People often talk about a book or a film being ‘powerful’. But powerful how? What kinds of power might a work of fiction be able to exert over its readers? Does a novel have the power to change us – to improve us, or to harm us? The theme of dangerous novels is as old as the novel itself, and there is a long list of fictional readers damaged by their taste in books – Don Quixote and Emma Bovary being only the most famous cases. As literary works are often imagined to be morally improving and civilizing, the question of harm rarely seems to arise. Though some critics and philosophers have argued (unencumbered by evidence) that good books have made us better people, none has spent much time worrying about what bad books might do to us. But when a reader encounters a work like the 120 Days, the question no longer seems quite so abstract or irrelevant. If ever there was a powerful text, then surely it’s this one. Few readers can be left unruffled or undisturbed by the tales told and deeds done in the Castle of Silling – even if critics working on Sade have largely avoided talking about their own responses to these. That said, most readers will read the 120 Days only once, and leave it behind. The sense of shock will fade, and normal life will resume. Every now and again a mental image of a particular scene may resurface uninvited, but only fleetingly – life is too short to dwell on such things.
Not so for the translator, however. Translation requires an intimacy with source material that may be one of the reasons why some of Sade’s works – such as the New Justine – remain untranslated, while other major works such as the History of Juliette, and, until now, the 120 Days, have only been translated once, back in the 1950s. Why would anyone choose to live with these texts for the days, months, years it takes to translate them? For me there were many reasons – the challenge of translating Sade’s most extreme work, the poor quality of the existing translation (which was a bar to being able to teach this text in translation), and a curiosity about how the novel would be received in a country where Sade had been banned until quite recently. But though I had read the text closely before, and, indeed written about it, I don’t think I realised the scale of the task that was ahead of us, and the time I would have to spend in the company of Sade’s libertines.
Rather sneakily, when we split the text between us I chose the first half of Part 1 rather than the second – thinking that this way I might avoid more of the excremental material that dominates its middle section. I didn’t manage to escape this entirely, however, and spent three weeks translating material that gives the lie to Roland Barthes’s confident claim that ‘written down, shit does not smell’. It really can smell awful, and the nausea meant I could not work for more than two hours without taking a break to do something else. In the introduction, Sade’s narrator compares the novel to a great feast at which every reader will find a dish that delights them. The truth is that few readers will find any such dish, and what they will find instead are some that simply make them want to get up and leave.
As unpleasant as the smellier sections of Part 1 were, for me this paled into insignificance compared to the escalating violence of the novel’s latter stages. In Part 4 of the novel, Desgranges, the storyteller for that month, describes a series of ‘murderous passions’ which inspire the libertines in her audience to enact what they have heard. The list is in note form, resembling at times a series of gruesome telegrams, or a set of instructions for a would-be torturer. While some seem too surreal, or too ludicrous, to take seriously, others are almost unbearable, let alone unreadable. The section I dreaded returning to most when the time came for editing and proofreading was a series of tortures reserved for pregnant women. A section I hope never to read again.
In order to get the job done I found myself doing exactly what I have criticised many of Sade’s critics for doing: I focussed on the form rather than the content, on the words rather than the violence represented by those words. As I didn’t have the option of skimming the pages (one way of reading without absorbing too much of the violence) I found that reading closely, microscopically even, was the next best thing: not being able to see the wood for the trees can be a good thing when translating material like this. This is why translation is not necessarily the model form of reading it is sometimes held to be: to read closely is not always to read well. But despite my best efforts to read unresponsively, unimaginatively, it was not always possible to keep the violence of the acts described in the novel at arm’s length. Translating felt like a struggle for agency – sometimes it felt like I was acting on the text, sometimes it felt like the text was acting on me. It was, to put it mildly, unsettling, to see my own words describing acts I could never otherwise have imagined – as if by doing so I was becoming an accessory to this violence.
Is it possible to translate violence without becoming complicit? There is no easy answer to this, but ultimately Tom and I both felt that we had to let the violence of the original speak for itself and trust our reader to respond accordingly. We agreed that the worst thing we could possibly do was to soften the violence in any way – to produce a text that was less shocking, and less repugnant than the original. If we were going to do this properly, we had to make our version just as raw, vicious, and visceral as Sade had made his. The 120 Days does not seduce its readers, it assaults them – and we had to do the same. So when our lovely editor at Penguin told us that she had been reduced to tears by her reading of our complete draft, I felt both guilty and relieved – guilty to have put her through that experience, but relieved that we had succeeded in conveying at least some of the original work’s power to shock and upset.