The very moment I first laid hands on the “complete and unabridged” translation of Simone de Beauvoir's “The Second Sex,” newly rendered in English by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, I was struck by its heft, and by the long-awaited achievement it represented. “The Second Sex” took fourteen months for Beauvoir to write, and sixty-one years for Knopf to produce a proper translation. Clocking in at 2.6 pounds (fully twice the weight of the the version it replaces, the 1989 Vintage paperback edition) and forty American dollars (but only five cents per page), the new edition of Beauvoir sweeps you up and bogs you down, steeling your spirit as it limpens your wrists.
Borde and Malovany-Chevallier stopped off in Chicago last week to talk about the new old book. Speaking to a full house at the University of Chicago, they put special emphasis on their efforts to restore the philosophical integrity of Beauvoir's text. Their method involved breaking it into ten-page sections and translating alternate chunks, then swapping and revising each other's work. Whenever they found themselves disagreeing on a wording, they would consult an informal panel of Beauvoir experts they had formed for the purpose. In her introduction to the new edition, Judith Thurman calls the resulting text "a magisterial exercise in fidelity."
The flaws of the previous translation, first published by Knopf in 1953, are well-known. The translator, a retired zoologist named H. M Parshley, garbled a number of Beauvoir's key philosophical terms—swapping “subject” for “subjective,” for instance—and at Knopf's insistence cut the text by some 150 pages. (The female warriors and statesmen Beauvoir describes as having been excised from history were also excised from Parshley's translation of her book.) Yet when it finally appeared in the United States, reviewers greeted it enthusiastically, albeit as a “companion volume” to Alfred Kinsey's “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Not that “The Second Sex” doesn’t have its sexy bits (quoted here from the new translation):
Man is, like woman, a flesh, thus a passivity, the plaything of his hormones and the species, uneasy prey to his desire; and she like him, in the heart of carnal fever, is consent, voluntary gift, and activity; each of them lives the strange ambiguity of existence made body in his or her own way.
Indeed, the entire book can be read as a sex-ed course, which is how I first experienced it. In the course of articulating “what singularly defines the situation of woman,” Beauvoir covers many essentials neglected in state-mandated health classes, including the anal phase of psychosexual development, role-playing, abortion, breast-feeding, “inversion,” religious ecstasy, married life, and sex as an obliteration of self.
But enough of sex, which after all is a mere metaphor for the more critical drama of immanence and transcendence played out between the sexes in history, biology, psychology, and literature. It's the story of our lives, as told by someone unafraid to generalize: “Woman has always been, if not man's slave, at least his vassal;” caught up “halfway between revolt and slavery,” she is complicit in creating the conditions she lacks the power to change on her own.
I'll admit I found Beauvoir à la Borde and Malovany-Chevallier to be a little chewier than I remembered. This is perhaps what you'd expect from the whole-grain version of a dense philosophical text. “It's very heavy,” Malovany-Chevallier warned in Bookforum three years ago. “We're not jazzing it up." Instead, they went the opposite direction, restoring the original punctuation of the original, with its page-long sentences and abundance of semicolons in places where many an English reader would prefer a full stop.
The resulting prose has a tendency to get stuck in your teeth. The Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi disagrees strenuously with the translators' decision to reinstate every semicolon, arguing that it does an injustice to Beauvoir: “In French, her long, loosely connected sentences convey speed, passion, and sheer delight in piling up her discoveries,” she writes, while in English, those same sentences “come across as rambling or incoherent.”
We know from Beauvoir's text that woman is forever making the wrong decision; there's no right decision for her to make. Yet here we now are in the era of “choice” feminism, faced with two versions of the same classic text: the faithful if slightly leaden version of the triumphal present set against the livelier, slightly dumbed-down version of yore. It's an impossible choice.
But “The Second Sex” is an exciting book, period. No semicolon can get in the way of lines like these:
The same drama of flesh and spirit, and of finitude and transcendence, plays itself out in both sexes; both are eaten away by time, stalked by death, they have the same essential need of the other; and they can take the same glory from their freedom.
Now that we have our faithful translation in hand, it's time to shoot the movie already.