Sade nods

The four heroes of The 120 Days of Sodom give much thought as to where they should hole up for their four months of stories, sex and violence. They choose the castle of Silling – belonging to one of their number – where they may give full rein to their passions and imaginations. The castle is described as being ‘far from France, in a land where [the scoundrel] had nothing to fear, in the depths of an uninhabitable forest, in a refuge within this forest, which, through the measures taken, only birds of the air could reach’. But whereabouts might that be? At first we are told that ‘the only setting where this lubricious episode might comfortably take place was that same castle in Switzerland which belonged to Durcet’, and then we are given further directions: ‘To reach there one first had to get to Basel; one then crossed the Rhine, beyond which the road narrowed so much one had to leave the carriages behind; a little later one entered the Black Forest, then plunged further in about 15 leagues along an arduous and tortuous road that was absolutely impracticable without a guide.’ We certainly would need a guide, and one more competent than the narrator who has just sent us in two opposite directions, the Black Forest being in Germany, not Switzerland. This question of displacement lies at the heart of thinking about mistakes.

Sade, like Homer, nods. These authors aren’t alone in slipping up. Daniel Defoe has Robinson Crusoe take off all his clothes so that he can swim out to a ship to salvage goods – yet when the castaway is on board, he fills his pockets with biscuits. Madame Bonacière in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is described as a brunette, only to be a blonde a few hundred pages later. And in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed a family of two girls and a boy becomes one of a young girl and two boys. We shouldn’t be surprised that the 120 Days features numerous errors and inconsistencies, for although its genesis stretched over two and a half years, it was written up at great speed, as the final line of the manuscript indicates: ‘All this great scroll was begun on 22nd 8ber [i.e. October] 1785 and finished in 37 days.’ The novel remains in draft form, and as such was not subject to the same scrutiny that Sade paid to his other works. He recognizes the work’s unpolished nature when, at the end of the novel’s first part, he lists the ‘Mistakes I have made’ and notes in particular ‘as I’ve been unable to reread myself, this must surely be teeming with other mistakes’.

Sade may not have reread himself, but in translating the 120 Days for Penguin Classics, Will and I have reread him, again and again. And, we can confirm Sade’s suspicions: there are indeed several mistakes in the novel. Linguistic errors, such as incorrect verb endings, are numerous in the manuscript, but are of limited interest, and we did not write incorrect English in a gesture of fidelity. More important are errors of continuity, and here are a few examples of what one might call Sade’s bloopers.

Sade feared that that the large number of characters in the novel would lead to mistakes: ‘When I make a fair copy, one of my first concerns should be to have a notebook nearby at all times, where I’ll need to enter each incident and each portrait as I write them for without that I shall become horribly confused because of the multitude of characters.’ For instance, the young boy Giton is first described as being thirteen years old, but he soon drops to being twelve. But it’s not just the numerous minor characters who trip up Sade, but his four libertines. We read at the very start of the novel: ‘It was towards the end of this reign and shortly before the Regent had attempted, through that famous tribunal known by the name of the Chamber of Justice, to force this multitude of tax-collectors to return their ill-gotten gains, that four among them conceived the unique feat of debauchery we are about to describe.’ But only one of the four libertines is a financier; the others are a duke, a bishop and a judge. Later in the novel we read that ‘The Président – with his troop – went and shut himself away and after half an hour, which the Bishop, Durcet and Curval, along with the remaining subjects, did not spend in prayer […]’; Sade probably means the Duc rather than Curval, given that the Président and Curval are one and the same person.

The reader of the 120 Days soon comes to realize that the characters’ bodies are more resilient than one might expect in real life, being able to withstand incredible tortures. Yet it is noteworthy that even though Narcisse’s testicles are cut off on 21 January, two days later he ‘is brought out to be tortured: they burn his thighs and prick, they crush his two balls.’

We have not corrected these and other mistakes, in fact we point them out in our editorial notes so as to remind our readers of the text’s sometimes rudimentary quality, and thereby encourage them to reflect on how the novel’s sex and violence affect them. As in a pornographic film when the cameraman is spotted in a bedroom mirror, or when the boom comes into view in a horror film, the mistakes in the 120 Days can distract the readers, causing them to reconsider the nature and extent of the horror, pity or excitement they feel.

But what of the translator? Unlike the potentially displaced reader, the translator must remain intensely within the novel, tracking its details, alert to slips, discontinuities and errors. Like the enthusiastic Star Wars fan who identifies and publicizes a blooper, I take relish when Sade nods, but what kind of glee may be had when a victim becomes even younger, or when a boy’s testicles are mutilated for a second time? It’s a sense of relief I feel, for at such moments I am superior to Sade; I am not sat alongside him, trying to find the English terms that will provoke the reader in the way he intended; for an instant, I am not of Sade’s party.


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