As I argued in a post last week, U.S. copyright law has enabled Knopf, the original publisher of the English-language version of The Second Sex, to prevent any new translations from being published. This is a problem, because the English translation Knopf uses is both inaccurate and incoherant.
There is an online petition asking Knopf (and its owner, Random House) to allow a new translation to be published. So far, only 137 people have signed it; “Alas” readers should be able to double that easily. So please, as a favor to me, if you enjoy “Alas” at all; take 20 seconds and go and sign the petition.
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I just ran across an excellent (but very long) article on the subject, “While We Wait: The English Translation of The Second Sex,” by Toril Moi. The article includes some examples of bad translation, many of which require a background in formal philosophy to appreciate. Some, however, are obviously outragious even to non-expert readers.
Literal translation: “One does not acquire virile attributes by rejecting female [feminine] attributes; even a transvestite doesn’t manage to turn herself into a man…she remains a transvestite.”
Knopf: “One does not acquire virile attributes by rejecting feminine attributes; even the transvestite fails to make a man of herself…she is a travesty.” (SS, 682″“83)
And here’s another one, from Knopf’s translation of de Beauvoir’s introduction:
Literal translation: “The legend that claims that the ravished Sabine women opposed their ravishers with stubborn sterility, also tells us that the men magically overcame their resistance by beating them with leather straps.”
Knopf: “In the legend of the Sabine women, the latter soon abandoned their plan of remaining sterile to punish their ravishers.” (SS, xxvi)
Moi, who has worked hard at talking to Knopf, also briefly discusses the publishing situation:
My understanding is that Gallimard, Beauvoir’s French publishers, want a new English translation.39 Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that they have the necessary legal grounds on which to challenge Knopf. In May 2000 Continuum/Athlone in London asked Gallimard for rights to do an academic edition of The Second Sex. In March 2001, the Modern Library (another division of Random House) in New York inquired about rights for a new translation. Neither publisher received a reply. At the moment, then, there simply is no way around Knopf and Vintage. Although they have full knowledge of all the evidence to the contrary, editors at both imprints continue to insist that there really is no need for a new translation. There is no need to elaborate on what this tells us about the state of commercial publishing in America.
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On a mailing list I read, there’s a rumour going about that Knopf has reached an agreement to allow a new translation, but so far no one has been able to confirm the rumour. In the meanwhile, I’d encourage people to sign the petition anyway, since it certainly won’t do any harm.