Dynamist Blog

Progress and Decline

In her NYTBR review of the much-needed but jargon-clotted new translation of The Second Sex, Francine du Plessix Gray writes: "I'm sorry to report that "The Second Sex," which I read with euphoric enthusiasm in my post-college years, now strikes me as being in many ways dated."

Having recently read portions of the old translation of The Second Sex, I concur. De Beauvoir was writing about another world. That's what's known as progress.

Du Plessix Gray's review also demonstrates with parallel translations just how needlessly ugly and opaque the prose employed by academic humanists (notably including academic feminists) has become.

A few instances: Writing about the aggressive nature of man's penetration of woman, [earlier translator] Parshley felicitously translates a Beauvoir phrase as "her inwardness is violated." In contrast, [new translators] Borde and Malovany- Chevallier's rendering states that woman "is like a raped interiority." And where Parshley has Beauvoir saying of woman, "It is she who defines herself by dealing with nature on her own account in her emotional life," the new translators substitute, "It is she who defines herself by reclaiming nature for herself in her affectivity." In yet another example, man's approach to woman's "dangerous magic" is seen this way in Parshley: "He sets her up as the essential, it is he who poses her as such and thus he really acts as the essential in this voluntary alienation." But in Borde and Malovany-Chevallier, "it is he who posits her, and he who realizes himself thereby as the essential in this alienation he grants." Throughout, there are truly inexcusable passages in which the translators even lack a proper sense of English syntax: "Moments women consider revelations are those where they discover they are in harmony with a reality based on peace with one's self."

Toril Moi made a similar point, and included the French, in an earlier, devastating review in the London Review of Books. Translation is always tricky, but if "affectivity" is the best you can come up with, you need a better command of English.

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