Renewed interest in de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex
Reviewed by Madhusree Chatterjee

Simone de BeauvoirMORE than six decades after celebrated French feminist Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex, feminists are sifting through her interpretations of women's emancipation in their quest for solutions to new gender posers.

"There is clearly a heightened interest in Simone de Beauvoir and her contribution to the feminist movement and gender studies," according to American writers-translators Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, whose second English translation of The Second Sex is soon to arrive in India.

The translators believe the book, published by Knopf, US, in 2010 and which breaks feminine stereotypes, is relevant even in the 21st century when gender injustice has changed forms.

"The underpinnings of the work are philosophical and contain universal truths about equality, freedom, independence and morality. Thus, each person can understand and hopefully transcend these stereotypes by having seen and then analysed them. It is difficult but possible. Her book and her philosophy are not anecdotal. They enable us to understand structure and history," Borde said.

Their critically-acclaimed translation is known for its refinement of language and a hard-hitting structure. It captures Beauvoir's analysis of why women have been forced to contend with a secondary place in society.

"First of all (and this is the first chapter of The Second Sex) - the myth of biology had to be refuted. Freud's "anatomy is destiny" theory that women were biologically inferior had to be put to rest. This is what Beauvoir had set off to do," Malovany-Chevallier said.

"We did nothing to update it. We put the philosophical language back into the work, and closely followed her syntax and grammar and her expository style of developing the ideas. We stayed close to her vocabulary and referred to etymological dictionaries to be sure that a word had the same meaning in 1949 as it does today," Borde said.

The duo, who translated the seminal work in 2010, carried it over from writer H.M. Parshley, the first to translate the book in the 1950s.

The translators said the "previous translation of The Second Sex was cut, simplified and generally dumbed down for many reasons, but principally at the request of the editors who thought the book was too much for the public".

"But we were keenly aware of the absence of Simone de Beauvoir's philosophy and so we were almost obsessed with the necessity of making sure that our translation fully restored the philosophical ideas and vocabulary in English," Borde said.

"The book in French was difficult, particular and stylised. Those are the qualities that we hope are in our translation. We spoke to experts in many fields. (Philosopher) Margaret Simons is the main American Beauvoirian expert and she discussed our manuscript with her graduate students and gave us invaluable help," Malovany-Chevallier said.

In modern societies, the traditional perceptions of superior-inferior sex has changed, the translators said.

"In the West at least, women control their own biological destinies in child bearing. Machines have replaced muscle power so that in most cases, women and men can perform the same amount of work. Sexual pleasure has come to have mutual meaning for men and women. Women who are sexually exploited or abused today are indeed slaves," Borde said.

"For lack of equality, education and economic means, they find themselves in this role," she analysed.

The Second Sex has a cult following among feminist groups in India.

The translators, who were in the capital last week to discuss their work with Urvashi Butalia at Alliance Francaise and later at the Apeejay Kolkata Literature Festival, met several women writers and readers, who had been inspired by the French feminist. — IANS