The unwilling misogynists

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.



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.


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.