The publisher and the translation

Lorcan 3 min read

I got my copy of The London Review of Books in the mail (aka post) today. I had seen John Naughton discuss the review of a new translation of The Second Sex by Toril Moi (WC Identity) and I turned to read it.
The focus of the review is a critique of the translation, a not very good one Moi argues. One thing that struck me while reading it was the role of the publisher. This is especially in the light of current discussions about the publishing value chain as patterns of distribution change in a network environment.
Moi describes dissatisfaction with the earlier translation by H.M.Parshley, partly because it cut out about 15% of the text and partly for aspects of the translation. She cites an article by Margaret Simons drawing attention to the cuts, and notes:

After reading Simons’s essay, Beauvoir replied: ‘I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.’

Simons’s discovery had no impact on Random House, which owns the English-language rights to the book through its imprints Knopf (for the hardback) and Vintage (for the paperback). By the time of the 50th anniversary of The Second Sex in 1999, there were still no plans for a new translation: that year, Elizabeth Fallaize and I decided to draw attention to the situation again. Fallaize, whose premature death at the end of last year Beauvoir scholars mourn, analysed the effects of the vast cuts Parshley made in the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’. I wrote about Parshley’s philosophical confusions, drew attention to a number of elementary French mistakes, and showed the way his mistranslations had affected recent feminist theory. I also wrote about the publication history, and stressed that Parshley should not be seen as the villain of the piece. A professor of zoology at Smith College, he was genuinely enthusiastic about Beauvoir’s book. It was the publisher, not Parshley, who insisted on cutting the text; in the end he cut 145 of the original 972 pages, or almost 15 per cent of the original.

The strength of Parshley’s 57-year-old translation is that it is lively and readable. Parshley was, on all evidence, an excellent writer of English. When he understood the French, he usually found the right phrase and managed to convey nuances of irony and poetry. The most serious weaknesses are the unannounced cuts; but his complete lack of familiarity with Beauvoir’s philosophical vocabulary and the deficiencies in his knowledge of French also undermine his version of the book.

Demand for a new translation gathered force, but the publishers resisted. In 1988, Ashbel Green, then Knopf’s vice president and senior editor, summarised their view: ‘Our feeling is that the impact of de Beauvoir’s thesis is in no way diluted by the abridgment.’ After all, the book was making money: ‘It’s a very successful book that we want to continue publishing.’

In August 2004, Sarah Glazer published an article about the situation in the New York Times. Whether her article was the deciding factor is hard to say. In any case, at the end of 2005 Ellah Allfrey, then an editor at Cape, the British publisher of The Second Sex, persuaded Knopf to split the cost of a new translation. According to Le Monde the final cost was €35,000 (£30,000 or $50,000), one third of which was paid by grants from the French state. [The adulteress wife. LRB 11 February 2010]

New translators were found.

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 that she ‘already knew the perfect translators’.

Based on their earlier work, Toril Moi wonders about the translators’ credentials. She then proceeds to deliver a very strong criticism of the new translation.
Now, it will be interesting to see how the publishers respond to this review, if they do at all, and whether they refute the charge that they have not been good stewards of a major work’s English expression.

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