Thursday, June 24, 2010

Romano, Carlin. "The Second 'Second Sex.'" CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION June 20, 2010.

As translation contretemps go, the one surrounding French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) and her foundational work of modern feminism, Le Deuxième Sexe, first published in two volumes in French in 1949, remains one of the most tempestuous and fascinating. For decades, Beauvoir scholars in the English-speaking world bemoaned, attacked, and sought to replace the widely used 1953 translation by H.M. Parshley (1884-1953), a zoologist at Smith College who knew little philosophy or existentialism, had never translated a book from French, and relied mainly on his undergraduate grasp of the language. A few years back, they succeeded in getting the rights holders, Gallimard in France and Alfred A. Knopf and Vintage in the English-speaking world, to commission a new translation. Now that second version has appeared from Knopf (The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, "A New Translation of the Landmark Classic by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier," with an introduction by Judith Thurman, "Complete and Unabridged for the First Time").

If Knopf and its partners expected to be showered with feminist appreciation, they've been sorely disappointed. The Norwegian Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi, a professor at Duke and one of the foremost critics of Parshley's translation, savaged the new version in the London Review of Books. Francine du Plessix Gray, in The New York Times Book Review, also expressed reservations. How everyone involved got from vituperative discontent to hopeful triumph and back to discontent makes an instructive tale in itself and offers some lessons for what matters and doesn't in the evolution of a classic. . . .

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