"A book is not born, but rather becomes, a translation"
June 27, 2010 12:35 AM   Subscribe

As translation contretemps go, the one surrounding French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) and her foundational work of modern feminism, Le Deuxième Sexe, first published in two volumes in French in 1949, remains one of the most tempestuous and fascinating. For decades, Beauvoir scholars in the English-speaking world bemoaned, attacked, and sought to replace the widely used 1953 translation by H.M. Parshley (1884-1953), a zoologist at Smith College who knew little philosophy or existentialism, had never translated a book from French, and relied mainly on his undergraduate grasp of the language. A few years back, they succeeded in getting the rights holders [...] to commission a new translation. [... But] Norwegian Beauvoir scholar Toril Moi, a professor at Duke and one of the foremost critics of Parshley's translation, savaged the new version in the London Review of Books. [...] How everyone involved got from vituperative discontent to hopeful triumph and back to discontent makes an instructive tale in itself and offers some lessons for what matters and doesn't in the evolution of a classic.
posted by No-sword (38 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Hmmm, just based on the paragraph she quotes,Moi appears to have a point: the new translation does appear to be rather imperfect, lacking both in faithfulness and readability. The translators fall prey yo several false friends, and keep French sentence structures that do not work at all in English. Unlike Romano, I do not find it that peculiar that this criticism comes from somebody who's neither a native English nor French-speaker. Sometimes, such linguistic bystanders are better attuned to the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of both the source and the target languages than a native speaker of either of them can hope yo be.
This said, Moi's criticism does also seem rather mean And overwrought at times. The "cookery" stab at the translators is particularly bitchy, and there's no doubt that The review could have benefitted itself from some editing. I don't think, though, that Moi is motivated so much by pique at having been left outside the translation project, as Romano suggests, than by a typically academical lack of understanding of the economic constraints of the situation. The translation doesn't strike me as having been done by bad translators as much as by translators working in a hurry, with tight deadlines, and no time to spare. Time that, on the other hand, Moi appears to have in spades.
posted by Skeptic at 2:05 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Skeptic's summed it up very well there - Moi's criticism clearly has substance, but she's made it in a fairly unappealing fashion. There must surely be a happier medium between readability (and the financial side) and basic accuracy.
posted by Abiezer at 2:10 AM on June 27, 2010

A translation has to work in its target language above all else. As mentioned, the English text quoted in Moi's review is clunky and awkward.
posted by bardic at 2:40 AM on June 27, 2010

It's very surprising to me that in the intervening 60 years since Parshley's translation, and the intervening 27 years since the inadequacies of that were made generally known, no-one has written their own translation. It's the sort of project that any person who is literate to university level in both French and English could theoretically do, that surely should appeal to at least one retired academic or semi-employed philosophy student, or to several who would do a few chapters each. It could be crowdsourced within a few weeks by assigning the translation as an exercise to university undergraduate French classes; not likely to be a very satisfactory work, but sufficient for a first draft that the project leader could edit into something better.

Due to successive absurd copyright extensions a "fan translation" probably wouldn't be publishable in most English-speaking nations, but surely it could be released into the wilds of the net, or signed over to the copyright-holder for a nominal dollar.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:42 AM on June 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

It's very surprising to me that in the intervening 60 years since Parshley's translation, and the intervening 27 years since the inadequacies of that were made generally known, no-one has written their own translation.

What this controversy (which has been most entertaining to follow in the pages of the LRB) perhaps reveals is the reason why no one has undertaken that task, and why it was left to two relatively untested and perhaps naive translators - it's a poisoned chalice. The translator would plunge themselves into an academic snakepit. Parshley's flawed translation could have been a gift to de Beauvoir academics - commonly accepted as flawed, they would have been free to add their own interpretations and glosses. A new, definitive translations was inevtiably going to tread on a lot of toes and upset a lot of people. Not just academics - all those readers to whom it means so much.
posted by WPW at 4:31 AM on June 27, 2010

French is not that hard to learn. If "The Second Sex" is particularly central to your schorlarly interests, you should be reading it in French anyway.
posted by oddman at 4:56 AM on June 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Can't we just pipe the damn thing through Google Translate?

Here, I'll start. FTA:
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.
Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier's version:
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.
And now Google to the rescue!
Normally, it can always be taken by the man while he can not take it unless it was in an erect state, except in cases of rebellion as deep as vaginismus that seals the woman more likely that hymen, female rejection can be overcome; vaginismus yet he leaves the male ways to slake a body muscular strength allows him to reduce to thank you.
posted by Ritchie at 4:59 AM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Although, on re-reading Google's gibberish, I note that it specifically does not make the same errors as those Moi points out in Borde and Malovany-Chevallier's attempt.
posted by Ritchie at 5:03 AM on June 27, 2010

perfect, good, enemy, etc.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:42 AM on June 27, 2010

Wow. I'm a French to English translator, love de Beauvoir, and had no idea about all the controversy. I read her in French, however. Disclaimer: I haven't read any of the links; I didn't want to be influenced by Moi's commentary in case anyone cited examples in-thread.

First, aaschenkarnos, "crowdsourcing" translations is very often a Bad Idea. In order for it to work at all, the source text needs to be rather simple (de Beauvoir is not) and the translators all need to intercommunicate, sharing a glossary and style guide, as well as all having an excellent skill level. Anything less and a group translation is doomed to failure. Assuming that an editor will be able to fix it up is Mistake Number One made by inexperienced translation project managers.

oddman "French is not hard to learn." Nor is English. They are, however, hard to write well. Also, considering the existing translations' apparent awfulness, it should be pretty clear that people with a moderate level of French would make comprehension mistakes similar to those made by these translators. I see it all the time when working with translators who have translation degrees and experience.

Now for Ritchie's example, again keeping in mind I haven't read Moi's article yet. Yeah, that Border and Malovany-Chevallier version makes the classic mistake of keeping the French sentence length. One of the hardest things for translators to learn is that just because complex sentences make sense and sound elegant in French, doesn't mean they do in English, unless reworked. That said, Google's is pretty damned awful in comparison. Here's how I'd translate it:
Ordinarily, a woman can always be taken by a man, whereas he can only take a woman if he is erect. A woman's refusal can be overcome, excepting a revolt as profound as vaginismus, which seals a woman more securely than a hymen. Nonetheless, even in the case of vaginismus, a man has enough physical force to relieve himself on a body that he can reduce to his mercy.
I could go further in rewriting it into smoother English, but wanted to stay relatively close to de Beauvoir's phrasing, for this example. Now, normally "force" means "strength", but in French it can also mean "force", and having read de Beauvoir, I'm willing to bank on "force" being what she meant, especially given what she's describing. Also note that I translated "l'homme" and "la femme" as "man" and "woman" generically; that's what they mean in this sort of context. Educated French writers will often use the definite article to describe generic concepts for which we use indefinite articles in English, because in French parlance, well, they're definite...! We know what "a man" is and what "a woman" is. Again, another very common translation misstep.
posted by fraula at 5:56 AM on June 27, 2010 [13 favorites]

French is not that hard to learn. If "The Second Sex" is particularly central to your schorlarly interests, you should be reading it in French anyway.

I agree if you're talking about someone studying de Beauvoir for a philosophy or women's studies class, but those aren't the only people who have a vested interest in reading The Second Sex.
posted by ellehumour at 6:11 AM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

> The translation doesn't strike me as having been done by bad translators as much as by translators working in a hurry, with tight deadlines, and no time to spare.

Why on earth would this be the case with a book that's been out for over sixty years? Why would they drag their heels for decades on permitting a new translation, and then rush one out so that the new translators can't do a good job?
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on June 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

posted by unSane at 6:18 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

languagehat As unSane suggests, this should be a matter of money and (bad) management. The publishers were reluctant to make the expense of issuing a new translation anyway: once they were publically shamed into ordering it, they must have wanted it done as quickly and cheaply as possible. Add to that the modern impulse to do things as cheaply as posible, exemplified by aeschenkarnos bloody awful crowdsourcing suggestion, and you've got a recipe for disaster. Hence the result, although, in all fairness, it's true that, in this context, there'd always been somebody to complain about the translators, even if they had been guided by de Beauvoir's reincarnated spirit.
posted by Skeptic at 6:51 AM on June 27, 2010

And, as fraula points out, the trouble with crowdsourcing is that fixing a bad translation is actually a lot more work-intensive than doing it from scratch. I don't even want to imagine the work involved in trying to make a decent, coherent whole out of dozens of differently translated fragments...
posted by Skeptic at 6:59 AM on June 27, 2010

Are there any recipes in the new edition? After all, their previous work was cookery books.
posted by A189Nut at 7:02 AM on June 27, 2010

Ah, translations. I recall that many years ago, I had a projected critical edition of a Russian work, with substantial critical essays to accompany it. I wrote to the distinguished Edmund Wilson (who never answer inquiries but did jot a note on my letter and sent it back to me). Mr Wilson said:
"If you do not have Russian, then the best French translation is such and such..." little did he know I barely had a native language, let alone Russian or French.

The moral then seems to be that if you want to read, say The Dead Sea scrolls, you first learn Hebrew. Just about any and all translations can be faulted. The real issue seems to be just what is cut and why those cuts. Even in shortening a Shakespeare play for production purposes, sometimes essential material is unwisely cut....depends on what is and is not essential.
posted by Postroad at 7:55 AM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

French is not that hard to learn. If "The Second Sex" is particularly central to your schorlarly interests, you should be reading it in French anyway.

So if you want to teach an undergraduate class about feminism, existential philosophy, etc., you should, what? Exclude de Beauvoir, or require everyone in your class to learn French? It's not only the already-specialized scholars working at the highest level who might want to read the book.

(Your suggestion generalizes, too. If the First Critique is particularly central to your scholarly interests, you should be reading it in German. Descartes scholar? You should be reading him in French and Latin. If the works of Plato are particularly important, get on that ancient Greek. And yet I think it is generally recognized that having translations of these things are good, and it's nice to have good translations.)
posted by kenko at 8:11 AM on June 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

Great post, thanks. I had no idea.
posted by mediareport at 8:22 AM on June 27, 2010

Kenko, you may not know this, but if you are a philosopher, specifically and early modern specialist working on Descartes, you will learn French and Latin. I did. So has every other early modernist I've ever met. (Actually many if not most philosophers have traditionally been required to learn one or two languages.) Same for Kant and German; Aristotle and ancient Greek; Aquinas and medieval Latin; etc. If you are not a specialist, then either you only rely on Descartes as an illustrative example (in which case getting his exact nuances is less important) or you go consult a specialist to make sure that you really understand the material you want to work with. (I regularly field questions from colleagues.) Having good translations is nice, but even great translations do not replace the original, for serious scholars.

As for undergrads, frankly basically any reasonably competent translation will do. If the translator makes a significant error you can correct it in lecture. For example: in Aristotle "eudaimonia" is usually translated as simply "happiness," but its original meaning is more like "happiness and flourishing." When I teach Aristotle's ethics, I simply note the more nuanced translation in lecture.

I completely understand the general preference for the best possible translation. I'm just not seeing the call for heavy indignation: serious scholars don't need a great translation and casual readers won't really notice the difference.
posted by oddman at 9:25 AM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Huh. "Casual readers won't really notice the difference" seems to me a truly awful justification for poor translation issues.
posted by mediareport at 9:56 AM on June 27, 2010

Well, mediareport, since I wasn't defending bad translations, I don't disagree with you.
posted by oddman at 10:27 AM on June 27, 2010

Saying you don't understand "the call for heavy indignation" certainly comes across that way.
posted by languagehat at 10:43 AM on June 27, 2010

> once they were publically shamed into ordering it, they must have wanted it done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Cheaply I understand, but why the rush? It's not as if they were trying to beat a rival version into print, and surely they understood that less time = less quality.
posted by languagehat at 10:44 AM on June 27, 2010

Ah, but languagehat - surely you know the line about time, money, and the equality thereof?
posted by kaibutsu at 11:35 AM on June 27, 2010

Languaghat, that's a point. Of course it helps to also ignore the comment that I "completely understand the general preference for the best possible translation."
posted by oddman at 12:18 PM on June 27, 2010

What if the language under consideration isn't European? Or, conversely, if I study a non-European language, should I obliged to learn European languages in order to gain access to European philosophy--isn't there an argument to made that if these texts are important, they're important enough to be made available to people without access to the languages in which they're written? An English translation of a text will have an impact in many languages other than English.

Also, I would argue that the opposite of Oddman's statement about undergraduates is true: professionals have the background knowledge and experience in reading to fill in the blanks of a bad translation, but undergraduates have no such experience. If an undergraduate reads a bad translation of The Second Sex she will assume that this is a foundational text of modern feminism, and draw her own conclusions--and may or may not be influenced by the corrections of the professor.
posted by goodglovin77 at 12:25 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoa. Smith had a zoologist?
posted by anniecat at 12:47 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

goodlovin77 that assumes that an adequate translation is possible. It's not clear that one is, even with straightforward language pairs.

People who ignore the corrections of experts are beyond the scope of my argument.
posted by oddman at 1:00 PM on June 27, 2010

Those interested in Simone de Beauvoir might want to take a look at Nancy Bauer's recent article at the New York Times philosophy blog. The blog has been nearly uniformly awful, but Bauer's article was great. Someone tried to FPP it, but the first ten comments or so bashed it for being yet another Lady Gaga post, and it was summarily deleted. I thought that was unfortunate. It wasn't so much of an article about Lady Gaga as it was an article explaining the relevance of Beauvoir's phenomenological method to contemporary feminism.

Also see Bauer's article Pornutopia [pdf]. I was composing an FPP on her work in feminist phenomenology before I realized that a similar post (highlighting the Gaga aspect, unfortunately) had previously been deleted.
posted by painquale at 3:08 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

the trouble with crowdsourcing

I studied a text of The Inferno in college where every canto had been translated by a different person. The differences were extreme, and clearly showed how much of the translator's sensibilities went into the work. As a further illustration, it included the original Italian on the facing page.

Just having several translations of de Beauvoir is worthwhile, no matter how skilled the individual examples might be.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:43 PM on June 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Painquale, that was a really enjoyable article. Do please reconsider your FPP. I'm sure a good post on feminist phenomenology would be well received.
posted by oddman at 5:32 PM on June 27, 2010

we should have had hundreds of translations of this book by now, but that's right there the evil of copyright ---and it's one evil that unfortunately too many academics cling to like the co-dependent lover of an alcoholic.

i can't tell you how many verbal smackdowns i've been with academos who go batshitinsane whenever i talk about the need to copylefting academic work to make things like translations easier to produce.

more than the RIAA or Hollywood, the irrational clinging to copyright coming from academics is probably one of the most damaging things to "the culture of knowledge" thus far. i mean, it's not like most scholars can live off the money they make in publications and books. why have them barricaded behind academic journal pay walls or have stupid publishers drag their feet for 60 years to correct a translation wrong?

but tell to most academics to copyleft their work and they go batshitinsane :P
posted by liza at 6:03 PM on June 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Kenko, you may not know this, but if you are a philosopher, specifically and early modern specialist working on Descartes, you will learn French and Latin.

I'm in a philosophy PhD program (though also, one is tempted to say, "duh"). Should finish next year! I do know that, and I even took up German again when it seemed that I would do a lot of work on the Romantics. (Didn't happen.) Nevertheless I think it's reasonable for people with the expertise to use that expertise for the benefit of those who lack it.

In any case, there's also a distinction between scholars of X and scholars with an interest in or who learn from X. I don't know French, but that isn't stopping me from using Merleau-Ponty in my dissertation. I'm reading him in translation. That should be ok for my purposes, since I'm not doing detailed scholarly work on M-P. But it's only ok for my purposes if the translation is good! I'd hate to be in a like situation with regard to de Beauvoir. To whom would I credit the points I draw from her work? To the translator? (In a sufficiently distorted text that might well be reasonable, after all.)

The former category should be able to have reliable translations, even if ultimately, if things come down to fine points of interpretation, they have to defer to their colleagues who've grasped the original in its full, like, quiddity. You wouldn't even know when to bother the specialist colleague otherwise! Maybe it's all just a wild goose chase.

casual readers won't really notice the difference.

Well, yeah, but … that's unfortunate. They won't notice because they don't have the original to compare it to, but what sort of justification of the situation is that? (There's also the category of serious amateurs, who may or may not have colleagues to consult.) I think this is a reasonable thing to fulminate against, actually. It's rare enough that you get casual readers of heavy-duty philosophical texts, and it's also rare enough that there's something the general populace has an interest in that philosophical specialists can really directly aid in. But this is uncontroversially one such! People want to read The Second Sex. Bad translations do those people a disservice. Enter the specialists! There is no call for people to be dismissive.

I'm not sure, either, that with translational issues it really comes down to making some clarifications when the translator missteps (or when there are no exact equivalents). It's one thing to go over "eudaimonia" vs. "happiness"; it's another to have to say, "hey, what you just read (you undergrads) was actually quite misleading" and then have to spend a lot of time undoing the thereby inculcated misconceptions.

The blog has been nearly uniformly awful, but Bauer's article was great

I ♥ Bauer for her article "What Is To Be Done With Austin?"
posted by kenko at 6:35 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oops. The parenthetical in the first paragraph of my comment immediately above should be relocated to follow "I do know that". It either doesn't make sense, or is bizarrely arrogant, where it is.
posted by kenko at 6:36 PM on June 27, 2010

Painquale, that was a really enjoyable article. Do please reconsider your FPP.

Well, since then there was a bit of a debate in the Haugeland obit thread about whether it was OK to post an FPP about past professors you've had. I did an MA at Tufts and TA'ed for Nancy twice. When I was making the post I felt like it might have been a little self-linky but unobjectionably so. Now I'm not so sure. Since I participated in that discussion, and since the main link drew a whole bunch of negative comments and was deleted, I feel like it would be a bad post for me in particular to make right now. The two links in my comment above were going to be the main links in my post anyway; if someone else wants to make them into an FPP, feel free. But no mentioning Lady Gaga above the fold! It will go horribly.
posted by painquale at 7:07 PM on June 27, 2010

Well, since then there was a bit of a debate in the Haugeland obit thread about whether it was OK to post an FPP about past professors you've had.

Yeah, but that debate was silly.

Problem solved!
posted by kenko at 8:20 PM on June 27, 2010

Actually, I think Moi's case isn't as open-and-shut as she thinks it is. There may be problems, but they're often much more subtle than Moi makes them out to be: many of the "errors" she talks of aren't outright mistakes but rather arguable choices: English dictionnaries give "deep-seated" as a possible meaning for "profound"; same for "reduce" and "subdue". Translating "s'assouvir" by "to relieve oneself" is a bit hardi, but in the context, it might work.

And that part:

Viril, consistently translated as ‘virile’, is another botched key term. The English ‘virile’ has much stronger sexual connotations than the French viril.

Touches a really hard problem. It's damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't: viril, in French, has a strong sexual connotation. But there isn't really an equivalent to "manly": if you don't want to use viril you have to go to the somewhat-neutral masculin or the I-mean-with-a-fucking-dick-dammit mâle, or to use somthing like puissant, where you kind of lose the association to men. If you look up virile in an English dictionnary, it matches viril almost perfectly. But because of manly, virile is rarer in English, and so its sexual connotation may be stronger than that of viril.

By using virile everywhere, the translators are, in a way, "breaking" English. They've decided that manly doesn't have the required connotation, and that the connotation is needed everywhere. But using viril everywhere as Beauvoir does is perfectly normal in French; using virile all the time and ignoring manly is weird. The translation shows.

But in popular press translations, the translation is almost always invisible, unless one is going for exoticism.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:24 PM on June 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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