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On ne naît pas femme: on le devientThe Life of a Sentence$

Bonnie Mann and Martina Ferrari

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780190608811

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2017

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190608811.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 23 November 2020

The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir

The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir

Guess What’s Missing from The Second Sex

(p.59) 3 The Silencing of Simone de Beauvoir
On ne naît pas femme: on le devient

Margaret A. Simons

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter, first published in 1983, initially breaks the news of the scandal of the first English translation of Le deuxième sexe to the English speaking world. Through a painstaking comparative reading of the Parshley translation, published by Knopf, alongside the original French, the chapter reveals the abridgment and editing of the original text with no indication of specific cuts in the text. It shows that Parshley’s version of The Second Sex exhibits a sexist pattern of selection that reduces the impact of Beauvoir’s discussions of women’s history; drastically reduces the number of references to women writers, poets, politicians, military figures, etc.; curtails discussions of women’s oppression; and obscures Beauvoir’s philosophical commitments. This text was the first of those that ignited the flood of contemporary Beauvoir scholarship in the English-speaking world. It was because of Margaret Simon’s work that Beauvoir became aware of the flawed translation shortly before her death in 1986, and expressed her ardent wish for a new translation.

Keywords:   H. M. Parshley, Simone de Beauvoir, Le deuxième sexe, sexism, Knopf

YOU MIGHT THINK that once you’ve gotten past the male “gatekeepers” controlling access to the major publishing houses and gotten your feminist book published, and then translated into another language for world-wide distribution, your problems with reaching a feminist audience would be over, especially if you’re a famous writer like Simone de Beauvoir.1 But you’d be wrong.

No English edition of Le deuxième sexe (Beauvoir’s famous 1949 feminist masterpiece, and the common ingredient in all of our early women’s studies courses) contains everything she wrote, or accurately translated her most basic philosophical ideas.

Both the 1968 Bantam paperback edition of The Second Sex (the one with the photograph of a naked woman on the cover—after all this is a book about sex) and the more demure plain-labelled 1970 Bantam edition brazenly advertise themselves as “complete and unabridged.” A statement that is a lot less revealing than the cover photo, given the fact that over 10% of the material in the original French edition is missing from the only English translation we have.

Technically, I suppose, both of these paperback Bantam editions of The Second Sex are unabridged since they contain the complete text of the original hard-cover edition of the English translation. The cutting that the publishers fail to advertise took place in that original edition.2

Trying to determine what had been deleted was no simple task, since there are no ellipses indicating deletions in the text. So I had to locate them the hard way. I first counted all the words on several pages that had (p.60) been translated in full to determine the differences due to type and pages size. Once I had this ratio of French pages to English pages, I was able to predict the length of each chapter in English, had there been no deletions. When I found gross discrepancies, I went through each chapter, comparing the text in both editions to locate the deleted passages.

Hidden from History

The translator who made the cuts, Howard Parshley, a professor of zoology at Smith College, and the author of a 1933 book on sex and reproduction lauding the merits of sexual complementarity à la Havelock Ellis, must have found women’s history boring. He deleted fully one-half of one chapter on history, a fourth of another, and eliminated the names of 78 women.

Politicians, military leaders, courtesans and saints; artists, poets, and an eighteenth-century writer, Mme de Ciray, in whom “we see a feminist economist timidly peeking through” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 182) are all missing from the English version of The Second Sex.

Have you ever read tales of the medieval chatelaines, noble-women who lived around the time of Charlemagne and the knights of the Round Table? Their legends, which Beauvoir recounted in the French edition of The Second Sex, were deleted from the English (Beauvoir 1970, 112). But why? I certainly don’t find them boring—a little gruesome, maybe, but not boring. Here they are; what do you think?

The chatelaine Aubie, after having had a tower built that was higher than any donjon soon had the architect’s head cut off so that his secret would be well guarded. She chased her husband from his domain; he returned in hiding and killed her. Mabille, the wife of Roger Montgomery, delighted in reducing the nobles of her domain to begging. They revenged themselves by beheading her. Julienne, the bastard daughter of England’s Henry I, armed the castle at Breteuil against him and lured him into an ambush, for which he punished her harshly.

(Beauvoir 1949, I, 159)

Parshley dispenses with the incredible women of the Italian renaissance in two sentences (Beauvoir 1970, 118) eliminating all mention of specific women and their stories, and distorting an important point in Beauvoir’s analysis of women’s historical oppression. Maybe it’s the military (p.61) exploits of these women that made the translator uncomfortable. What do you think?

We find there [in the Italian Renaissance] women who are powerful sovereigns, such as Jeanne d’Aragon, Jeanne de Naples, Isabelle d’Este; others were adventurous “condottieres” [mercenary leaders] who took up arms like the men. Thus the wife of Giralomo Riario fought for the liberty of Forli; Hippolita Fioramenti commanded the troops of the Duke of Milan and during the siege of Pavie lead a company of noble women to the ramparts. In order to defend their city against Montluc, the women of Sienna formed themselves into three divisions of three thousand women each, commanded by women.

Other Italian women were celebrated for their culture or their talents; such as Isara Norgara, Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampara, Vittoria Colonna who was the friend of Michelangelo, and especially Lucrece Tornabuoni, mother of Laurent and Julien de Medicis, who wrote, among other things, some hymns, a life of Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin.

A majority of these distinguished women were courtesans who combined a free spirit with their freedom of morals, and assured their economic autonomy by the exercise of their trade. Many were treated with deferential admiration by men. They patronized the arts, took an interest in literature and philosophy, and often, themselves, wrote or painted. Isabelle de Luna, Caterina di San Celso, and Imperia, who was a poet and musician, revived the tradition of Aspasia and Phryne. However, for many of them freedom could still take the form of license. The orgies and crimes of noblewomen and courtesans of Italy have become legendary.

(Beauvoir 1949, I, 172–73)

Parshley cut all these stories from the English edition of The Second Sex and destroyed Beauvoir’s distinction between freedom and more license. In Parshley’s condensed version, freedom in spirit, manners, and finances is equated with sexual and criminal license. A serious distortion obscuring Beauvoir’s point that never in history have women been allowed the combination of independence and concrete opportunity that defines real freedom. “As for positive accomplishments,” Beauvoir continues, in a sentence Parshley helpfully deleted from a concluding paragraph, “they were still possible only for a very small number” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 173).

Limiting himself to no one particular period in history, Parshley deleted an ancient Assyrian-Babylonian legend of the fall of woman from power (Beauvoir 1949, I, 145), and hacked away at the section on nineteenth-century feminism.

(p.62) In his description of the French feminist movement, Parshley retained Beauvoir’s reference to Léon Richier, the man who organized the International Congress on Women’s Rights in 1869, while eliminating all reference to Hubertine Auclert, a woman who opened a suffrage campaign and created a French Women’s Suffrage Organization and a newspaper, La Citoyenne. Parshley also deleted much of Beauvoir’s description of the violent history of the women’s rights struggle in England, and added confusion to Beauvoir’s references to the first American women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls.

So Much for Seneca Falls

“The anti-slavery congress held in 1840 in London having been closed to them,” Beauvoir writes in the French edition of The Second Sex, “the Quakeress Lucretia Mott founded a feminist association. On July 18, 1840 [sic] in a Convention convened at Seneca Falls, they composed a manifesto of Quaker inspiration which set the tone for all American feminism” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 210). Beauvoir then quotes several passages from the “Declaration of Sentiments” without identifying their source.

Using some infathomable logic, Parshley deleted the reference to the London anti-slavery congress, the words “Seneca Falls,” and the correct month and day, while leaving intact, without comment, the wrong year (Beauvoir 1949, I, 140).

Immediately following the mention of the convention and the quotations from the “Declaration of Sentiments” is a reference to Harriet Beecher-Stowe having written Uncle Tom’s Cabin three years later. This should have alerted a conscientious (or even interested) translator that the 1840 date was a misprint, since Stowe’s well-known book first appeared in 1851, or three years after the Seneca Falls convention of 1848.

Parshley did make an effort to locate all of the passages from English works quoted by Beauvoir in order to provide the page numbers in English editions. This was no easy task since Beauvoir neglects in many cases, as in this case of the quotations from the “Declaration of Sentiments,” to give even the title of the book from which the passages are taken. But in this particular instance not only did Parshley fail to provide the title of the “Declaration of Sentiments” while including the quotations, but he actually contributed to their obscurity by failing to correct the misprinted date and deleting the vital reference to Seneca Falls. History—or rather women’s history—was not Parshley’s strongpoint.

(p.63) Feminist Anger and Lesbian Love

Women writers and poets fared no better in Parshley’s translation of The Second Sex than did the medieval chatelaines or the leaders of the suffrage movement. Perhaps the anger in the writing of Lady Winhilsea and the duchess of Newcastle offended him. For whatever reason, he deleted the following passages describing them and their poems from The Second Sex:

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, Lady Winhilsea, a noble woman without children, attempted the adventure of writing. Certain passages from her work show that she had a sensitive, poetic nature; but she was consumed by hate, anger and fear:

Alas! A woman who takes up a pen is considered to be a creature so presumptuous that she has no means of atoning for her crime!

Almost all of her work is consecrated to indignation at the condition of women.

The case of the Duchess of Newcastle is analogous. Also a noblewoman, her writing provoked a scandal. “Women live like cockroaches or poodles; they die like worms.” Insulted and ridiculed, she had to shut herself away on her estate; and in spite of a generous spirit, she became half crazy producing only extravagant fantasies.

(Beauvoir 1949, I, 177–78).

In Book II of The Second Sex unlike the history chapters of Book I, Parshley deleted primarily quotations cited by Beauvoir. (But they add to quite a sum; he cut approximately 60 pages, or 12% from Book II, 35 pages coming from the chapters on “The Married Women” [sic], cutting it almost in half.)

Some of the quotations in the French edition are certainly too long. But the deletions, or condensation of others is a great loss. How much did the publisher save on the printing bill by chopping up the love poems by the lesbian poet, Renee Vivien, quoted in the chapter on “The Lesbian,” or by deleting the title of one of her poems? Look what Parshley’s deletions did to Vivien’s poem, “Sortileges,” which appears in its entirety in the French edition. First the original:

  • Our heart is similar in our woman’s breast
  • Dearest! Our body is made alike
  • A same heavy destiny weighs on our soul
  • I express your smile and the shadow on your face
  • My gentleness it is equal to your great gentleness
  • (p.64) Sometimes it even seems that we are of the same race
  • In you I love my child, my friend and my sister.

(Beauvoir 1949, II, 184)

In Parshley’s version the dramatic sense, indeed the poem itself is gone: “Our bodies are made alike … Our destiny is the same … In you I love my child, my darling, and my sister” (Beauvoir 1970, 465).

Sexist Selecting

The pattern of some of his other deletions adds to the evidence of his sexism. As those of us who have plowed through The Second Sex can testify, it’s a long and difficult book, with lots of repetition of Beauvoir’s central ideas, and detailed examples from literature. Any translator anxious to please a publisher whose eye is on the printing bill might be tempted to hack away with abandon, especially in those sections that bored or irritated (in this case) him.

Parshley obviously found women’s history boring, but he apparently found some sections more irritating than others. He didn’t care to have discussions of women’s oppression belabored, although he was quite content to allow Beauvoir to go on at length about the superior advantages of man’s situation and achievements, as the pattern of deletions in the first history chapter shows.

In the chapter on “The Married Woman,” Parshley threw out entire pages from Beauvoir’s description of the tedious work comprising a housewife’s day. He eliminated most of Beauvoir’s quotations from the journals of Sophie Tolstoy, which provide her primary source of illustration for the “annihilation” of woman in marriage. But Parshley chose to include the entire quotation from an Edith Wharton novel about a young man’s misgivings on the eve of marriage (Beauvoir 1970: 513–14), one of the few quotations he found sufficiently interesting to retain in its entirety.

Parshley apparently found evidence of women’s oppression, and genuine struggle between the sexes irritating; he systematically deleted misogynist diatribes and feminist arguments—from the writers of ancient Greece like Simonide d’Amorga who wrote: “Women are the greatest evil that God has ever created” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 146), to the historic fifteenth century “querelle des femmes” and the later debate on women’s nature during the French Renaissance. From that era, he deleted not only references to a work by Cornelius Agrippa defending women’s superiority, and (p.65) to the misogynist works it elicited in response, but also all mention of two works by women authors, Docte et subtil discours by Marguerite de Valois and L’Égalité des hommes et des femmes by Mlle de Gournay (Beauvoir 1949, I, 178–81).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these deletions often create confusion, especially when later references to earlier passages that have been deleted are left intact. Such is the case in Beauvoir’s discussion of socialist feminism.

So Much for Socialist Feminism

The damage done by Parshley’s random deletions to Beauvoir’s historical accounts of the utopian Saint-Simonian movement and socialist feminism would be a serious enough problem for any historical study of feminism. But they are particularly devastating in The Second Sex since Beauvoir lays the foundation for her own socialist-feminist theory in those passages.

Through a dexterous juggling of deletions and the addition of a few “helpful” words, such as “for example,” Parshley managed to transform the nineteenth-century utopian socialists, Charles Fourier and Etienne Cabet, into members of the slightly bizarre Saint-Simonian movement (Beauvoir 1970, 126), which would have been news to Fourier and Cabet, and a shock to the residents of the utopian communities they established in Texas and New Jersey, had they been around to hear it.

Parshley deleted Beauvoir’s fairly detailed analysis of the movement, including the entire reference to Enfantin’s religious cult of the Woman-Messiah for which Saint-Simonianism is known, as well as a description of women’s newspapers such as Voix des femmes [Women’s Voice].

References to Jeanne Decoin’s electoral campaign of 1849, the socialist Flora Tristan’s “belief in the redemption of the people by woman” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 190), and a lengthy analysis of Proudhon’s rupture of the alliance between feminism and socialism are all gone.

Lost as well is the following passage giving Beauvoir’s analysis of the class division within feminism, and her only explanation of the phrase, “revolutionary feminism” which causes great confusion when it appears later, without explanation, in Parshley’s translation:

This weakness of feminism had its source in its internal division; in truth, as one has already indicted, women lacked solidarity as a sex. Their first tie was to their class. The interests of the bourgeois women and those of (p.66) the proletarian women didn’t intersect. Revolutionary feminism took up the Saint-Simonian and marxist tradition. It should be noted, moreover, that a Louise Michel declared herself against feminism because this movement merely diverts forces which ought to be entirely employed in the class struggle; women’s fate will be determined by the abolition of capital.

(Beauvoir 1949, I, 205)

By the time Beauvoir arrives at the feminist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, socialist feminism has pretty much disappeared from the English edition. When Parshley finally leaves in the slightly obscure reference to social feminism, fairly late in the discussion: “The situation was complicated: to revolutionary feminism and the ‘independent’ feminism of Mme Brunschwig was added a Christian feminism…” (Beauvoir 1970, 138), the reader is hopelessly lost. What revolutionary feminism, she asks? But Parshley has left no answer.

Philosophical Misinterpretation

Deletions can destroy the continuity of an author’s thought, as they do in the history chapter of The Second Sex or mask an author’s debt to other writers and their works, as the massive cuts from Book II, obscure the influence on Beauvoir of writers such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Colette, Virginia Woolf, Colette Audry, Bachelard, and Violette Leduc. But inaccurate or inconsistent translations of key philosophical terminology can do as much, if not more, damage to an author by misrepresenting her ideas and obscuring her links to a philosophical tradition.

For instance, Beauvoir is careful, in The Second Sex to use the Sartrean phrase, “la réalité humaine,” when describing human existence, in order to differentiate it from the life of lower beings who are defined by their “nature.” Human existence has at least the potential to transcend nature and define itself through creative action. But Parshley translated “la réalité humaine” as “the real nature of man” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 40; 1970, 7), which, as Beauvoir has remarked to me, is exactly its opposite meaning.

Parshley also reverses the meaning of another distinctive phrase from existentialism, “being for-itself” [pour-soi], which refers to human consciousness, once again in contrast to those beings who lack consciousness and, following the dictates of nature, live at the level of the “in-itself” [en-soi]. In her phenomenological analysis of woman’s oppression, Beauvoir (p.67) writes that: “woman knows and chooses herself not so much as she exists for herself [pour soi] but as man defines her” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 228).

In his translation Parshley not only reversed the meaning of “for-itself,” equating it with nature; he actually replaced it with the technical phrase, “in itself,” with the opposite meaning: “woman sees herself and makes her choices not in accordance with her true nature in itself, but as man defines her” (Beauvoir 1970, 155).

In another passage Parshley once again missed (and destroyed) a philosophical point in a mistranslation. Explaining that a boy, like a girl, is conscious of how he appears in the eyes of another person, Beauvoir writes: “Certainly, he also experiences himself as ‘for-others’ [pour autrui] …” (Beauvoir 1949, II, 27). Parshley’s translation eliminated the distinctive phrase, “for-others,” and rendered the sentence as: “Certainly he tests himself also as if he were another…” (Beauvoir 1970, 315). Just how the boy does that; what, in fact, it is, certainly isn’t clear to the reader (nor, I think, to Parshley).

In case you’re thinking that Parshley’s translations might at least eliminate some of the hyphens that plague phenomenological writings, consider the following example. Parshley translates Beauvoir’s phrase, “her being-for-men,” as “what-in-men’s-eye-she-seems-to-be” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 228; 1970, 155).

Expression like “being for-itself,” “in-itself,” or “for-others” may not be immediately obvious in their meaning; but an interested reader could find an explanation of these technical expressions because they belong to the accepted vocabulary of existential phenomenology. Far from simplifying Beauvoir’s language in a way that would make her ideas clearer, and more accessible to an American audience, which was evidently the translator’s intention, these mistranslations have the opposite effect. They make Beauvoir’s ideas less accessible and unfortunately, give the impression to the English speaking audience that Beauvoir is a sloppy writer, and thinker.

They often have the additional consequence of obscuring the philosophical context of Beauvoir’s work. Rendering the title of Book II, L’expérience vécue, as “Woman’s Life Today” rather than, more accurately, as “Lived Experience” effectively masks the significance of the work as a phenomenological description (a factor which might contribute, but not fully account for the nearly universal failure of contemporary American phenomenologists to acknowledge the contribution of Beauvoir in The Second Sex to the articulation of a phenomenological analysis of the social world).3

(p.68) Beauvoir’s use of marxist and existentialist concepts which identify her philosophical orientation is further obscured by Parshley’s practice of translating important terms one way in one location, and another way elsewhere. For example, Beauvoir uses the marxian concept of “mystification” quite often in the French edition; but, in the English translation, Parshley variously translated it as “hoax” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 228; 1970, 154), “mockery” (Beauvoir 1949, I, 222; 1970, 149) or even “mystification.”

Alienation is an Hegelian concept important to both Marxism and existentialism. But Parshley inconsistently translated it as “projection” (Beauvoir 1949, II, 25; 1970, 313), or “identification” (Beauvoir 1949, II, 24; 1970, 313). Mistaking alienation for identification is particularly misleading since existentialists like Sartre and Beauvoir use the concept of identification, and especially that of self-identity, very critically, if at all.

Were these deletions and mistranslations the result of some kind of sexist plot to undermine Beauvoir’s work? Probably not. Mr. Parshley may have been bored by history, and no philosopher, but his “Translator’s Preface” to The Second Sex reveals his warm and genuine appreciation for Beauvoir’s book. We owe him and Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher, a debt of gratitude for bringing out the first English translation of The Second Sex so soon after its publication in France.

But neither the publisher, who apparently insisted on the deletions, nor Mr. Parshley, who considered a careful study of existentialism unnecessary, (“Mlle de Beauvoir’s book is, after all on woman, not on philosophy,” he tells us in his “Preface”) (Beauvoir 1970, vi), anticipated the women’s studies movement and the seriousness with which women would study feminist philosophy.

Mr. Parshley remarks, almost casually, in the “Preface” that he has “done some cutting and condensation here and there with a view to brevity.” He was apparently equally as casual in seeking Beauvoir’s permission. “Practically all such modifications,” he writes, “have been made with the author’s express permission” (Beauvoir 1970, x) (my italics).

That Beauvoir did not realize the dimension of the problem in the English translation until recently is evident from a letter she wrote me in response to this article: “I was dismayed to learn the extent to which Mr. Parshley misrepresented me. I wish with all my heart that you will be able to publish a new translation of it.”

Beauvoir has just celebrated her seventy-fifth birthday. Publishing a new, authoritative translation of her most influential work would be a wonderful way to celebrate that event and honor her for her contribution to American women and feminist history.


Bibliography references:

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1949. Le deuxième sexe: I. Les faites et les mythes: II. L’expérience vécue, 2 vols. Paris: Gallimard.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1952. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1970. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M Parshley. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.

McBride, William. 1981. “Sartre and Lived Experience.” Research in Phenomenology 11(1):75–89. (p.70)


(1.) This article first appeared in Women’s Studies International Forum 6(5): 559–564, 1983.

(2.) The Second Sex published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York in 1952; all feature references to the English translation will refer to the most recent paperback edition by Random House, Vintage Books, 1970.

(3.) I am indebted to William McBride for pointing out this example of mistranslation in his article (McBride, 1981).