The Second Sex

A fresh interpretation has breathed new life into a seminal feminist text, discovers Mary Evans

March 18, 2010

The term "long-awaited" is much used in academia, often to justify a promotion or the appearance of some form of equipment. This new translation of The Second Sex, by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, is long-awaited in both senses: it recognises that Beauvoir's text is one that deserves a careful and thoughtful translation, and it makes available all the material of the original 1949 French edition. This new hardback is also a thing of beauty, with wonderful print and an elegant appearance.

The problems with the work's previous English translation by H.M. Parshley have been pointed out by scholars of Beauvoir's work for the past 20 years. Margaret Simons and Toril Moi, writing in 1983 and 2002 respectively, are among those who have outlined the many faults, misreadings and deletions in Parshley's translation. Their very detailed work on the ways in which Parshley at times distorted Beauvoir's work made an important and clearly effective case for the book's retranslation. The first part of the title of Simons' 1983 essay "The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What's Missing From The Second Sex" is perhaps something of an exaggeration, but the point is well made that Parshley did not, as Moi also argues, think carefully enough about the meaning of many of the philosophical terms used by Beauvoir. Many of the faults identified by Moi and Simons (for example the mistranslation of "alienation" into "projection" in the section on childhood) are corrected in the new version.

But a great book has a new, renewed life. Polished up and restored, The Second Sex can now be appreciated by English readers as the complex exploration of women and men that it undoubtedly is. There is no longer a need to assume that we either have to read the book in French or remain somewhat wary and uncertain of some of its arguments. After the achievement of this magnificent new edition, we are faced, as Sheila Rowbotham points out in her (much too brief) foreword, with the ideas themselves and with an examination of where Beauvoir might take us, and how.

One of the many interesting aspects of Beauvoir's work, which Rowbotham recognises, is the importance of the nature of the discipline - philosophy - from which she came. It led her, as Rowbotham points out, to the strategy of "entering male culture" in order to undermine it. But it was a strategy that involved what Audre Lorde was later to describe as "the master's tools" - tools so close to the "master's house" that they could not always be relied upon to rewrite the social order in the way Beauvoir advocated. Indeed, this new translation ends with the call to "brotherhood" between women and men. It is an accurate translation of the French but raises the question of why Beauvoir did not use a term such as "shared humanity", a form of words that avoids that recurrent identification of particular forms of agency with the masculine that is so much a characteristic of her work.

The discussion of the implicit attraction of the masculine in Beauvoir's work raises the possibility of the need for what Judith Okely has described as the necessary ethnographic research into The Second Sex: work that involves not just a search for the buried case study of Beauvoir herself, but for women who are not just "the other" but the others, women outside the West, working-class women, and indeed the majority of the world's female population. In Beauvoir's much-repeated statement that (in the words of the new translation) "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman", a category called woman is invoked.

Yet much of Beauvoir's analysis and discussion of the female condition in The Second Sex is drawn from individual cases, particularly those highly problematic fictional female characters Beauvoir uses as evidence for her arguments. As much in The Second Sex as in her own fiction, Beauvoir defines female characters very much more in terms of aspects of the feminine condition than she uses male characters to articulate the masculine: in the latter case she is more inclined to allow a space for what might be described as the non-gendered human.

It is that space that this work has allowed later generations to explore. Although The Second Sex has often informed work organised around combative binaries of male and female, so too it has encouraged us to think of the liberating possibilities of both recognising and changing the impact of gender on the ways in which we think and behave.

The Second Sex

By Simone de Beauvoir

Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier

Jonathan Cape, 848pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780224078597

Published 26 November 2009

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