Authors on Authors
This week, Laurel Zuckerman talks with two remarkable women, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany Chevallier, who recently completed the new and critically accaimed translation of Simone de Beauvoir's landmark work: The Second Sex.
Professors, political activists, writers and intellectuals in the best sense of the term, Connie and Sheila have worked together on an astonishing variety of projects, setting a standard for what Americans in Paris can accomplish thanks to hard work, talent and friendship.
Constance Borde: I think she would have cheered to see that women are making it back into history books where “her” story had long been obliterated.
Sheila Malovony Chevallier: She was fascinated by history and read deeply and widely in it; so that's another reason she would have been interested and supportive of it.
LZ The Second Sex is not your first collaboration. What was? La Cuisine Américaine? Or yet another project? How did you start working together?
CB: We started with grammar books and the “My English is French” idea, back in the 80’s. Then the American cookbooks (in French). Then “Focus on American Democracy” and Magic English, a project for teaching English to children. That series still exists today. All of that was while we were teaching American Studies and American lit at Sciences Po.
CB & SMC : Connie came to marry her French boyfriend, Dominique, her now 46-year husband. Sheila came with Bill Chevallier, her boyfriend.
LZ: Which book influenced you the most?
CB & SMC : Dare we say The Second Sex?
LZ: How did you get involved in The Second Sex project?
CB & SMC : The faulty first translation of The Second Sex and the need for a new one was our inspiration. But going from wanting the project and getting it was a saga. We’ll talk about that at length.
LZ: What was your biggest challenge in translating this iconic work?
CB & SMC : Putting Simone de Beauvoir the philosopher back into the work.
LZ: What kind of research did you have to undertake? Might another work come out of that research?
CB & SMC : Good question. The research was an integral part of the translation. We read and researched almost of all of the multitude of writers (many women, but also St. Augustine, Montaigne, Aeschylus, D.H. Lawrence, etc.), historical figures, philosophers and anthropologists (Freud, Hegel, Merleau-Ponty, Levi-Stauss. Wilhelm Stekel and others) to understand the context of Simone de Beauvoir’s references as well as the English vocabulary and expression. We could not have translated her without doing this. And we do feel that now that a complete and faithful English translation exists, it would be a good idea to have an accompanying annotated version of The Second Sex. We do not necessarily think that we would be the ones to do such a research work, but we could certainly contribute our accumulated notes. Other work is already coming out, based on the research we did: we’ve been invited to write a paper on Colette (SdB quoted and cited her perhaps more than any other writer) and two others for academic journals based on our translation work. And we have other ideas that we want to develop, but we've been on the road, so to speak, since the book came out, speaking as of now at perhaps 40 institutions, mostly in the USA and doing all the arranging ourselves. Very time consuming and we're still very much in the thick of discussing our own translation, the history, the process, the relevance, and so we haven't yet been able to devote ourselves to working up the other ideas.
LZ: Of all the things you learned about Simone de Beauvoir, what surprised you the most?
CB & SMC : How truly she laid the ground for a new way of thinking and talking about women. Also how revolutionary she was from a social and anthropological perspective. This book was a real earthquake; it changed the world. It's not only been called a Bible but also a blueprint for galvanizing women, for showing them the underpinning of their "secondness"!
LZ: When you read her, does she seem like a modern woman today? What can a young (or less young) woman learn from her in the 21th century?
CB & SMC : What Beauvoir has to say about women is timeless. Her perspective is completely intellectual — not to say philosophical. It is not anecdotal; it lays the premise for a kind of thinking about freedom and equality that can be applied to any master-slave situation. Young or old, we can all benefit from the intellectual framework of her thinking.
LZ: Is feminism dead? What is feminism today? Who, if anyone, are its leaders today? And if it exists, where is it?
CB & SMC : I think we have to understand that each generation likes to ignore past thinking and to believe it is building something new, of its own. Whether women today recognize second-wave feminism (of the 70’s) or not, they are surely building on a world that was created then. It’s up to them to carry on, and they do. Gender studies continue to build on the openings created during that period; women in corporate positions, on boards, women in the world of art and culture, women scientists - women in all areas - are considered “normal” and no longer the exception. Of course, there’s a long way to go, but no one would think of going back to a pre-1949 way of thinking about women.
LZ: On publication of the book, invitations poured in from all the best universities and organizations from over the world. You’re practically rock stars! What has that been like? Did you expect such an immense reaction this work?
CB & SMC : Amazing, and we love it. We are not really surprised about the interest because during the years we worked on the translation, we discovered a tremendous amount of work being done on Simone de Beauvoir. There are hundreds of articles and books analyzing her life (inseparable from her writing and her philosophy), her work and her historical importance. There are SdB studies, study groups and societies. I think we knew that a big audience was waiting for this integral translation. What we didn’t know was that even people who have barely heard of SdB are fascinated by the role she played in the Western (and other) world. On a personal level, though, the work of translating was so all-encompassing, so gripping, so full that we didn't think of the after-life of it.
LZ: Writing is a lonely occupation, and many writers struggle to combat the isolation imposed on them by their profession. Do you also write alone ?
CB & SMC : We treasure working together. We bounce back ideas, deepen our understanding of the ideas by discussing them, by understanding an idea or a thought first differently and then sharing that, and we catch each other when we make mistakes! Our relationship is infinitely satisfying.
LZ: What are your next projects, individually and in collaboration ?
CB & SMC : We are writing articles and lecturing on the subject for now.
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, translated into English by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany Chevallier is available in at the Village Voice, The Red Wheelbarrow and other fine bookstores--and also, of course, on the internet. We are delighted that Shelia and Connie will inaugurate the PAN writers series on April 5th in Paris. RSVP to pariswritersnews at gmail dot com .
Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier both attended Douglass College (Rutgers University) in the 1960s and have been friends and working partners ever since. They have both lived in France for over 40 years, teaching literature and American civilization and writing English grammar and other books for French speakers. In the 70s, they both studied and got degrees in linguistics, one at the university of Vincennes, and the other at Nanterre, in Paris, hubs of new thinking in language and social science. They both had long and active teaching careers at Sciences Po. Notable among their publications have been a series of grammar books (ex: My English is French); a video series, Magic English, for Disney, to teach children English; Focus on American Democracy, explaining the American system of government, and several French cookbooks on American food. All along, they have been translating from French to English: social science, art, and feminist writings. Feminism and politics, as well as knowledge of France and its culture, led them to the translation into English of Le Deuxième Sexe, by Simone de Beauvoir.
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