Translating The Second Sex into Swedish
Version française ICI.
By Åsa Moberg
Followed by an interview with the author
Thanks to Astarita Yolanda Paterson, and Margaret A. Simons after her, we know the story of how Le Deuxième Sexe, written by Simone de Beauvoir and published in France in 1949, was translated into English by H. M. Parshley and published in the United States in 1954. He defended his translation against the publisher’s efforts to erase “difficult” passages and make this groundbreaking feminist œuvre more like the European Kinsey-report they had expected it to be, when engaging a professor of zoology specialized in reproduction to translate it. Parshley worked with passion, but he was not a philosopher and received no help from the author.
The Swedish feminist philosopher and Beauvoir-scholar Eva Gothlin contacted me to ask if I could consider making a new translation of Le Deuxième Sexe into Swedish. We had lengthy discussions about various translations of this widespread work by Simone de Beauvoir. All translations we had seen, except German one, seemed to have been shortened, in different ways. The first Swedish translation (1973) was a very bad case: only half of the original was included, and there was a reference to a shortened French soft-cover-version. At that time we had no knowledge of a French shortened edition (such an edition did exist, 1968, collection “Idées” Gallimard). The two Swedish translators had died and the publisher no longer existed. All we could find out was that they did translate the entire work, but the publisher cut so much before printing that Le Deuxième Sexe in Swedish seemed censored. It lacked entire chapters, such as “The Psychoanalytical Point of View” and most of the historical overview and of the “Biological Data” were missing. In the section about “Myths”, parts had been cut here and there, as well as all the five literary analyses.
In the “Lived Experience”, the second volume of the essay, bits were also cut in all chapters, and some were left out altogether, such as “The Lesbian”, “Social Life”, “Prostitutes and Hetairs”, as well as most of the content under “Justification”: Nothing was left of “The Narcissist” or “The Mystic”, and a lot was cut in “The Woman in Love”. Some surprising cuts were also made in the final chapter, “The Independent Woman”.
In fact, only one chapter was left untouched, “The Point of View of Historical Materialism”. This way of editing can be seen as a trace of the 1973 political climate in Sweden, where psychoanalysis, religious questions and lesbianism were very little discussed and historical materialism very much – just the opposite of today, almost 50 years later. To me, this became a warning of how translation of a classical literary work (or even of a non-literary work) should not be done. No one can tell what part of a book will be interesting next year, or the next decade or century.
Eva Gothlin also hoped for a new translation of Le Deuxième Sexe into English, but she did not live long enough to see that wish fulfilled (the new English translation was published in 2009 by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier). She died of cancer shortly before her fiftieth birthday in 2006. She was sad over the fact that Parshley had diminished Beauvoir’s work, inconsequently using non-philosophical terms, and thereby contributing to the fact that she was not seen as a philosopher in her own right. This was part of the background for her own doctoral thesis, Kön och existens – studier i Simone de Beauvoirs Le Deuxième Sexe (Daidalos 1991), which I reviewed in the popular tabloid Aftonbladet. (In English Sex and Existence: Simone de Beauvoir’s The second sex, Athlone, translated from Swedish by Linda Schenck, 1996 ; in French, Sexe et existence: la philosophie de Simone de Beauvoir, Michalon, traduit de l’Anglais par Michel Kail et Marie Ploux; Préface de Michel Kail, 2001). She had not been able to use the 1973 Swedish translation of The Second Sex for the original version of her book: either the quotes she wanted were missing, or they misrepresented the philosophical content in Beauvoir’s original.
It was so well written and so interesting! Not many academic texts are reviewed by mainstream media, and very few Swedish works of that category reaches outside Sweden. The translations into English and French met the same kind of positive media-response abroad. This international reputation did not facilitate Eva Gothlin’s academic work in Sweden, rather the contrary.
When she got in touch with me, I had, by sheer coincidence, already translated two books: Sexicon, a Danish dictionary about sex and love for teenagers, and Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel Les Mandarins, published in Swedish for the first time in 1992. I had translated it with my companion at the time, Adam Inczèdy-Gombos.
I had fallen in love with Les Mandarins when I read it to console myself in sleepless nights during the first year after the death of the first great love of my life, photographer, documentary filmmaker and psychotherapist Tor-Ivan Odulf (1930-1988). I met him when I was 16 and moved into his home at 17. When he died in December 1988, we had spent 24 years together. In September 1989, I planned a journey to New York City, to meet a man I was interested in. My writer friend Birgitta Stenberg said that I had to read a novel by Simone de Beauvoir about a French woman who goes to the States and meets a man: “A wonderful love story, even if it lacks a happy ending.” (My own love story would end in a similar way, but I had not read as far as the love story until I was already in New York.)
I ordered the novel from the local library in Malung in Dalecarlia, Dalarna in Swedish, where I lived at the time, close to the Norweigan border, some three hours by car northeast of Olso. When I got to the library to pick up the book, it turned out it was not translated into Swedish. So, I got the French original. I brought it home and reported to Birgitta Stenberg that I would not be able to read it: I had never read a book in French! Two years of French in college more than twenty years earlier was not enough, not even combined with a three-week summer-course at the university of Lausanne at the age of 16. She said: “You must try the first twenty pages. If you still want to return the book then, you may do so.”
She was right. After twenty pages I was hooked by the beauty of this language that I could barely understand. I decided not to use a dictionary, because it would have only slowed down my reading, which was already extremely slow: one page took a couple of hours to get through.
I only looked in the dictionary for words that were repeated many times, if I could not guess their meaning. Such as engloutir – a key word in all Beauvoir’s writings. I sometimes got the impression that she was such a manic writer to protect experiences – not her personal life but her experiences as an example of human life – from vanishing, as they are doomed to.
When I investigated the question of Swedish literary rights for this magnificent novel, I ended up at the publishing house Norstedts, where editor Erland Törngren explained to me that they had received many propositions from people with academic grades in French who wanted to translate it, but none of their submitted trials had been approved. Their Swedish was not good enough. “You write Swedish very well, we know that”, he said. He asked if I could consider translating it myself. But I had barely been able to read it? I hardly knew French?
The problem is the language you translate into. You can always get assistance with the language you translate from. Consider people you know, or have known. You know a lot of people, someone must be good in French. Translate a few pages of your own choice and we’ll see.
I did so and got the contract. I remembered a former neighbor, Adam Inczèdy-Gombos, Hungarian baron who grew up in Paris and Switzerland, photographer who turned out to live in Paris, where I went to propose the translation project to him. He had spent much of his adult life in Sweden, where he arrived at 15 to join his divorced Hungarian mother who had married a Swede. He first said no, but then changed his mind and came to my rescue. I lived on a small island in the middle of a small lake, where he got his own house. I earned my living as a freelance-writer, covering television as my main field. He became a cook and translation partner, and after a year also my companion. The Mandarins was well received when it was published in Swedish for the first time in 1992, shortly after Eva Gothlin’s Sex and Existence – A study of Le Deuxième Sexe.
A few years later, Norstedts also published “Simone and I – thinking about Simone de Beauvoir” (Simone och jag – tankar kring Simone de Beauvoir, Norstedts, 1996, also published in Danish 1997 and in Norweigan 1998), a book where I reported my fascination, and my ambition to read everything Beauvoir had ever published, a promise to myself not yet fulfilled. I was a journalist who had started working as a columnist at 20, not a translator, and absolutely not a philosopher. I never had time for studies. Eva Gothlin was an academic. She said she would find the money for a new translation of Le Deuxième Sexe and that she would help me with the philosophical vocabulary.
When I, together with Adam Inczèdy-Gombos and Eva Gothlin, got the assignment to make the first complete translation of Le Deuxième Sexe into Swedish in 1997, we wanted it to be published in 1999, fifty years after the original. This work has surprised readers and translators in many ways. Sweden was only one of several countries where a new translation of Le Deuxième Sexe was published around the year 2000, in our case 2002, after a five years struggle. The money for the project was (as usual for translations) not enough, so we all worked with other things too: Eva at the Gothenburg University, Adam and I with photography and journalism. All three of us were deeply involved – and many of our friends and relatives as well. Anyone who was interested and happened be within a “asking range” got in involved in finding Beauvoir’s many quotes in Swedish translations of books she refers to. We then discovered that most of the translations we looked into had suffered the same fate as Le Deuxième Sexe in the 1973 Swedish edition: they were not complete.
The respect for translation as an art in itself has grown considerably during the decades that have passed. The adventure of translating Simone de Beauvoir opened a whole new world to me: first one of French culture and language, second one of interesting thoughts and interesting people, international conferences, and for me personally lecturing to various audiences in Sweden. Whatever you focus on, Simone de Beauvoir always attracts a big audience.
I wish to express special thanks to Yolanda Astarita Paterson, then chairperson of the International Simone de Beauvoir Society, for her very respectful way of welcoming non-academic new members.
Interview with the author
Marine Rouch: You write that the first translators of Le Deuxième Sexe into Swedish had translated the entire work but that the editor made major cuts. It is a process that seems to be repeated when it comes to translating Le Deuxième Sexe (but not only in this particular case, as you pointed out in your text). Do you know why in this specific case? Do we know the reasons given by the editor?
Åsa Moberg: No. We did try to find out, and our editor at Norstedts told us that it was his deceased mother who was then the responsible editor in 1973. The publishing house, Geber, later merged with Norstedts. All three involved in 70s (the editor and the two translators) were dead in the late 90s, so we were unable to obtain details on the reasons for these cuts.
MR: About this first translation: was it composed of one or two volumes, like the original French? Was it published along with a preface? Was there a word from the translators? Did they add notes in the text?
ÅM: There were two volumes: part I was translated by Inger Bjurström and published in 1973 and part II was translated by Anna Pyk, published in 1976. There was no word from the translators, and, at least in the books I own, no preface or notes.
MR: Do you think the Second-wave feminism had an impact in the decision to translate into Swedish such a book for the first time in the 70s? Were the first translators feminist? What about the editor?
ÅM: I suppose the answer is yes, for all of those questions. At least I can say for sure that the Second-wave feminism definitely was important.
MR: You write in your text that Eva Gothlin told you that she would find the money for a new translation. Do you know where she got the money from? Was it a gender/feminist studies organization that helped?
ÅM:The name of the foundation is indicated in the book, at least in the first edition: “Boken utges med stöd från Erik och Gurli Hultengrens fond för filosofi” (“The book is published with support from Erik and Gurli Hultengren’s foundation for philosophy”). Eva did not say anything more about the foundation, but I know it was not enough to cover the entire work. The publishing house must have spent some of its own money, and we as translators donated quite some free time, as our fee was fixed from the beginning, per page I think, according to the recommendations from the Writers and translators union, where I was (and still am) a member.
MR: You write that Eva Gothlin did not benefit, in the Swedish academic system, from her international reputation after the publication of her now famous book. Could you shortly explain why? Was it because of her interest in Beauvoir? This is interesting because one commonly writes that Beauvoir Studies developed early in Scandinavia and in the US. The case of Eva shows that the institutionalization was not as easy as one might think.
ÅM: I think she became a victim of sheer envy. I’ve written some lines about that in my autobiography (2017) and professor emeritus Sven-Eric Liedman wrote me a letter of protest, claiming I had misunderstood the situation. But I did not misunderstand her feeling of being underestimated and overlooked in the academic career-system (a very hard thing to understand for an outsider). She had a professional status for a few years as head of Nationella sekretariatet för genusforsknin (The National center for Gender Studies), in Gothenburg, and that entire institution was the object of much hatred from anti-feminist scholars.
MR: Which editor published your new translation? Do they have a specificity? Do they a history in translating feminist/Gender studies books?
ÅM: Norstedts was our publishing house. It was a well-established publisher of all sorts of literature, including feminist.
MR: Was your translation published with a preface, comments from the translators, notes etc.? Was it composed of one or two volumes?
ÅM: It was one volume, very heavy! The soft cover version was also one volume. Eva Gothlin wrote a very good preface, 12 pages in the book, placing it in the context of its time and philosophy. We added notes, inspired by the then most recent German translation; a very good one, in my opinion.
MR: If I understand well, you used the French version to translate from, didn’t you? Do you know which version (original French, English or other) was used for the 1973 translation?
ÅM: The French, I’m sure, since Swedish women with any interest in literature generally knew French in the 70s, (not always now) and I know that Bjurström and Pyk (the first translators) had strong ties to France.
MR: Can you explain how your new translation has been received in the media, in academic circles and in the feminist movement?
ÅM: It was very well received everywhere. I had been looking forward to giving lectures with Eva, who became ill the same year as the publication. So, I did the lecturing on my own, very sadly.
MR: Do you know if there are studies of the first swedish translation, in Swedish or in English? Was and is Le Deuxième Sexe commented today in Sweden?
ÅM: I don’t know of any other studies. One of the few things I regret in my professional life is not ignoring the publisher’s “no” when I asked if they would consider publishing a non-academic book at the same time as The Second Sex: Åsa Moberg, Diary from translating The Second Sex. Since the answer was no, I did not even write such a diary for myself privately. I would have loved to have it, and I’m sure someone would have published at least parts of it sooner or later.
MR: How did you translate ”On ne naît pas femme : on le devient” into Swedish? Was it difficult to translate the philosophical concept of ”devenir”? Do you remember discussing it with your team?
ÅM: We discussed pretty much every word, but the famous sentence was “easy” in Swedish. It resembles the German version. Our Swedish version was: ”Man föds inte till kvinna, man blir det” I believe it’s the same as in the 1973 translation. When I google this famous sentence in Swedish, I get 1 280 000 examples… When Adam joined me at some library-lectures, he used to add: “Man föds till man och tyvärr förblir man det.” You are born male, and unfortunately you remain that.
While we were working with this project, I used to say: when I retire, I will devore myself to a comparative study of translations of The Second Sex in all languages that I know well enough to judge their quality, which would mean Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, German, English. And knowing the book as well as I do by having read it in those languages, I should also add Spanish, Italian and Portuguese… It still sounds like an interesting project, but I will never dive into it! But maybe, who knows, I’ll take another one from the list I made during the translation-years: “The Second Sex as an autobiographical text”, Or maybe someone else has already written that? I wish someone would, because I’m not likely to do that one either.
Åsa Moberg, born 1947, author, translator and free lance journalist, aspired to become a textile artist but in the spring of 1968, she became a columnist for the daily tabloid Aftonbladet, where she remained until 1980. From 1986 to 1996, she worked as a TV critic for the same newspaper. She is now contributing to the cultural page of Helsingborgs Dagblad. She published 23 books, none of them translated into English. Some titles: Simone and I – Thinking about Simone De Beauvoir (1996); Adam’s book (1999), a book about life with bipolar disorder, co-authored with Adam Inczèdy-Gombos (co-translator of The Second Sex); She was no Florence Nightingale -The person behind the myth (2007) is a biography of Nightingale that also points to interesting parallels between Nightingale and Beauvoir, two skilled writers, social thinkers witnesses to their times; An extremely expensive and life-threatening technique for heating water – A book about nuclear power (2004); The Impossibles (2020), with co-writer Anna Frederiksson, is a book about the development of psychiatric care in Sweden. She also published articles in Simone de Beauvoir Studies: “Simone de Beauvoir and I: a role model behind the myth” (1997); “Why did Simone de Beauvoir make no mention of Florence Nightingale in The Second Sex?” (2009) and “On the importance of female friendship” (2012).
Chaperon Sylvie, « La réception du Deuxième Sexe en Europe », Encyclopédie pour une histoire nouvelle de l’Europe [en ligne], 2016, mis en ligne le 02/02/2017, Permalien : https://ehne.fr/node/951
Mann Bonnie, Ferrari Martina (dirs), On ne naît pas femme, on le devient. The life of a sentence, Etats-Unis, Oxford University Press, 2017.
Patterson Yolanda, “Who was this H. M. Parshley? The saga of translating Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.” Simone de Beauvoir Studies, n°9, 1992, p.41-47.
Patterson Yolanda, « H. M. Parshley et son combat contre l’amputation de la version américaine », in Sylvie CHAPERON et Christine DELPHY (dirs.), Cinquantenaire du Deuxième sexe. Colloque international Simone de Beauvoir, Paris, Éd. Syllepse, 2002, p. 475-481.
Simons Margaret A., “The silencing of Simone de Beauvoir guess what’s missing from the second sex”, Women’s Studies International Forum, Volume 6, Issue 5, 1983, p. 559-564.
To cite this article: Åsa Moberg, “Translating The Second Sex into Swedish”, followed by an interview with the author, Chère Simone de Beauvoir, juin 2021. URL: https://lirecrire.hypotheses.org/3455