Home > philosophy > The Metareview of the “The Second Sex”

The Metareview of the “The Second Sex”

It’s been awhile since i have done a book review, and it will continue to be awhile because this isn’t a book review. It’s a review of three reviews of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark “The Second Sex.” This was one of the stranger things i had to write, and for most people this will be too long to read but here it goes anyway:

Sex, Translated

            Between the three reviews of the new translation of “The Second Sex” they can agree on one thing: the new edition is superior to the Parshley translation in the effect that it is a complete version. The reviews all note that Parshley’s translation leaves roughly 15 percent of the French original on the cutting room floor. To be fair though, they all note that the cuts were made at the behest of the publisher and were not Parshley’s decision. The BMC translation is a literal translation of the entire book. It is universally acknowledged that this is a distinct advantage.

It is unfortunate that this seems, in the eye of Moi—at least—to be the only advantage. Toril Moi’s review is easily the most devastating. Moi herself, was a critic of the original translation writing that a new translation was needed to correct the errors in the Parshley. To understand the need for a new translation we must ask ourselves, “is the original translation that bad?”

From the start the original book was a bit controversial. As Moi points out, “The Vatican put the book on the Index (which might be considered a badge of honor for some); Albert Camus accused her of having made the French male look ridiculous;[1]” given the Catholicism of France and the intellectual weight of Camus the book is going to have a bit of an uphill climb to begin with. None of those charges seemed to stick with the public, the book was a surprise best seller.

The original book was incorrectly seen as a sex manual, a “New Kinsey report,” when the rights were purchased for an English translation. Parhsely, a zoologist, was hired to make the translation. If, the book was an intellectual Sex manual, or a new Kinsey Report, this decision would have made sense. However, “The Second Sex” was not either of these. That this fact was not picked up by the publisher until the translation was underway explains a good deal of the errors in translation (although the cuts are a different story). For instance as Sarah Glazer writes in “Lost in Translation:” “More damning, when Parshley encountered existentialist terms for existence — such as pour-soi, or ”being-for-itself” — vis-à-vis women’s lives, he often rendered them as woman’s ”true nature” or feminine ”essence,” notions that would have been anathema to Beauvoir, according to Moi. ”The idea of existentialism is ‘experience precedes essence.’ Existentialism means ‘You are what you do,’ ” she says.[2]

            The errors can be traced to the translator not being exercised in philosophy or existentialism, he had “never translated a book from French, and relied mainly on his undergraduate grasp of the language.[3]

            Of course, it is obvious that in translating a work from one language to another, a literal translation is going to have some difficulties. The rules of language, syntax, and grammar are different. When you add to those particular issues a subject that has its own terminology, that possesses unique uses of familiar words and phrases, we get the problems in the Parshley translation.

            The BMC translation was commissioned to rectify the issue of the editing and the issue of the translation. Beauvoir, herself, tried to distance her name from the original translation after the errors were pointed out to her. The publisher, Knopf (who ordered the cuts based on Beauvoir’s tendency to ramble in their opinion), ignored the request. To be fair to them, Beauvoir did ignore requests for consultation.[4]

            Can the BMC translation, though, rectify these issues? More importantly can it live up to the expectations of the people clamoring for a new edition? Short answer: no.

            The case in point it Toril Moi’s devastating criticism of the new edition. Moi takes issues with several points in the language and meaning of the BMC edition, that she claims are evidence of a problem endemic to the whole work. For instance, the French original is:

            “Ne commencez jamais le marriage par un viol”

Literally this translates as: “Never begin marriage by rape.”

BMC has this as: “Never begin marriage by a violation of the law.”

            While French law certainly outlaws rape, this is neither the meaning nor the spirit of the law. Somali activist, and former Netherlands Parliamentarian Member Hirsi Ali once referred to arranged marriage as organized rape. If we uphold her opinion on the matter, we can see de Beauvoir’s point, it’s not about the law it’s about consent. The woman’s assent to the marriage being important.

            There are other translation issues point out by all of the reviewers as being incorrect, in each case I have added the literal translation of the French according to Google:


French: C’est au sein du monde donné qu’il appartient à l’homme de faire triompher le règne de la liberté; pour remporter cette suprême victoire il est entre autres nécessaire que par delà leurs différenciations naturelles hommes et femmes affirment sans équivoque leur fraternité.


Literal: It is within the given world that belongs to man to overcome the reign of freedom; to win the supreme victory is especially necessary that beyond their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.


BMC: Within the given world, it is up to man to make the reign of freedom prevail; to carry off this supreme victory, men and women must, among other things and above and beyond their natural differentiations, affirm their brotherhood unequivocally.


“Normalement, elle peut toujours être prise par l’homme, tandis que lui ne peut la prendre que s’il est en état d’érection; sauf en cas d’une révolte aussi profonde que le vaginisme qui scelle la femme plus sûrement que l’hymen, le refus féminin peut être surmonté; encore le vaginisme laisse-t-il au mâle des moyens de s’assouvir sur un corps que sa force musculaire lui permet de réduire à merci.”


Literal: Normally, it can always be made by man, while he can not take it if it is in the flaccid state, except in case of a revolt as deep as vaginismus that seals the woman more surely than the hymen, female rejection can be overcome; vaginisums yet he leaves the male means to satisfy a body muscle strength enables him to reduce to mercy.”


BMC: “Ordinarily she can be taken at any time by man, while he can take her only when he is in the state of erection; feminine refusal can be overcome except in the case of a rejection as profound as vaginismus, sealing woman more securely than the hymen; still vaginismus leaves the male the means to relieve himself on a body that his muscular force permits him to reduce to his mercy.”


On a discussion of prostitution there is an indication of contextual issues:


French: faire de l’abbattage

Literal: to slaughter

BMC: to slaughter


Moi, in her review makes it clear that the context of the phrase is missing. “Faire de l’abbattage” in the context of prostitution means to get through customers quickly. While that can bring us an image of a slaughterhouse, that only works if we understand what the French words are: the metaphor becomes lost.

The source of the trouble is best explained by Nancy Bauer’s review, “the translators of the new version often sacrifice readability and clarity in favor of a highly unidiomatic word-by-word literalism that hampers the flow of Beauvoir’s prose and often obfuscates its meaning.[5]

            Not all is lost however in the new edition however. It does display some improvements on the old translation, for instance:

Parshley: “It follows that woman sees herself and makes her choices not in accordance with her true nature in itself but as man defines her.”

BMC: “It follows that woman knows and chooses herself not as she exists for herself but as man defines her.”


            Translation issues aside what is the main issue that those like Moi have with this. I reject the assertion in the comments of Moi’s review that she is merely expressing sour grapes. Even if the Ad Hominem were the case, Moi’s issue is that this edition is the scholarly edition that she desired. True, an annotated issue might come in at over a thousand pages, but an academic edition has a different purpose than a trade edition that is currently being offered, thus it ought to be not only more linguistically accurate but also, and more importantly, philosophically accurate.

            No translation, of any work of sufficient size, is going to satisfy everyone especially those like Moi who hold Beauvoir’s work in such high regard. What is important though is that the meaning carries through. In this respect neither edition is as su

[1] Moi, Toril: “The Adulteress Wife”

[2] Glazer, Sarah: “Lost in Translation”

[3] Romano, Carlin: “The Second ‘Second Sex”

[4] Glazer

[5] Bauer, Nancy; “The Second Sex”

Categories: philosophy
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: