The Second Sex: lost in translation?

// 11 March 2010

photo of The Second Sex book coverAs a French student I was fortunate enough to read and study Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in the original French, but I imagine many of you have read it in the English translation. Any translation will inevitably lose some nuance of the original, but since the 1980s, Beauvoir scholars have repeatedly highlighted the inadequacies of the English translation, some of which have led to anglophone scholars and readers misinterpreting Beauvoir’s arguments.

At the publishers’ request, the male translator (H.M. Parshley) removed over 10% of the original content. Extensive description of women’s history and references to historical female figures are omitted, along with qualitative evidence of women’s oppression in marriage and within the home, while illustration of men’s dominance and superior social status is retained. These omissions have in some cases served to fuel accusations that Beauvoir privileged men over women.

Key philosophical terms, drawn from Beauvoir and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist theory, were translated inconsistently and, in many cases, wholly inaccurately, to often disastrous effect. The first academic to analyse Parshley’s translation, Margaret A. Simons, points out that the existentialist term for human consciousness , être-pour-soi (implying a potential for free choice), was not translated by the standard English equivalent ‘being-for-itself’ but with various versions of ‘in accordance with one’s true nature’. This wholly distorts both Beauvoir’s feminism and its philosophical basis. According to Beauvoir, there is no human nature: femininity has been constructed and positioned as natural in order to oppress women and keep them in a state of inauthenticity (existence that is not freely chosen or determined).

Beauvoir asked Margaret Simons to publish a new translation of the work, and feminist scholars have approached the publishers with requests for a new translation, but to no avail – until 2005. The resulting new translation was published in November last year, although I hadn’t heard about it until a few weeks ago, when a friend forwarded me this review by feminist academic Toril Moi.

And oh how my translator’s brain and my feminist heart hurt when I read quite how royally Beauvoir has been let down – again.

For a start, the translators are neither philosophy nor feminism specialists; they’re English teachers who write textbooks and cookery books. They’re barely even professional translators, having only minimal French-English translation experience. Quite why the publishers thought they were suitable, particularly given the obvious importance of the task in the face of such cutting criticism of the original translation, is anyone’s guess, but Moi’s review is damning.

She argues that the new translation has three ‘fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure and punctuation’. The basic translation errors are bad enough; check out this beauty:

In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’

If you’re interested in translation, I suggest you read the full review: there’s plenty more where that came from. I’ll stick to highlighting the distortion of Beauvoir’s feminism, which unfortunately appears to occur along the same lines as the distortions in the original translation.

The translators render the French féminin/e (of or pertaining to women) as ‘feminine’ (essentially female), meaning Beauvoir’s work now ‘teems with references to the “feminine world”, “feminine literature”, “feminine reality”, “feminine individualism”, “feminine magic”, “feminine destiny” and so on’. Littérature féminine is simply literature written by women. Given that Beauvoir rejected the notion of a female essence or nature (in contrast with other francophone feminists such as Luce Irigaray) and that her entire work aims to expose femininity as a social construct, this is a massive error.

This error is compound by the interchangeable translation of la femme as ‘women’ ‘woman’ and ‘a woman’. Moi explains:

Parshley translated ‘On ne naît pas femme: on le devient’ as ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.’ […] This error makes Beauvoir sound as if she were committed to a theory of women’s difference. But Beauvoir’s point isn’t that a baby girl grows up to become woman; she becomes a woman, one among many, and in no way the incarnation of Woman, a concept Beauvoir discards as a patriarchal ‘myth’ in the first part of her book.

While the new translation deals more appropriately with Beauvoir’s existentialist vocabulary, Moi suggests the translators get too caught up in philosophical language, often replacing ordinary words with philosophical terms:

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier doggedly translate ‘alienate’ and ‘alienation’ every time the word turns up, regardless of what it means. The result is that they translate ‘aliéner les biens immeubles’ (‘dispose of landed property’) as ‘alienate real estate’.

To top all this off, the translators’ insistence on trying to reproduce French linguistic style in the English – a basic translation error, and one of the reasons why translation is much trickier than many non-linguists assume – apparently makes the reader’s job far more difficult than it should be; Moi says: ‘I feel as if I were reading underwater’.

I haven’t read the translation myself, but I trust Moi’s judgement, and I’m hugely disappointed. At least I can add ‘write a decent translation of The Second Sex‘ to my list of things to do before I die.

Photo by cdrummbks , shared under a Creative Commons License.

Comments From You

JenniferRuth // Posted 11 March 2010 at 8:50 am

I had no idea that the translation was so poor! Is there no current publication of The Second Sex in English that can be recommended?

I think it is a fantastic idea for a feminist and French student such as yourself to do the translation. I imagine it would be an immense amount of work though!

Denise // Posted 11 March 2010 at 9:44 am

Thanks for this, Laura. I read The Second Sex yonks ago and was really disappointed and irritated by it – now I know why!

I think this must happen a lot. Publishers probably don’t want to spend the money hiring someone who’s properly qualified and experienced, as well as having a flair for translating. Which of course is, ultimately, very shortsighted of them.

Aosher // Posted 11 March 2010 at 9:47 am

In the interests of balance, it would be fair to mention that the letters page of this week’s LRB features a substantial amount of pushback against Moi’s review:

Laura // Posted 11 March 2010 at 10:26 am

@ Aosher – It does, yes, but it’s also worth reading Moi’s response! The quotes she highlights are enough to suggest to me that there’s some seriously major failings with the translation.

Rose // Posted 11 March 2010 at 10:29 am

Please do write a translation yourself, I would be fascinated to read it.

Laura // Posted 11 March 2010 at 10:35 am

@ JenniferRuth – There’s only the Parshley translation and this new one, unfortunately. I would genuinely like to attempt a translation myself, but I want to get more experience first and it would be bloody hard to get the funding. I might start buying lottery tickets…

Jess McCabe // Posted 11 March 2010 at 10:51 am

What a shame – are there rights restrictions on who can do a translation, do you know?

depresso // Posted 11 March 2010 at 10:58 am

After much eye-rolling, it occurs to me that this might be the kind of situation the interweb tubes were created for; if there’s a group of willing and able translators (ideally feminists themselves, so they grasp what they’re working with) why not work on the translation and publish it through one of those sites that will, well, publish the books people want? Lulu? Is that the one I’m thinking of?

Of course, there’s probably preventative legalities, but I’d be willing to be that whoever is in charge of Beauvoir’s estate cringes at the poor translations and the dancing on her grave as much as the rest of us (now that we’re aware of it) and would gladly give permission.

And, when it comes to funding, maybe the interwebs again? Individual donors? PayPal? 10,000 donating £5?

Oddly, I’ve never gotten round to reading The Second Sex, though I know it’s ‘important’; now it’s dropped down my list of essential feminist reading by several places. *sigh*

Laura // Posted 11 March 2010 at 11:14 am

There would be nothing stopping an individual producing their own translation, but it could only be published by the original publisher (or if the publisher sold the rights to another publisher). And it’s unlikely they’d be willing to publish a new translation for quite some time, given that they’ve only just forked out for one. So even if we could raise money to pay for a translator’s time and work, it would still ultimately be up to the publisher to give the go-ahead for a new translation and fund the printing, marketing etc.

saranga // Posted 11 March 2010 at 2:16 pm

Is it not possible to do a translation and put it on the web, as a ebook, for example?

*I know nothing about the publishing world, french or international copyright law*

Polly Toney // Posted 11 March 2010 at 2:26 pm

Deidre Bair’s biography of de Beauvoir is a really good companion to read alongside a translation of the Second Sex. Having met, conversed with, and immersed herself in the life of de Beauvoir, perhaps Bair can go some way towards compensating for the unspecialised nature of the current translators.

Laura // Posted 11 March 2010 at 2:35 pm

I’m not sure, saranga, but I think that would violate copyright law or publishing rights – the author and publishers own the rights to the book and that generally includes translations – the translator has very few rights. I’ll try and find out.

Jeff // Posted 11 March 2010 at 2:59 pm

@ Saranga,

‘Fraid that would contravene copyright laws. If my memory serves correctly, you can translate as much as you like for yourself, but you cannot make any more than 10 pages of that translation available to any other person.

saranga // Posted 11 March 2010 at 3:36 pm

ahh, well treating translations the same as the original text does that make sense.

Schnee // Posted 11 March 2010 at 4:22 pm

I have an academic background in both French and Philosophy and whilst I wholeheartedly agree with Laura about Pashley’s translation, I would still urge anyone to read The Second Sex. There is so much in there that is so pertinent to understanding our artificially imposed position as just that, a second sex, and more, in explaining why so many women can’t identify as Feminists and appear to collude in maintaining the status quo.

Philippa Willitts // Posted 11 March 2010 at 4:40 pm

Laura, as you know I did the same course as you (got a first for my Beauvoir essay!!), so have only read it in French too. Like you say, any translation will lose *something*, but the mistakes pointed out by Moi are unforgivable!

Keri // Posted 11 March 2010 at 6:04 pm

Thank you so much for writing this. I actually just purchased this book a week ago to read for the first time. I had no idea about the translation issues. Maybe I’ll return it and wait for a better translation =(

Andygrrrl // Posted 11 March 2010 at 6:13 pm

This situation is so ridiculous. I think it’s telling that it’s de Beauvoir’s greatest work that gets so horribly—-can you imagine this situation with any other French philosopher of her stature? I doubt there’s a problem translating Sartre’s works, or Foucault’s! ARGH!

Mercy // Posted 11 March 2010 at 8:35 pm


No: you could do your own translation for your own private use but either the publisher or Simone de Beauvoir’s estate would own digital and/or translation publication rights so you would be in breach of copyright.

Laura // Posted 11 March 2010 at 9:35 pm

@ Keri – I’m sure it’s still better to read the translation than not to read it at all, but perhaps read some other books on Beauvoir to complement it to make sure you don’t get misled on anything.

Kath // Posted 11 March 2010 at 11:14 pm

Thanks Laura. Really interesting post. Look forward to your translation..

Ally // Posted 12 March 2010 at 1:01 am

I guess French philosophy is one of the reasons we should all just stop being lazy and bloody learn the language! I think even a fairly detailed criticism of the translation might be helpful, because it allows people to at least double check they haven’t been misled.

Thanks for the post Laura, its’ always especially enlightening to read posts from people related to their own academic backgrounds.

@Saranga:Yes it would breach copyright to simply translate and publish one.

Charlotte // Posted 13 March 2010 at 4:32 pm

This is totally gutting!

I hadn’t read The Second Sex because I knew so much of it had been taken out and I was eagerly awaiting the new translation – this is the first I’ve heard of it being out, and I’m so disappointed.

I don’t want to bother reading it until I can actually read what it’s meant to say, not what some wee idiots have decided it should say.


Elmo // Posted 14 March 2010 at 10:09 pm

I tried to get a copy of “The Second Sex”, but waterstones bailed on me at the last minute :(

Kit // Posted 16 March 2010 at 4:41 pm

@Jeff sounds like there’s a loophole there just waiting to be exploited by an internet campaign :)

#total_original_pages / X_translators

J // Posted 17 March 2010 at 4:24 pm

Yeah, I was thinking that, Kit. Also, if it’s really as vague as “ten pages”, you could make the font reeeeally small!

Voynaimir // Posted 23 March 2010 at 10:15 am

Could you get a better version with Google Translate?

Laura // Posted 23 March 2010 at 10:52 am

@ Voynaimir – Absolutely not! Machine translation is okay to get the gist of a text, but you need a human translator for an accurate and readable version, particularly when the original text is creative rather than technical / repetitive.

Jeff // Posted 23 March 2010 at 11:17 am

@ J, it’s ten pages of 12 point font size. So no go there I’m afraid.

@ Kit, love it! How longs the book though? That would be a logistical nightmare juggling who needs which pages from whom.

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