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The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir (review)
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The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. Translated from French by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Random House, 2011. 832 pp. $17.95.

Since its first United States publication in 1953, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex has been a foundational text in American feminist scholarship, serving scholars in philosophy, literary studies, sociology, anthropology, history, and women’s studies with a revolutionary and remarkably early critical analysis of the woman as Other: “Elle est l’Autre” (p. 6).1 The Second Sex first appeared in France in 1949 and was then translated into English by H. M. Parshley for its United States publication three years later. The new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier in 2011—almost 60 years afterward—asks us to consider the rationale for the retranslation. Why now? What do these particular translators bring to the text? And how does their approach to translation alter our understanding of the text?

Consider the circumstances surrounding the first translation. While traveling in France, Blanche Knopf, wife of the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, heard of Beauvoir’s groundbreaking study of female identity and urged her husband to publish an English translation. This was the era of the Kinsey Reports (1948 and 1953), and Blanche Knopf assumed that The Second Sex also took up the subject of human sexuality and sexual behavior, so she contacted Parshley, a retired professor of zoology from Smith College to translate the book. The resulting translation understandably reflected the training and interests of the translator. Perhaps unaccustomed to the discourse of French feminist philosophy, the scientist was compelled by Alfred Knopf’s assessment that Beauvoir “certainly suffers from verbal diarrhea,” so he attempted to regularize the prose and tighten the argument according to the conventions of American scientific language.2 To that end, he also eliminated many examples—primarily in the sections on “History” and “Myths”—presumably because this rhetorical feature does not conform to scientific methodology in which any form of [End Page 248] proof by example is suspect. Although the work opens with a chapter on “Biological Data” that examines sexual difference and sexual development in both human biology and zoology, this is but a brief scientific foreword to the philosophical, psychoanalytical, anthropological, and sociological argument that is at the center of the book.

Much has changed since 1953—both in feminist discourse and in translation studies—and the new translation of The Second Sex reflects its historical moment. Consistent with the most current voices among translation specialists, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier attempt to inhabit the mind of the author. When Parshley claims in his introduction that “Mlle de Beauvoir’s book is … on woman, not on philosophy,” he reveals that he dismissed the author’s professional training and identity, translating her book as if it were not a product of her specific education and cultural formation.3 Although Borde and Malovany-Chevallier—like Parshley—are not philosophers, they became students of philosophy, in particular the French philosophic tradition in which Beauvoir was educated and assumed a prominent role. Their translation mirrors the language of French existentialism and uses the phrasings of Martin Heidegger, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Emmanuel Lévinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, just as the original, reflecting the language of the author’s scholarly discipline. Fortuitously, this language has entered the parlance of contemporary critical theory in the years since the earlier translation. Consequently, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier could translate l’altérité as alterity without hesitation, whereas in 1953 Parshley did well to cast this as otherness or difference, alterity not being part of the critical vocabulary of the moment. Likewise, the new translation speaks of la conscience as consciousness, a departure from Parshley’s ego. Parshley uses the term inwardness, whereas the new translation uses interiority, a current English cognate that was not available to Parshley. Since Borde and Malovany-Chevallier are sensitive to the philosophic basis of Beauvoir’s argument, they preserve phrasings that signal a philosophical underpinning of concepts. Thus, la réalité humaine remains human reality rather than human society. The title of the second volume, which in French is L’expérience...