(h/t the inimitable Helen Dewitt)
The Adulteress Wife, on a new translation of The Second Sex (news of which had me excited until I had finished the article).
The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’ The translation is blighted by the constant use of ‘false friends’, words that sound the same but don’t mean the same in the two languages.
And then there are the howlers. A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’
The translators fail to recognise many of Beauvoir’s references. Adler’s ‘masculine protest’ becomes ‘virile protest’; the ‘sexual division of labour’ becomes, on the same page, ‘the division of labour by sex’ and the ‘division of labour based on sex’; Bachofen’s ‘mother right’ becomes ‘maternal right’; and Byron’s epigram, ‘Man’s love is of his life a thing apart; ’Tis woman’s whole existence,’ loses all its wit on the round trip from English to French and back again: ‘Byron rightly said that love is merely an occupation in the life of the man, while it is life itself for the woman.’
The notes, bibliography and index are riddled with mistakes. Names are misrecognised and bibliographical references are botched. According to the translators, Stekel’s Frigidity in Woman was first published in French in 1949; in fact it appeared in 1937 (Sartre quotes it in 1943, in Being and Nothingness). Oxford University Press may be amused to learn that A.V. Miller’s Hegel translation is listed as published by Galaxy Press, the publishing house of the Scientologists. In the index, references to Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet turn out to be references to Stendhal’s Mme Grandet, a character in Lucien Leuwen. There is one entry for Johann Bachofen and another one for a character called ‘Baschoffen’ with no first name. In general, far too many index entries fail to provide first names. After all, to find out who Samivel was, all it takes is to type the name into Google.
That bad? One wonders how things like this happen…
Given the profile of the book, Beauvoir specialists hoped that the publishers would turn to a first-rate translator with a track record in the relevant field: maybe Carol Cosman, the translator of Sartre’s multi-volume study of Flaubert, The Family Idiot, and of Beauvoir’s America Day by Day; Lydia Davis, a translator of Proust; or Richard Sieburth, translator of Leiris, Michaux and Nerval. Instead, the publishers chose Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, two Americans who have lived in Paris since the 1960s and worked as English teachers at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques. They have published numerous textbooks in English for French students (My English Is French: la syntaxe anglaise), and many cookery books (Cookies et cakes and Sandwichs, tartines et canapés among others). Their track record in translation from French to English, however, appears to be slim (I have found only two catalogue essays for art exhibitions in Paris, both translated by Malovany-Chevallier).
In a 2007 interview with Sarah Glazer, published in Bookforum, Borde and Malovany-Chevallier dismissed doubts about their competence. They explained that they first heard about the problems with the English translation at the 50th anniversary conference on The Second Sex in Paris. After the conference, they contacted a former student, Anne-Solange Noble, the director of foreign rights at Gallimard, to propose themselves for the job, and in due course Noble told Allfrey [the British publisher of the book] that she ‘already knew the perfect translators’.
And then this–McCarthy on Toussaint. Please read it. It is a list of McCarthy’s obsessions in the guise of a review essay. Perhaps “obsessions” is a bit strong. Perhaps not, though. When I read Camera last year I was reminded of McCarthy (and, less flatteringly, of Benoit Duteurtre). M and T share preoccupations. There are affinities. One enjoys teasing them out of the other’s books. Have you preordered C yet?