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Existential Female

A new translation of the age-old question about Woman.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By EMILY SCHULTHEIS
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The Second Sex
by Simone de Beauvoir

Existential Female

Photo Credit: Corbis

Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier
Knopf, 832 pp., $40

Simone de Beauvoir’s name is hardly uttered anymore without her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre mentioned somewhere nearby, and that shouldn’t be surprising: They were philosophy’s Brangelina more than a half century ago. New information about their sexual exploits is still considered newsworthy. They have their own square in Paris, adjacent to the Café les Deux Magots, where they famously passed their days writing and debating.

But if you have ever taken a women’s studies class, which is practically required at most undergraduate institutions, Beauvoir is less Sartre sex and more Second Sex. The revolutionary book that started the women’s movement in 1949 covers the since-the-beginning-of-time history of woman and her place in society, in addition to a detailed examination of postwar woman’s experience. H. M. Parshley translated and edited the massive work in 1952, and the famous cream-colored cover found on most college women’s bookshelves featured an introduction by her biographer Deirdre Bair.

Considering the waves of feminism that have come and gone (or rather linger) since the early 1950s, it was high time for a new translation, and Americans in Paris Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier have answered the call. Their new translation is more complete and more accurate than the first, including the long list of sometimes-obscure women that was abridged in the original translation. More important, they present a better, truer translation of the existential language that endows The Second Sex with the philosophical overtones that its author intended it to have. Whether read as a piece of literature, studied as a contribution to the philosophy of women’s existence, or worshipped as “an act of Promethean audacity” (as Judith Thurman describes it in her introduction), The Second Sex and its readers benefit from the return to its existential roots.

For example, vastly improved is its best-known sentence—On ne nait pas femme: on le devient—famously translated as “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Borde and Malovany-Chevallier give the phrase the voice Beauvoir would most likely have given it: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” Granted, dropping an article is not a massive change; but it’s important, and a great improvement. It re-endows the sentence with which Beauvoir begins the second half of her opus with the philosophical weight of the essence of woman instead of merely the biological and social meanings the original translation implies.

In fairness to H. M. Parshley, anyone who has taken a stab at translation knows that as soon as you begin you find trouble. Do you translate literally, or change colloquialisms into the new language? Which audience do you write for, yours or the author’s? Parshley made his priority accessibility and readability for an American audience, using common turns of phrase and cutting parts he deemed too obscure or culture-specific. This new translation takes a more literal approach that slows the pace at times, and will ultimately cut down on the number of people willing to read through to the conclusion. But it is truer to Beauvoir’s words and culture. The increased “accuracy” is annoying at times, but the fidelity to philosophical terms more than makes up for changing “Enough ink has been spilled” to “Enough ink has flowed.” 

These kinds of small changes make it clear that Borde and Malovany-Chevallier have a specific, specialized audience in mind: the women’s studies student, who is already sold on the principles of the subject and has at least some familiarity with existentialist vocabulary. Their version is certainly more correct and more informative, but it lacks the poetry and readability of the Parshley translation. If you aren’t on the women’s studies wagon this probably isn’t a book you would want to read; but if you aren’t planning on an academic analysis of the text, the Parshley version is a gentler experience. 

The Second Sex is steeped in existential language. Beauvoir ascribed specialized meanings to common words, and her usage can be odd. Some of these oddities—for example, capitalization of the word other—appear in the Parshley translation, but Borde/Malovany-Chevallier have deliberately (and correctly) translated the existential terms throughout. This is crucial for the academic reader, but cumbersome and unnecessary for the casually curious. And in addition to the vocabulary slog, the tone is different as well. 

Take, for example, Beauvoir’s introduction, for which I have always had a special fondness. It is now aggressive and defensive, and the translators, while being careful not to stray into anachronistic vocabulary, have adopted a very 21st-century tone. The first time I read the introduction to The Second Sex I felt as if I were talking to a particularly insightful friend who was encouraging me to look at the way I live and think about what it means. When I read it this time, I felt as if I were being lectured. 

Simone de Beauvoir has always been controversial, and the aspect of The Second Sex that usually ruffles the most feathers is her overarching hostility to motherhood. From the time of pre-agricultural peoples, when man’s dominance was established, to the modern woman “trapped” in motherhood, women have been doomed, she writes, to be mothers. Never having been a mother herself, and picking at the emotional scabs of a complicated relationship with her own mother—revealed especially in her autobiographical Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter—Beauvoir takes an approach to motherhood that is not only unsympathetic, but unyielding to any who would disagree with her existential arguments.

On a larger scale, her wide anarchist streak is on display here, as in her novels and memoirs, and her firm status as a leftist will be an obstacle for any reader approaching The Second Sex from the right. But at its heart The Second Sex is the chronicle of an individual struggling with her place in the world, identifying the impediments to her liberty, and striving toward the greatest possible freedom. And though we cannot and should not make freedom fries out of someone as ineffably French as Simone de Beauvoir, there is something inherently noble, and intrinsically dignified, about an individual’s quest for liberty. Her struggle is played out on a difficult, existential plane; but at the root of her project is a desire to transcend her situation, to reach for something higher and better, to attain the right to choose her own projects and strive toward her own goals in good faith. This account of one woman’s struggle for profound liberty makes The Second Sex relevant and infinitely valuable. Even if I prefer the earlier, Parshley translation.

Emily Schultheis is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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