Sade, according to Andrea Dworkin, is ‘the world’s most foremost pornographer’. This is not a compliment.
With this dubiously preeminent status, Sade apparently ‘embodies and defines male sexual values’, and before one has time to interject ‘Those aren’t my values’ or ‘That’s not my locker room chat’, Dworkin continues: ‘In him, one finds rapist and writer twisted in one scurvy knot. His life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real.’
One would be hard pushed to see The 120 Days of Sodom as anything less than a deeply misogynistic work, soaked in the blood of imaginary women. The Duc informs the women at Silling that they are ‘feeble, fettered creatures’, destined solely for the libertines’ pleasures, and that ‘the life of one woman – did I say of one woman? of all the women inhabiting the earth’s surface – is as insignificant as the swatting of a fly.’ The female body is reviled: ‘I’ve never understood how tits could really serve any other purpose than wiping arses’, says the Duc, while Curval asks ‘do you realize what kind of creature a woman is? One who can, like an oven, hatch some snot deep inside her vagina?’ The male libertines are squeamish at the sight of a vagina, and their female victims are warned ‘As a rule, offer your fronts to us only very rarely – remember that the rancid part of your body which Nature only formed in a moment of madness is always the one that revolts us the most.’ And with the female victims of violence in the tales far out-numbering the male victims, could Sade’s novel be any more misogynistic?
Yes, is the unfortunate reply.
Will and I have arguably made The 120 Days of Sodom more misogynistic than Les 120 journées de Sodome, because we have certainly – though unwillingly – made it more violent against women.
We have, for instance, clearly identified the victim’s sex when it is suggested more discreetly in the original French. When Sade writes, for example, ‘Il coupe les deux fesses, après l’avoir enculée et fouettée’, we give ‘He cuts off both her buttocks, having buggered and flogged [her]’, replacing the quiet agreement of the past participle by a more strongly identified personal pronoun (in our defence, we flag up our intervention). Moreover, we have often been obliged to designate the victim’s sex where none exists in Sade’s original. French uses gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. ‘Il lui fend les lèvres et les narines’; ‘Il lui arrache plusieurs ongles des doigts, des mains ou des pieds’) whereas English must introduce a gendered possessive pronoun (‘He splits his/her lips and nostrils’; ‘He tears off several nails from his/her fingers or toes’). But options aren’t, well, an option, and we must specify the victim’s sex, though which one?
Because Sade’s victims are almost always female (identified by the appropriate pronoun, or primary and secondary sexual characteristics); because he flags it up when the victims are male (‘She announces that the following are buggers who murder male victims only’) thereby implying that female victims are the norm; and because we haven’t found a single occurrence when a victim is identifiable as male solely because of the agreement of the past participle, we make these victims female…
… ‘He splits her lips and nostrils’ and ‘He tears off several nails from her fingers or toes’.
The requirement to provide as straightforward and as clear as possible a translation of Sade’s novel has, it turns out, obliged us to make The 120 Days of Sodom even more misogynistic than the source text. We point out some of these predicaments and decisions in the editorial notes, but we can’t – we won’t – identify them all. To do so would distract the reader too much. It would also smack not so much of disapproval than of priggishness. Translators should not protest too much.