Translating gender (troubles)

Kali Myers revisits her article on Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler as part of our series highlighting the contributions of Lilith: A Feminist History Journal to feminist historical scholarship. 

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.20.18 AMIn feminist thought, we must always question our underlying assumptions: where they have come from and how they have developed. The prevailing narrative in academic feminist literature regarding Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler assumes a succession from Beauvoir as constructivist thinker to Butler as innovator, extending Beauvoir’s thought from a theory of gender built around ‘becoming’ to one of ‘doing’ through the radically de-essentialised theory of performativity. This narrative, however, elides the significant role that H.M. Parshley’s translation of Le deuxième sexe has had on interpretation of Beauvoir’s intellectual contribution.

Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was first published in 1949, and entered the English-speaking world soon after in a 1953 translated edition published by award-winning New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf – a company with a reputation for excellence and a history of commissioning first English translations of influential fiction and non-fiction texts. This translation was undertaken by H.M. Parshley. Parshley – a science graduate from Harvard who had learnt French at high school and as an undergraduate – was a biological scientist with an expertise in reproduction and the biology of human sex. He was completely uninitiated into the history and discourse of the discipline of philosophy, and largely ignorant of the new branch of existentialism upon which Le deuxième sexe is based.

Parshley was an early supporter of Beauvoir’s work, but his lack of necessary expertise left his translation seriously lacking. Yet – perhaps due to the popularity of the text, or perhaps because the readers of the French text and the readers of the English text were engaged in different conversations – its inadequacy was not recognised for quite some time.

In 1983 Margaret A. Simons drew the English-speaking world’s attention to the deficiency of Parshley’s translation, alluding to heavy editing and mistranslations of certain terms. Importantly, Simons points out that while Parshley claimed that Beauvoir gave her permission to all edits and cuts, Beauvoir’s proficiency in English was not nuanced enough for her to understand the distortion of her intended meaning in the English translation.

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Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Che Guevara, Cuba, 1960. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2002 – twenty years after Simons’ first calls for a new translation – Toril Moi provided an extended analysis of the shortcomings of the text in her article ‘While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex’. Moi estimated that Parshley’s alterations constituted a 15 per cent reduction of Beauvoir’s original text. These edits seem to have been made at the insistence of Knopf who wanted to make the translated book a less intimidating length to potential readers (and, therefore, cheaper and more marketable and profitable). Along with this deletion, Moi claimed that Parshley’s mistranslation and misuse of specific terms such as authentique (authentic/authenticity), pour-soi (being-for-itself), and être-soi (being-in-itself) as ‘true nature’ or ‘feminine essence’ altered much of the meaning behind Beauvoir’s words. This ultimately transformed her work into something that could be read as an essentialist treatise predicated on the assumption that womanhood is a biological phenomenon and that its associated feminised traits are the inherent essence of that physiological phenomenon. Beauvoir’s text thus reads as a brilliant work for its time, but one nevertheless bound by its cultural, patriarchal context.

Yet this patriarchal and essentialist bounding is undoubtedly more Parshley’s voice than Beauvoir’s own. Although no text can transcend the social, cultural, and historical bounds of the moment in which it is produced, Beauvoir’s text attempted to identify, critique, and destabilise the multitude of processes and relations of power that both create idealised femininity, and keep women subservient to men. Her work demonstrated that gender was a social category, culturally and historically contingent: that it was mutable even as it presented itself as natural and enduring. Parshley’s translator’s note, on the other hand, opens with this un-reflexive gem:

A serious, all inclusive, and uninhibited work on woman by a woman of wit and learning! What, I had often thought, could be more desirable and yet less to be expected?

It is perhaps unfortunate that it was not until 2010 that a new translation of The Second Sex –by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier – was commissioned. Re-incorporating the 15 per cent of the manuscript culled for the original translation, and attempting a greater sensitivity to Beauvoir’s philosophical methodology, this translation was a direct response to Parshley’s text. However, rather than lamenting what was lost in translation in the first six-decades or so of The Second Sex’s intellectual life, it is interesting to consider what this text made possible in that time.

Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.21.10 AMIn her 1997 article ‘What is a Woman? Butler and Beauvoir on the Foundations of the Sexual Difference, Sara Heinämaa argues persuasively that in Gender Trouble Butler misinterpreted many of the arguments made by Beauvoir in Le deuxième sexe. In fact, close reading of Butler’s work – from her 1986 article ‘Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex’ to her canonical 1990/1999 Gender Trouble – suggests that, although Butler was versed in Beauvoir’s writing in French, she also relied heavily on Parshley’s translation of The Second Sex to articulate what it was in Beauvoir’s theory of gender that she found unconvincing, and to thus formulate her own performative theory of gender.

And so we find two of the Anglo-European world’s most influential feminist texts reduced to a conversation between three actors who, ultimately, were unable to speak to each other.

Parshley was not versed in the language of philosophy; Beauvoir could not speak nuanced enough English to realise the distortion of her text; and Butler seems to have engaged an inadequate translation to bolster her reading of Beauvoir.

We have Butler and Beauvoir meeting – not in translation – but in a constructed ‘French Theory’ space that stands as an American (academic) appropriation, construction, and misreading. Such a conclusion seems negative. Yet what we are left with is two incredibly influential and popular feminist texts that have fundamentally altered the way in which society understands, speaks of, and interacts with gender.

Parshley may have completely distorted Beauvoir’s text. But this distortion enabled Butler to formulate and articulate her performative theory of gender; a theory that underpins contemporary gender studies, queer theory, identity politics, and that – with its wide-ranging influence – has helped to shift our relationship to gender and identity to a more critical perspective.

It was Parshley’s mistranslation of The Second Sex that made possible the conditions for thinking Gender Trouble.


For the full article, see: Kali Myers, ‘Translating Gender (Troubles): Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and the American Appropriation of “French Theory”,’ Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 22 (2016): 90-103.


Screen Shot 2017-04-14 at 10.18.32 AMKali Myers is a writer and researcher whose work concerns violence, power and representations of women. Her current project explores the impact of the aesthetic of cute on the experience of contemporary girlhood.

Follow Kali on Twitter @pickwickian36.


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