Translation Problems

Not long ago I chastised Paul Muldoon for his bad translation of one Aimé Césaire poem in the New Yorker. In connection to that post, old friend Paul Buck in England send me a e-piece (that only reached me today in its printed version) that takes a more serious mistranslation to task — & does so in great depth while giving a needed historical introduction to the book and its earlier translation. I could only wish that translations would more often get this kind of detailed treatment — the bad ones (of which there are more than enough, unhappily) but the good ones as well. So I suggest that readers interested in matters of translation & even those simply interested in foreign literatures (as this article will tell them how publishers easily foist obviously incompetent translations on unwary readers) have a look at Tori Moi’s “The Adultreress Wife,” in the current issue of the London Review of Books. It is a scathing commentary on the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier — here,  a few paragraphs to whet your appetite:

The book is marred by unidiomatic or unintelligible phrases and clueless syntax; by expressions such as ‘the forger being’, ‘man’s work equal’, ‘the adulteress wife’, and ‘leisure in château life’; and formulations such as ‘because since woman is certainly to a large extent man’s invention’, ‘a condition unique to France is that of the unmarried woman’, ‘alone she does not succeed in separating herself in reality’, ‘this uncoupling can occur in a maternal form.’ The translation is blighted by the constant use of ‘false friends’, words that sound the same but don’t mean the same in the two languages.

And then there are the howlers. A character in Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides is made to kill her husband ‘in a fit of passion’, when what she really does is kill him ‘par l’excès de sa passion’ (‘by her excessive passion’). In the chapter on ‘The Married Woman’, Beauvoir quotes the famous line from Balzac’s Physiologie du mariage: ‘Ne commencez jamais le mariage par un viol’ (‘Never begin marriage by a rape’). Borde and Malovany-Chevallier write: ‘Do not begin marriage by a violation of law.’

At one point, Beauvoir discusses Hegel’s analysis of sex. In the new translation, a brief quotation from The Philosophy of Nature ends with the puzzling claim: ‘This is mates coupling.’ Mates coupling? What does Hegel mean? It turns out that in Beauvoir’s French version, Hegel says, ‘C’est l’accouplement’; A.V. Miller’s translation of The Philosophy of Nature uses the obvious term, ‘copulation’.

In a discussion of male sexuality, Beauvoir points out that men can get pleasure from just about any woman. As evidence she mentions ‘la prospérité de certaines “maisons d’abattage”’, which Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate as ‘the success of certain “slaughter-houses”’. But for a prostitute, faire de l’abattage is to get through customers quickly; as the context makes abundantly clear, a maison d’abattage is not an abattoir, but a brothel specialising in a quick turnover.

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12 Responses

  1. Jesse Drury says:

    Some of those translations are more than a little excruciating. What do you imagine is the reason for such poor translation? Assuming Borde and Malovany-Chevallier are masters of both languages, why might someone offer up these translations? I can only imagine that they translated the text without any regard for its communication, a failure to read the book as an utterance. Some of these are like the shoddy translations of a machine. Then, again, even a machine wouldn’t translate “par l’excès de sa passion” into “in a fit of passion.” “iTranslate” on my iPhone in fact offered “by her excessive passion.” (sigh).

    • admin says:

      I think the problem is with “Assuming Borde and Malovany-Chevallier are masters of both languages” — clearly they are not — so then, why did they get the job? Well, if you read Moi’s complete article you’ll see how those things work: it has more to do with whom you know & where you are at the right time, plus a press’ relative disinterest in & actual ignorance of matters to do with translation that are in play. So, read the whole peice & not just my extracts to get a sense of what’s going on.

  2. I am mildly amused by the listing of the various mistranslations, so much so that I actually want to read this. “Viol” and “violation of the law”.

  3. Jesse Drury says:

    I did read the whole piece before my initial comment. And I do understand the realities of publishing. But I want to stress how odd it seems to me that these American translators can with better success translate from English-French, teach courses to French students, and live in France for fifty years, and still bungle this translation to the point that any educated person can see the gravity of the errors here. In some sense they must be masters of both languages, at least in the sense that they can occupy professional positions as scholars. Is it just that they lack a mastery for translation? In what does this mastery consist in besides fluency? It almost feels at some points… that they have lost their mastery of English. Their end-product here certainly isn’t good English and certain misunderstandings of English connotation like that of “virile” seems to stem from this inadequacy.

  4. Joe Amato says:

    Having just read the Moi piece, I’d say this is a fuck-up of monumental proportions, and esp. sad for feminist history. It almost sounds as if the translators got caught up in a theoretical vocabulary — not Beauvoir’s, but that of her successors in Continental theory (decades of same) — that undermined their best intentions. (For instance, this question of “woman” vs. “a woman” — might be just me, but I hear Lacan hovering around in the background.) Not blaming theory on this, you understand, but simply to observe that an incomplete grasp of theory might have muddied the waters all around. What a debacle.

  5. Lucas says:

    I blame the editors. While the translators seem unprepared for the job, I wonder why the editors felt like they had “the perfect translators.” As for their errors, they seem to me the stuff of a first draft–could the translation have come out better if the translators had been given more time to turn in their revisions, or if they had had the benefit of an editor who cared about their translation?

    In a separate thought, while “foreignization” does not appear in Moi’s article, this translation seems to be an example of what can go wrong when translators try too hard to emphasize the foreignness of the text, and overshoot the mark.

  6. My only comment is that I think it is absurd to take the word of one reviewer as gospel. I found the review extremely negative in a personal sense, and only wonder if there is a terratorial issue here. Other reviews have been very positive, and I do not find the problems Moi does in reading this translation. In fact, I feel the translators have caught Beauvoir’s voice exceptionally well. Are there a few errors? Of course, it is a first edition, and a huge undertaking. Don’t accept Moi’s pronouncements as the final word. read it yourself.

  7. I would like to respond to the Toril Moi review of this book

    The Editor, London Review of Books February 18, 2010
    28 Little Russell Street
    London WC1A2HN
    United Kingdom

    To The Editor:

    I am not a regular reader of your publication, as I am a resident of Vermont in the USA. However, I was just googling the new translation of Le Dѐuxieme Sex, which I ordered months ago from the UK, to see when it will be available on our shores, as I want to purchase some copies as gifts. In so doing, I came across Toril Moi’s review of the book in your publication .

    I am writing this as a reader, and not as a scholar. I don’t read French at the level required to engage with Moi on a point by point discussion. I am sure that the new translation has some problems. This is, after all, a 1,000 page manuscript in its first printing. There were bound to be some minor errors which will undoubtedly be corrected in future printings.

    But I really wonder if there might be something personal behind this mean-spirited and devastating review. To my understanding from reading other reviews, the joy of this translation is that it stays right on the mark and translates de Beauvoir exactly as it was written, with no thought to pandering to contemporary preferences. I do not see this as a negative. A French scholar, with whom I am acquainted, told me that in this fresh and faithful translation, the English phrasing brilliantly parallels the French, and superbly captures the essence of Simone de Beauvoir’s distinctive voice — in spite of Beauvoir’s complex language structures. And is this not what the critics of Pashley’s translation have been crying for for decades?

    A different reviewer, Janine de Giovanni, has said “Now that there’s a new and more accurate, nuanced, clear version of de Beauvoir’s vision, now that it is amplified, I can’t wait to see its influence renewed, reshaped, and initiated all over again.” And Joan Smith writes “It is a fine piece of work, a lucid translation which stays close to Beauvoir’s syntax and lengthy (though not rambling) sentence structure.”

    There will always be reviewers who read a translation alongside its original and pick apart every decision that they themselves would have made differently. This is not to say that actual mistakes shouldn’t be pointed out, of course, and every translation has some. But I believe this review to be totally unbalanced, and filled with an over concern with minutia and with what seems like personal, territorial venom. Some of what she heralds as serious and significant errors instead seem to be totally acceptable variables.

    In so many, many ways, the new translation has is right. Just one of the things I noticed: In the old translation, Beauvoir’s treatment of motherhood appeared to be distant, and cold. Parshley had Beauvoir saying that in spite of the availability of nurseries, having a child was enough to “paralyze a woman entirely.” But day care did not exist in France or much or anywhere else when this was written, so I cannot imagine what Parshley was trying to say. Certainly not what de Beauvoir said which is now accurately translated as “[G]iven the lack of well-organized day nurseries and kindergartens, even one child is enough to entirely paralyze a woman’s activities.”

    Much of what your reviewer mentions is either trivial or depends on her misunderstanding, to my mind, of English syntax and its flexibility. She seems to take joy at finding the smallest things to attack. I strongly urge readers not to blindly follow the narrow opinions of one person, but to read the new translation and form their own opinions. Readers should take joy that a complete and well-done translation has finally arrived

  8. I neglected to mention that the above letter was sent to The London Review of Books.

  9. Emory says:

    Nice post. kicks ass.

  10. telef says:

    I believe that these translations were first done using a translation software – apparently it looks like passable translation but later on one can see the lacunae you mentioned.

  11. Hugh says:

    I personally agree with some of the previous comments and believe that these translations were probably reeled off an inaccurate automated language translation tool. It just highlights what a shame it is when language translations stray so far from their original meaning. This applies to all forms of literature, from a bad translation of an Aimé Césaire poem to a legal document.

    I personally believe people should leave language translation to a professional language translation company instead of attempting to do it themselves with inaccurate translation tools.

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