Second can be the best


The Second SexBy Simone de Beauvoir Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier Jonathan Cape, 822pp. £30

A PAPERBACK COPY of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, with the blue and white Matisse collage on the cover, adorned the bookshelves of most women interested in feminism in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. From 1953 on, when it was first published in English translation, the book sold millions of copies, and generated controversy, admiration and loathing, as it had when originally published in French in 1949. But were its Anglophone readers getting the full Second Sex? It seems not, and this deficiency is now remedied by an unabridged new English translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two American-born translators living in Paris.

The original English translation was fraught with difficulties from the start. Blanche Knopf, wife of the publisher Alfred Knopf, bought the book on a trip to France, under the delusion that it was something like the Kinsey report, rather than a philosophical exploration of women’s position in society. Her husband decided to publish it, under the same delusion (it would seem that neither Knopf read French very well), and compounded the error by employing Howard Madison Parshley, a retired professor of zoology who had written a book on human reproduction, to translate Beauvoir’s book.

Parshley knew French only from his years as a student at Boston Latin School and Harvard, and had no training in philosophy or anthropology. The new and precise terms used by existentialist philosophers, which Beauvoir deployed skillfully throughout the book, were totally unfamiliar to him. In fairness to him, he was asked by Knopf to keep the translation to a manageable size, and repeated requests for consultations with Beauvoir herself were ignored.

The result was to cause trouble from 1953 until now. Approximately 15 per cent of the original content was excised, particularly from the sections on history and literature, and the text was littered with mistranslations of philosophical terms (the most commonly referred to is the word “subject”, which in existentialist thought means a person who exercises freedom of choice, but which Parshley treats in the sense of the English word “subjective”, or not objective). Feminist scholars such as Margaret Simons, Toril Moi and Sarah Glazer have repeatedly pointed out in detail how these mistakes and excisions distort the text.

Knopf ignored demands for a new translation for decades, despite Beauvoir’s own expressed wish for one in 1986, and continued requests from her adopted daughter and literary executor, Sylvie le Bon de Beauvoir. Finally, Jonathan Cape, which held the English rights, commissioned this book, after a number of women in publishing championed its cause.

Was it worth the wait? Emphatically, yes. If the only result of this new version is to excite renewed interest in this groundbreaking book, that will be enough, but it offers more than that. Firstly, the translators replace all of the material removed by Parshley, including long extracts from works by Virginia Woolf, Sophie Tolstoy and Colette, among others, which add greatly to Beauvoir’s wonderful exploration of the interiority of women’s lives. (One of the incidental offshoots of The Second Sexwas the growth of women’s studies.)

Secondly, they understand Beauvoir’s philosophical background and position, and restore her intended meanings where they were misinterpreted by Parshley. Third, they have reinstated Beauvoir’s numerous and very important semi-colons, which she used consciously as a way of building an argument. When the two translators and Sylvie le Bon met for a drink to commence the process which led to this book, their toast was “Vive le point-virgule!” (“Long live the semi-colon!”).

The result is a fresh, much expanded, more intelligble book which repays re-reading by adherents of the old version, and cries out for attention from young women who have not been exposed to this most powerful of feminist thinkers. The Second Sexis seen as the foundation text of second-wave feminism. It is probably the most important and influential philosophical treatise of the 20th century, dealing as it does with the history, position, self-image and suffering of half of the human species. The resonant phrase “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” echoed forcefully in France, where women, unbelievably, only got the vote in 1944; in England, where Virginia Woolf had drawn attention to women’s needs and desires; and in America, where Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique10 years after the appearance of Parshley’s translation.

THE BOOK IS DIVIDED INTOtwo volumes: Facts and Myths, comprising chapters on ‘Destiny’, ‘History’ and ‘Myths’, and Lived Experience, comprising chapters on ‘Formation’, ‘Situation’, ‘Justifications’, and ‘Towards Liberation’. Beauvoir’s tone is combative, learned, passionate, unrelenting. She uses anthropology, history, sociology, literature, biology and psychoanalysis to illustrate her thesis. She did not anticipate all of the hostility which would come her way when the book was published (she expected Marxists to be kind to it, vainly), but one can feel the flexing of muscles for a fight when she explores the emergence and protection of male dominance throughout history: “The world has always belonged to males, and none of the reasons given for this have ever seemed sufficient”.

Her analysis of women as mothers contains some questionable assumptions about early nomadic women’s detachment from their children, but her views on maternity, misrepresented by Parshley’s translation, are now restored to their original compassionate and critical stance. Her descriptions of backstreet abortions are among the most horrifying ever written, and still have the power to shock all these years later. Her use of literary sources is original and useful, and brings variety into a text which can be a little dense in its more theoretical passages. The idea that gender is a cultural construct struck right at the heart of fixed views of biological determinism, and probably had the same seismic effect as the theory of evolution.

This new translation, on the 60th anniversary of the book’s original publication, is entirely welcome, and a great improvement on the one which, in spite of its shortcomings, changed so many lives. The next step, adverted to by the translators, should be a fully annotated version of this hugely important book. May it never be neglected again as it has been for so many years.

Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland, and a former president of the Women’s History Association of Ireland