Lauren Elkin on translating de Beauvoir’s newly discovered novel The Inseparables

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Simone de Beauvoir has had an eventful life in English translation. The Second Sex was notoriously bungled by the zoologist that Knopf hired for the job, H.M. Parshley, and arguably re-bungled when it was re-translated in its entirety in 2010. So it was with some trepidation that, in late spring 2020, I accepted a commission to translate her newly discovered novel The Inseparables for Vintage Classics, knowing that the American publisher had chosen to go with another translator. Was I willingly letting myself in for trouble, since mine would inevitably be compared to the other translator’s work?

But the novel was so seductive, and the voice, I had found, as I worked on my sample, fit like a dress that had been tailored precisely to fit my body. My misgivings fell away the moment I agreed to do it. This was a unique opportunity to offer my version of this novel; the mine-ness of it would be highlighted by the fact that it was not the only one.

Knowing this, I felt emboldened to take certain liberties, especially as I was translating a book whose author had not revised it to final form. I allowed myself a few (a very few) moments of serving as Beauvoir’s editor as well as her translator. There was a great deal of dialogue, for instance, and while it was often very important – the girls are discovering how much they like talking to one another, something they can’t do with anyone else – it sometimes felt plodding or unnecessary. Occasionally. I transformed something that was in direct speech to indirect speech; so

Quelquefois Andrée me disait : « Je suis fatiguée de jouer. » Nous allions nous asseoir dans le bureau de M. Gallard, nous n’allumions pas, pour qu’on ne nous découvrît pas, et nous causions : c’était un plaisir neuf.


Sometimes Andrée would say she was tired of playing, and we would go and sit in Monsieur Gallard’s office. We sat in the dark, so we wouldn’t be discovered, and talked. It was a new pleasure.

In a section like this, which is so much about the joys of talking with a friend, it was perhaps paradoxical to silence the friend and report what she had said. But I felt very strongly that Sylvie’s narrative voice needed to be more conversational, because this earlier part of the book captures much of the tone of a young girl telling the reader about her life. The colons introducing spoken speech felt too presentational (Sometimes Andrée would say: ‘I’m tired of playing’) and interrupted the rhythm. Furthermore, there was the fact that the novel is so much from Sylvie’s perspective – we know nothing about what Andrée thinks independently to that which she tells Sylvie – that I thought it was useful to accentuate Sylvie’s voice in this way. The French editors of the novel, with whom my translation was shared during the editing process, queried changes like this, but in the end they let them stand.

We went round and round, however, translating the word ‘martingale’. The French:

           Nous portions toutes les trois des manteaux bleu horizon, taillés dans du vrai drap d’officier et coupés exactement comme des capotes militaires.
           « Regardez, il y a même une petite martingale ! » disait maman à ses amies admiratives ou étonnées.

I looked up ‘martingale’, and found it was that little belt-like thing at the back of a coat, at the waist, to sort of nip it in. But how to render it? I was concerned that readers wouldn’t know what one was – I certainly didn’t. I tried:’“Look! There’s even a little belt at the back’. But that didn’t seem sufficient; if it’s just a piece of fabric, it doesn’t make sense that her mother’s friends would be either impressed or ‘astonished’ or ‘amazed’ [étonnées].

I reread Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée (1958) while I worked, in both French and its English translation by James Kirkup, to get a sense of how Beauvoir wrote publicly about Zaza. Some of the wording was identical; Beauvoir must have lifted it from the unpublished manuscript of The Inseparables and repurposed it for the book she knew she was going to publish. This passage is one of those which appears in both texts. I looked at the English translation of the Memoirs, and saw Kirkup translated it as ‘bayonet frog’.

I didn’t know what a bayonet frog was, but could infer that it sounded more military and provided a clue as to the mother’s friends’ reactions. I tried it out in a draft. Just tried it out, mind you; I still hadn’t made up my mind. When the French publishers saw ‘bayonet frog’ they were understandably, nonplussed. ‘A martingale’, they informed me, ‘is an elegant piece of fabric at the back of a coat’. I decided to overlook the mansplaining (or, for all I know, the womansplaining; this was an anonymous person leaving me comments in a Word document). ‘But why would that astonish and impress people?’ I pressed them. ‘They are impressed because not only the mother made the coats but also she added this martingale which make all of it even more elegant’, they answered. They strongly recommended I leave it as martingale, so I complied, allowing it to be a moment of unfamiliarity in the text, the sort where some readers would be inspired to go and look up the word, while others would read on.

All three of us wore sky-blue coats, made of real officer’s serge and cut exactly like military greatcoats. ‘Look! there’s even a little martingale at the back’, my mother would show her friends, who were admiring, or taken aback.

One of my great triumphs came in a passage in which Sylvie describes Andrée’s grandmother, the matriarch of this enormous, very Catholic, very haute bourgeois family, as they are gathered around the table at their country home. This is a woman who forced her daughter (Andrée’s mother) to marry her husband, against her protestations, which informs her daughter’s obstinance when her own daughter, Andrée, wants to marry whom she likes; it is her refusal to heed her daughter’s wishes that (Beauvoir suggests here, and in the memoirs) leads to Andrée’s (Zaza’s) untimely death. So it was important to get the characterisation of this woman just right, and we don’t get much of it. Just this:

under her white hair parted in the middle, and pulled back over each ear, she looked like a typical grandmother, and I didn’t think much else of her.

in French:

Je les connaissais tous, sauf la grand-mère : elle avait sous ses bandeaux blancs un visage classique de grand-mère, je n’en pensai rien.

Rereading that now I think I could have done more with the typical face of a grandmother, but that’s beside the point. Had I been paying less attention, I might have described her as wearing a white headband (bandeau). When they read my translation, the French editor, no doubt wearying of my antics, said ‘Not in the MS : « sous ses bandeaux » refers to a headband’.

But the plural, bandeaux, tipped me off that there was something else going on with the grandmother’s hair. I went to the Larousse dictionary, and sure enough the second meaning read: Cheveux partagés sur le milieu du front et lissés de chaque côté de la tête, coiffure à la mode au XIXe s. Hair parted in the middle over the forehead and smoothed down on either side of the head, a hairstyle fashionable in the 19th century. Eureka! An image of this woman immediately came into focus. This was a nineteenth-century lady, Beauvoir is telling us. She’s stuck in another time, in stark contrast to Andrée, who has her hair cut fashionably short, unlike Sylvie, whose mother won’t let her cut it. We learned this on the previous page:

           ‘You should cut your hair’, said Andrée.
           ‘Maman doesn’t want me to’, I said. Maman thought short hair made you look like the wrong sort of person. I pinned my hair into a limp chignon at my neck.

Details like this are weighted with social meaning. Sylvie’s family is less posh than Andrée’s, more solidly middle class, and therefore anxious about things like a young lady’s hairstyle, which conveys so much about her and her family. Andrée’s mother is more secure in her class status, and allows her daughter the freedom to run around Paris on her own, to cut her hair, and so on – things of which Sylvie’s mother would otherwise disapprove. But however much freedom it may seem that Andrée has, when it comes down to it, she isn’t free at all. As Sylvie’s gaze shifts away from Andrée’s grandmother, Beauvoir writes:

At the other end of the table, the twins were throwing little balls of bread at each other; Madame Gallard looked on and only smiled. For the first time I realised that smile was a trap. I had often envied Andrée her independence, but suddenly she seemed much less free than I was. She had this past behind her, and around her, and this large house struck me as a carefully guarded prison for the offspring of this enormous family.

These two moments remind us that this is a novel about femininity, and what is at stake for young women, depending on the way in which they are brought up. Beauvoir has already written The Second Sex; she’s thought long and hard about how women are socialised as women.

Then there is the whiteness of the grandmother’s hair. Let’s not forget that at the novel’s tragic end, Andrée’s grave is covered in white flowers. “A dark insight occurred to me,” Beauvoir writes: “Andrée had suffocated in all this whiteness.” On its “immaculate abundance,” Sylvie places three red roses. It puts me in mind of a line from early in David Batchelor’s book Chromophobia (2000), which I’ve lately been reading:

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. […] This white was aggressively white. It did its work on everything around it, and nothing escaped.

When you do the kind of nitty-gritty thinking about language that translation requires, it becomes clear that the most insignificant details are actually moments of compressed urgency, a bomb in a pair of bandeaux.

Lauren Elkin is the author of No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute and Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, which was a Radio 4 Book of the Week, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel award for the Art of the Essay. She is also an award-winning translator, most recently of Simone de Beauvoir’s previously unpublished novel The Inseparables (Vintage Classics, 2021). After twenty years in Paris, she now lives in London.

Photo credit: Francesca Mantovani for Gallimard.

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