, and they refuse to allow anyone else to publish one, either.
So, it appears, that ends the matter. Translating The Second Sex is too big a job for anyone to do for free. The marketplace would pay someone to translate it – but our ridiculous copyright law won’t allow the free market to function.
UPDATE: See also this post, which has some impressive examples of bad translation follies and a link for a petition.