One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,'' Simone de Beauvoir wrote in ''The Second Sex'' in 1949, shocking readers with her contention that the wife-and-mother destiny was a myth devised by men to deny women freedom. Rejecting such notions as the maternal instinct, her book attracted both controversy (it was banned by the Vatican) and sales (it sold more than 20,000 copies in France in its first week).
Today ''The Second Sex'' is widely acknowledged as the founding text of modern feminism. The English translation, a best seller when it was first published in this country by Alfred A. Knopf in 1953, has sold well over a million copies. A staple of women's studies courses, the Knopf translation -- available in Vintage and Everyman editions -- is still the only version in print in the United States today.
Yet American readers may not have been reading the real ''Second Sex.'' In ''The Legacy of Simone de Beauvoir,'' a new collection of essays edited by Emily R. Grosholz, several Beauvoir scholars contend that the English-language translation is so badly botched that it distorts Beauvoir's intent and presents her as an incoherent thinker. One scholar, Nancy Bauer of Tufts University, says that she has counted ''literally hundreds'' of mistakes in translation ranging from elementary bloopers to misunderstandings of scholarly jargon. ''Philosophical terms with a precise meaning in French are turned into the opposite of what Beauvoir says,'' according to another contributor, Toril Moi, a professor of literature and romance studies at Duke University. As a result, ''Beauvoir comes across as a sloppy thinker in English.''
Of course, even Beauvoir's devotees don't claim that ''Le Deuxieme Sexe'' is perfect as she wrote it. Elizabeth Hardwick's assessment of the English translation -- ''madly sensible and brilliantly confused'' -- could probably speak for the original text as well (and the French critical reaction to the book was if anything more hostile than the American). In either language the book is often difficult to wade through, with few footnotes to guide the way, and it has a breathless, rough-and-ready quality that feels as though the author had been bursting to get all her thoughts down on the page at once -- a reflection of Beauvoir's having written quickly, over a period of about two years also devoted to other projects. And the tone of the book itself -- analytical, almost cold -- invited one of the most frequent criticisms: that she was unsympathetic and even hostile to women and to motherhood. ''She has written an enormous book about women and it is soon clear that she does not like them, nor does she like being a woman,'' as Stevie Smith, the British poet and novelist, wrote in a review in 1953. Later, feminist critics complained that Beauvoir seemed to consider motherhood fundamentally incompatible with an independent life.
[Read on: NYT Sunday Review]