Closely reasoned stuff: the challenge of translating Simone de Beauvoir

Translating philosophy has never been an easy task. In the case of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal feminist work The Second Sex, one might also say that it can be a thankless one as well.

The first edition to appear in English was published by Alfred Knopf in 1953. According to a November 2009 London Times article by Janine di Giovanni,1 Alfred Knopf’s wife Blanche, who managed the firm’s French book division, considered the book more or less “a sex manual in the style of the Kinsey Report”. She wanted to produce a book that would appeal to the same American housewives who had been intrigued by Kinsey’s work and entrusted the translation to H.M. Parshley, chairman of the zoology department at Smith College, who had written about human sexuality but had little or no background in philosophy and had never translated a book.  Alfred Knopf consulted with the 65-year-old Parshley concerning the importance and viability of translating Le Deuxième Sexe shortly after its publication by Gallimard in 1949 and in August of that year traveled to Northampton, Massachusetts to discuss the project further with him.2 In November, Knopf purchased the rights from the French publisher and hired Parshley to translate the book.

At Mrs. Knopf’s request, he reluctantly edited out at least fifteen percent of the original text, excisions supposedly approved by the author, and according to his critics, perhaps succumbed to the temptation of also eliminating certain key passages that left him stumped as a translator along the way. It was to be Parshley’s first and last translation of a book from French to English. In April 1950 he suffered a heart attack, but doggedly forged on with the project and finished the translation on August 7, 1951, his 67th birthday. When he died as a result of a second and more severe heart attack in the spring of 1953, The Second Sex was high on the New York Times bestseller list and de Beauvoir herself stated that she was delighted with the translation.3 Criticisms were not long in coming. Years later, the author claimed that she had never read the English edition and was “dismayed to learn of the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me”.4

Since the release of The Second Sex in 1953, there has been a long campaign by scholars to convince the both the French and American publishers to undertake a new and unabridged English edition to remedy what they considered Parshley’s shortcomings as a translator and to restore the passages cut from the original book. Margaret Simon, a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University accused Parshley of tending “to cut Beauvoir’s examples of women’s anger and oppression while preserving references to men’s feelings”. Toril Moi, author of Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman, claimed that Parshley’s translation was damaging to de Beauvoir’s reputation as an intellectual.5 Meanwhile, the well-intentioned professor’s English translation informed a generation of English-speaking feminist thinkers and writers who went on to popularize Beauvoir’s theories.

A new, unabridged translation undertaken by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier has likewise been subjected to harsh criticism. The same Toril Moi who criticized Parshley’s work has charged that “obsessive literalism and countless errors make [the new translation] no more reliable, and far less readable than Parshley,” adding that without the recourse of referring back to the original French text, “I feel as if I were reading underwater”.6 The delicate nature of a work of philosophy affords the translator very little margin of error or interpretation. As Carlin Romano points out in his interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the controversy surrounding the two translations, it often boils down to the inclusion or exclusion of an article. He cites the tenuous, but important, difference between the two translations of the critical line “On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”- Parshley’s “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, as opposed to the Borde and Malovany translation “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman”.

What Borde, Malvany-Chevallier, and Parshley held in common was not only their lack of previous experience in translating philosophy before undertaking the translation of Le Deuxième Sexe, but also their passionate conviction that the ideas put forth by de Beauvoir should be available to the English-speaking public. Parshley was a progressive thinker who openly stated in the 1920s that he did not believe in Prohibition, censorship, or religion. He co-starred with Clarence Darrow in a film about evolution and his book The Science of Human Reproduction: Biological Aspects of Sex was praised by Margaret Sanger for its “straightforward thinking”. He admired the work of de Beauvoir and urged Knopf to make the book available to English language readers. Borde and Malvany-Chevallier, Americans who have lived for decades in Paris, have been avowed feminists and acolytes of de Beauvoir’s theories since their college days. If their background as writers and translators of language textbooks and cookbooks might not seem to qualify them for translating a book as dauntingly complex as Le Deuxième Sexe, it can be said that their decades-long interest in feminism and their many years in Paris gave them the basis to understand the project at hand.

Obviously, Borde and Malvany-Chevallier worked without the possibility of consulting the author, but Parshley was hard put to obtain timely feedback from Simone de Beauvoir when he undertook the original translation. Answers to his questions arrived months after he made requests for clarification, a situation that surely affected the quality of his work.

Communication between authors and their editors and translators can vary widely and take many forms. In his article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Colin Romano recounts William Fence Wheeler’s professional relationships with the authors he translated, describing the free rein that Umberto Ecco gave him as the English translator of The Name of the Rose (agreeing to include less Latin phrases in the American edition for example), and the reclusiveness of Carlo Emilio Gadda, who requested that Wheeler deposit his translation questions in Gadda’s mailbox in the morning and pick up the answers later the same day. The long-suffering translator is only half of the equation; writer Orhan Pamuk had to search for a new English translator when the person who successfully translated his first novel, The White Castle, had other commitments and could not accept a new project. “I found a second translator who worked on my next two books,” he said. “And while I approved those translations, the books received harsh criticism. When I look back, I see that the translator and I were not a good match.”7 What constitutes a “good match” may be different for the various parties involved: a long chain of individuals that begins with the author and includes publishers, editors, proofreaders, critics, and booksellers before the book is embraced, or rejected, by readers.

The never-ending controversy surrounding the translations of de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe has much to do with the yawning gap between the ambition of her academic defenders to promote a scholarly translation and the desire of the editors to publish a book accessible to the general public. Just how far can one edit a work of philosophy without destroying it? When Harold Strauss, editor in chief at Knopf, was looking to condense Simone de Beauvoir’s two-volume feminist tour de force into a best seller, he asked H.M.Parshley, “Is her stuff so closely reasoned that you can’t leave anything out?” the translator firmly replied (as any good translator would), “I can say for the most part – yes”.8 Whether or not the publisher agrees is another story.


1Janine di Giovanni, “The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier,”   London Sunday Times Review, 19 Dec. 2009 retrieved 28 June 2010,

<http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/book_reviews/article6960597.ece>.

2Richard Gillman,  “The Man Behind the Feminist Bible,” The New York Times, 22 May 1988 retrieved  June 29, 2010,

<http://www.nytimes.com/1988/05/22/books/the-man-behind-the-feminist-bible.html?pagewanted=1>.

3Ibid.

4Carlin Romano, “ The Second ‘Second Sex,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 June 2010 retrieved 20 June 2010, <http://chronicle.com/article/The-Second-Sex/65962/>.

5Ibid.

6Ibid.

7Joy E. Stock, “Found in Translation”, Writer’s Digest, 11 Feb. 2008 retrieved 29 June 2010, http://www.writersdigest.com/article/Found_in_Translation/&gt;.

8Gillman loc.cit.

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