Lost in translation

The London Review of Books has a terrific review by Toril Moi of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Connoisseurs of these matters (of whom I am, coincidentally, one, having once been married to someone who wrote an M.Phil dissertation on Beauvoir’s ‘presentation of self’ in The Second Sex) will know that the book has an interesting translation history. The original English version (by H.M. Parshley) was lively and readable, but had been heavily abridged by its publisher. Many years later, after much fuss, the publishers eventually commissioned a new translation. In an extensive review, Toril Moi leaves it for dead. In summary:

After taking a close look at the whole book, I found 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.

Moi has some delicious examples of the crassness of the new translation. Here’s one:

Even the most famous sentence in The Second Sex is affected. 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 is an elementary grammatical mistake. French does not use the indefinite article after être (‘be’) and devenir (‘become’), but no such rule exists in English. (Comment devenir traducteur? must be translated as ‘How to become a translator?’) 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. ‘I am woman hear me roar’ has no place in Beauvoir’s feminism.

And another:

The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’

And this:

A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). 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.’

At one point, Beauvoir discusses Hegel’s analysis of sex. In the new translation, a brief quotation from The Philosophy of Nature ends with the puzzling claim: ‘This is mates coupling.’ Mates coupling? What does Hegel mean? It turns out that in Beauvoir’s French version, Hegel says, ‘C’est l’accouplement’; A.V. Miller’s translation of The Philosophy of Nature uses the obvious term, ‘copulation’.

And my favourite:

In a discussion of male sexuality, Beauvoir points out that men can get pleasure from just about any woman. As evidence she mentions ‘la prospérité de certaines “maisons d’abattage”’, which Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate as ‘the success of certain “slaughter-houses”’. But for a prostitute, faire de l’abattage is to get through customers quickly; as the context makes abundantly clear, a maison d’abattage is not an abattoir, but a brothel specialising in a quick turnover.

Overall, it looks as though the new translation is, linguisticall speaking, a car-crash. And Moi’s piece provides a delicious confirmation of the worth of serious journals like the LRB.

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