Misinterpreting Simone de Beauvoir

The attack on Parshley’s translation began with Margaret Simons’s groundbreaking 1983 article, “The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir: Guess What’s Missing From The Second Sex?” Simons, a philosophy professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, brought multiple charges against Parshley’s translation. First she pointed out the enormous cuts that Parshley, at the behest of the publisher, had made in the text. Simons noticed, for instance, that Parshley tended to cut Beauvoir’s examples of women’s anger and oppression while preserving references to men’s feelings. She was the first to spot Parshley’s truncation by half of Beauvoir’s chapter “The Married Woman” and its elimination of Beauvoir’s supporting evidence. Simons also pointed out some fundamental philosophical errors.


“‘Feminine refusal’ is also wrong: We are not dealing with a specific kind of refusal (the feminine as opposed to the masculine kind), but with the woman’s refusal or resistance. (Beauvoir is not trying to tell us how the woman resists, just that she does.) The sentence structure and the punctuation are awkward. There are several translation errors: s’assouvir doesn’t mean to ‘relieve oneself’ but to ‘satisfy’ or ‘gratify’; in this context profonde means ‘underlying’ or ‘deep-seated,’ not ‘profound.’ The phrase ‘reduce to his mercy’ piles up errors: à merci is not the same thing as à sa merci; réduire in this context doesn’t mean ‘reduce’ but rather ‘dominate’ or ‘subdue’; thus réduire à merci actually means ‘subdue at will.’ And force musculaire means ‘muscular strength,’ not ‘muscular force,’ which is a phrase mostly used by scientists trying to explain the physics of muscle contractions; permettre here means ‘enable’ or ‘allow’, not ‘permit.’”

Moi sums up: “After taking a close look at the whole book, I found three fundamental and pervasive problems: a mishandling of key terms for gender and sexuality, an inconsistent use of tenses, and the mangling of syntax, sentence structure, and punctuation.”

via The Chronicle Review

I often wondered why her works weren’t more influential in anglo saxon feminist circles. I always thought it was an ideological difference (her association with communism and related movements in France) but now I have to wonder if her badly translated texts are not the reason. Texts that downplay her criticism of the patriarchy (i.e. “Parshley tended to cut Beauvoir’s examples of women’s anger and oppression while preserving references to men’s feelings”) might be a good example. I always found her texts quite relatable and less prone to blanket statements than much of second wave feminist theory.

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