Language Police on The Second Sex

It’s great to see works of literary translation carefully reviewed. (And I include philosophy, theory and creative non-fiction in my definition of literary. In fact, I define literary translation as the translation of any text that requires careful attention to style.) But ouch. Following a rather academic summary of de Beauvoir’s seminal The Second Sex, the reviewer of the new translation picks apart the translators’ work. I don’t read French at the level required to engage with de Beauvoir in her own words. And from reading this review, I’m persuaded that the new translation is full of problems. But I do wonder if the grounds for this devestating review is not a something a bit more personal as well.

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier dismissed doubts about their competence. They explained that they first heard about the problems with the English translation at the 50th anniversary conference on The Second Sex in Paris. After the conference, they contacted a former student, Anne-Solange Noble, the director of foreign rights at Gallimard, to propose themselves for the job, and in due course Noble told Allfrey that she ‘already knew the perfect translators’.

Do I detect an accusation of nepotism? Perhaps a bit of crony-ism thrown in for good measure?  A dash of “I was there first”? These things may all well be true, but frankly that’s how publishing (and most other business) works more often than not. In any case, these things alone are not grounds for a review of this absolute negativity. And the implications they have for the reviewers motives make me doubt somewhat the reviewer’s take on the translation.

Someone, I think Lawrence Venuti, writes about the dangers of having literary translation beholden to the ‘language police’ – the people who read a translation alongside its original and pick apart every decision that they would have made differently. This is not to say that actual mistakes shouldn’t be pointed out, of course. But that perhaps a bit more balance (point out some of their good decisions too) and a little less bitterness would go a long way.

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