second sex

The Fall 2010 issue of Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature includes a piece by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, the two translators of the much-awaited new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s foundational work, Le deuxième sexe. The first translation, by zoologist H.M. Parshley, appeared in 1953, just four short years after the work’s original publication. Missing about 15% of the original text and, more problematically, overly simplistic in its interpretation of Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy, it was, until November 2009,  the only English version available.

This new version has not been without its detractors (Toril Moi, for one, published a sharp rebuttal in the London Review of Books soon after its release). And in this particular piece, both translators note that they would be happy to see an annotated version in print, something that’s already available in French. Such a version would not doubt benefit from the expertise of a range of Beauvoir scholars (among them Toril Moi and, perhaps, Deirdre Bair, author of a well-received biography of one of France’s great thinkers).

The Second Sex is, unquestionably, showing its age in certain regards. It is, as the translators point out, important to situate it within the cultural, social, political and historical context in which it was written. Only then can we see the immense influence that Beauvoir’s work has had on subsequent feminist thinkers and activists. But even as some aspects of Beauvoir’s thinking seem impossibly quaint (or even downright problematic) in context of contemporary feminist thought, there is so much that remains just as relevant today as it was in 1949. Her incisive and unflinching commentary on the innate sexism of post-WWII French society is scathing and uncompromising.  Her critique of women’s complacency and complicity in this remains revelatory. But for me, it’s something else that continually draws me into Beauvoir’s world: the sheer breadth and intellectual daring of the work as a whole.

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