Cook or storyteller? How to survive translating Sade

In an interview with the Paris Review (summer 2015), Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators of Dostoevsky, were asked ‘What is it like living in a world of toxic narrators and tortured murderers for five years? Does it affect you personally?’ Volokhonsky answers, ‘No. It’s a professional thing.’ But Pevear replies, ‘Oh, it does. I think it affects me, certainly. […] You didn’t see me twitching?’ to which Volokhonsky remarks, ‘We had two small children in a row. I had my blind old mother living with us. I had my own solid reality right there.’ I side with Pevear, for my own lengthy proximity to Sade has not been an easy ride. Notwithstanding my close collaboration with Will, translating The 120 Days of Sodom’s stories of rape, mutilation and murder has often been disturbing and gruelling. There is, for instance, a girl in Day 15 whose predicament fills me with pity and nausea every time I read it, yet I help to create this scene of scatological humiliation for the reader’s interest. Like Pevear, I twitch.

How might the translator position himself or herself in relation to such material? Volokhonsky’s two responses are illuminating: first, she views herself as doing a job; and second, personal relationships kept her grounded in ‘solid reality’, as if professionalism can only take one so far. The first answer intrigues me, for it is once self-evident and insufficient. ‘Professional’ is a baggy term – there are as many ways of being professional as there are professions. What kind of professional should I be? Sade’s novel itself provides an answer. Of the 46 characters who arrive at the castle of Silling, 30 are slaughtered; aside from the four libertines, those most likely to survive have identifiable occupations, namely the three cooks and the four bawds employed as storytellers – all seven of these women return to Paris, and handsomely paid to boot. So which profession should I follow in my (alas less lucrative) translation practice – the cook or the storyteller?

Food and stories certainly overlap in the novel (‘This is the story of a magnificent feast where 600 different dishes are offered for your delectation’), but the cooks and storytellers are distinct in characterization and role. Nameless, faceless and almost entirely silent, the cooks are defined solely by their function: ‘there was no one more refined and skilful than the cooks [the libertines] had brought with them, and they were so well paid and so well supplied that everything was bound to go marvellously well.’ Their talents protect them from violence, and their one moment of (reported) speech is listened to: ‘The cooks protest and say the service cannot continue if the maids are harassed, and so they are left alone until the month of March.’ The four storytellers, on the contrary, are named, described at length and rhetorically sophisticated, being ‘gifted with a certain eloquence and with a turn of wit appropriate to what was required of them’. These women also actively participate in the events at Silling – they aid and abet the libertines in murder:

As soon as everyone is in bed the Bishop goes to fetch his brother: they take Desgranges and Duclos with them; all four take Aline down to the crypt; the Bishop buggers her, as does the Duc; they pronounce her death sentence then carry it out with excessive torments that last until dawn. As they return upstairs they sing the praises of the two storytellers and counsel the other two always to make use of them in their tortures.

The choice between translator-as-cook and translator-as-storyteller seems uncomplicated. Since dishes and stories resemble each other, I am not compelled to plump for the more obvious choice of the storyteller as my model, so I’ll take the kitchen over the chamber of stories, and will discreetly serve up to Sade the English words he needs to feed his new readers. I’ll not be party to the violence, and I’ll wash my hands when the work is done.

But that’s too easy. Hidden in their kitchen, the cooks may disavow any complicity with the events that their efforts fuel and thereby enable. They can seal themselves off, minimising contact with the libertines and their victims: ‘from the gallery one entered a very pretty dining room fitted with tower-shaped cabinets, which, communicating directly with the kitchens, allowed the food to be served hot, promptly and without the need for a valet.’ As a translator of disturbing material, I must recognize my complicity with an author who intends to incite and excite his readers, and that in my service to him I make linguistic choices to give the appropriate spice and flavour to his text. I leave the safety of the kitchen and follow Madame Duclos to the rostrum, accepting that I too am an agent charged, at least in part, with bringing pleasure to the reader: ‘I should dread to broach the subject of the tales which will occupy us for the whole of this week, but as depraved as it may be, I know your tastes too well to fear offending you and am on the contrary very sure you will be pleased with me.’ Avowing my role in producing The 120 Days of Sodom has paradoxically offered some protection against Sade’s ‘toxic narrators and tortured [or rather torturing] murderers’, for this is the first step in recognizing and meeting the ethical challenges that ensue.

Tom

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