We translated the Marquis de Sade’s most obscene work – here’s how

Will McMorran, Queen Mary University of London

Warning: contains rude words. Excuse my French. And English.

The Marquis de Sade’s earliest work of fiction, The 120 Days of Sodom, is also his most extreme. It tells the story of four libertines – a duke, a bishop, a judge and a banker – who lock themselves away in a castle with an entourage that includes two harems of teenage boys and girls. Four ageing prostitutes, appointed as storytellers, each tell of 150 “passions” or perversions over the course of a month. The libertines enact the passions they hear described, and as these become more violent, the narrative builds to a murderous climax. Though Sade never finished his novel, and the last three parts are in note form only, it remains a uniquely disturbing work.

And therefore uniquely challenging to translate. Perhaps this was the reason no one had attempted a new translation since the one first published by Austryn Wainhouse in 1954 (and revised with Richard Seaver in 1966). In any case, Thomas Wynn and I felt a new version was long overdue, and, much to our surprise, Penguin Classics agreed.

Dealing with the violence was not the only challenge we faced: The 120 Days is also Sade’s most obscene work of fiction. Over the course of three years, this indeed was the issue that prompted the most discussion and debate between us. How exactly were we to translate the various rude words of the original French? Was a vit a prick, dick or a cock? Were tétons boobs, tits or breasts? Was a derrière a behind, a backside or, indeed, a derrière? Was a cul a bum or an arse? While Wainhouse adopted an eccentric idiom that could be best described as mock-Tudor, we decided to try as far as possible to use sexual slang that was still in use today – as long as it did not sound gratingly contemporary.

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade, 1760.

Translating obscenity into your own language takes some getting used to. However familiar one becomes with another language, a trace of otherness always remains. Sometimes this can add to the beauty of the language, or to its mystique, but when it comes to obscenity there is a distinct softening effect. Rude words in other languages never have quite the same force, so translating them into one’s own language brings the obscenity home in more ways than one.

English reserve probably plays a part in the process, too. When we started translating 120 Days I soon realised I was instinctively toning the original down, avoiding words that I found jarringly ugly. I may not have overcome that entirely (no dicks or cocks for me, thank you very much!) but I realised pretty quickly that a watered-down version of Sade’s novel would be the worst possible outcome. The last thing we wanted to produce was a text that was any less shocking – and therefore potentially appealing – than the original. We had a duty to be just as rude, crude, and revolting as Sade.

The original 120 Days scroll.
Musée des lettres et manuscrits, Paris, Author provided

To ensure consistency we compiled our own Sadean lexicon as we were translating. Once we had debated the various possible translations of a particular word we would try to settle on one and stick to it. Usually. So a vit would always be a prick, and a cul would always be an arse.

But this wasn’t always possible. When it came to translating tétons, for example, one word was not enough. One of our most treasured resources as translators was the University of Chicago’s database of old French dictionaries, which includes several from the 17th and 18th centuries.

One of the things this showed was that téton was not always quite as familiar or coarse as the English “tit” (Molière and Voltaire both used it), so we had to be attentive to these different inflections. In cases like these, it matters whether the word is written by the narrator or spoken by one of the characters, whether it is said by a man or a woman, neutrally or insultingly, and so on – a man or woman writing “breasts” is very different to a man saying “tits” and very different to a woman saying “boobs”.

The term that gave us the most trouble by far was the verb se branler – a slang term meaning to masturbate that is still commonly used by French speakers today. There may be no shortage of English equivalents, but nor is there any shortage of Englishes to consider – and therein lies the problem. The most obvious English equivalent – “to wank” – would be unfamiliar and odd on one side of the Atlantic, while “to jerk off” would be familiar but decidedly American in its associations to English readers. We contemplated “to pleasure oneself” but it seemed a little sex-positive and a little too polite, while “fapping” had yet to hit the public (or our) consciousness.

Ultimately, we decided on “to frig” even though we were aware that this use of the word would be unfamiliar to many readers – particularly those too young to remember the Sex Pistols’ version of Friggin’ in the Riggin’ (1979). When we canvassed our students, most thought “frig” was a euphemism for “fuck”; and indeed most dictionaries now give “have sexual intercourse with” as the first definition, and “to masturbate” as the second.

But “to frig” works in a way that the alternatives do not – it is compact, and usable reflexively or non-reflexively, and transitively or intransitively. We think – or hope – its general unfamiliarity might work in its favour for many readers, as this will mean it won’t have strong associations of one particular form of English. In any case, as it occurs so frequently in our translation, we hope readers will soon get used to it and that its initial strangeness will soon be forgotten.

Who knows – perhaps the legacy of this translation will be a return of frigging?

Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, translated by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, was published earlier this month as a Penguin Classic in the UK. It will be released in North America on December 27 2016.

Will McMorran, Senior Lecturer in French & Comparative Literature, Queen Mary University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

10 of the Strangest ‘Passions’ from The 120 Days

1. Makes her run naked on a freezing winter’s night in the middle of a garden, and there are ropes stretched across at intervals to trip her.

2. A bugger of men and women alike employs another powder whose effect is to deprive you of your senses and render you as if dead; you are indeed believed to be so – you are buried and you die in despair in your coffin, where you immediately come to your senses. He endeavours to stand over the spot in which you are buried to see if he can hear any screams – if he does he faints with pleasure. He has some of his family killed in this way.

3. They make her swallow a serpent which in turn will devour her.

4. He lets a girl sleep in her usual bedroom, the window of which she knows is very low to the ground: she is given opium; when she is fast asleep, she is moved to another bedroom identical to her own save for a window far higher off the ground that opens on to sharp stones; next, he barges into her bedroom, terrifying her; he tells her he is going to kill her; knowing her window to be low to the ground, she opens it and leaps through in great haste, but she falls on to the sharp stones from over thirty feet high, killing herself without anyone laying a finger on her.

5. He attaches a young girl, slim and attractive, to serve as a rod for a large rocket – she is carried off and falls back to earth with the rocket.

6. Sends for a woman with beautiful hair under the sole pretext of examining it, but treacherously cuts it off and comes when he sees her lament this misfortune, which makes him laugh a great deal.

7. He sews a girl into a fresh donkey-skin, with her head sticking out; he feeds her, and leaves her inside it until the animal’s hide suffocates her as it shrinks.

8. The seducer mentioned by Duclos gathers two women together: he exhorts the first to save her life by renouncing God and her religion, but she has been prompted beforehand not to do anything of the sort and told that if she does she will be killed, while if she does not no harm will come to her. She stands firm and he blows her brains out – ‘There’s one for God!’ He summons the second woman who, struck both by this example and by what she was told on the sly – that the only way to save her life was to renounce God – does everything that is asked of her. He blows her brains out – ‘There’s another for the Devil! The scoundrel plays this little game every week.

9. To combine incest, adultery, sodomy and sacrilege, he buggers his married daughter with a host.

10. He has the girl placed on a small trestle facing a deep pond, beyond which is a wall that offers an escape all the more assured as there is a ladder leaning against it, but first she has to dive into the pond, and this is all the more urgent as behind the trestle upon which she is placed a slow-burning fire is gaining on her little by little – if the fire reaches her she will be consumed, and if she dives into the water to avoid the fire she will drown as she does not know how to swim; with the fire upon her, she nevertheless chooses to throw herself into the water and head for the ladder she sees against the wall. Often the girl will drown, and there is no more to be said; if she is fortunate enough to reach the ladder she climbs up it, but a sabotaged rung near the top breaks underfoot when she reaches it, tipping her into a pit covered over with earth, which she had not seen and which, buckling under her weight, drops her into a flaming brazier where she perishes.

The 120 Days of Sodom: 10 Curious Facts

1. It was written in roughly 120 hours, over 37 consecutive days.

2. It was written on sheets of paper glued together to form a scroll 11cm wide and 12 metres long, which Sade kept in a copper cylinder.

3. Sade failed in his attempt to smuggle an earlier version of the story out of prison.

4. Sade features in one of the passions described on the 23rd Day as ‘the Marquis de …’

5. There are actually over 140 Days of Sodom – as the libertines arrive in Silling Castle on 29th October and don’t leave the castle before 20th March (their departure delayed by bad weather).

6. Silling Castle moves from Switzerland to the Black Forest in Germany in the course of the introduction.

7. Sade was moved from the Bastille prison on 3rd July 1789, just 11 days before it was stormed in the Revolution, and he never saw the scroll again.

8. It was first published in 1904 by Iwan Bloch, a pioneering sexologist.

9. Samuel Beckett almost translated it for the Obelisk Press in Paris in the 1930s.

10. A private foundation, Aristophil, paid €7 million for the scroll in 2014.

Translating Violence

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.


Translation and Obsession: Number Madness

As part of a recent special series on the practice of solitary confinement in prisons, The Guardian interviewed several former inmates who had lived through the experience. One of them, Tyrell Muhammed, had spent seven years in isolation. Muhammed said that after a while ‘you see like the paint on the wall. So you start seeing figurines. In the chips, the paint chips…’ While this recalls Charlotte Gilman Perkins’s account of a descent into madness in ‘The Yellow Wall-Paper’ (1891), it also suggests more broadly the way in which isolation leads some prisoners to seek, and find, designs and patterns where none exist. After years of imprisonment in Vincennes, the Marquis de Sade succumbed to an arithmetical form of this madness which saw him create what he called a ‘number system’: this would lead him to find clues as to the date of his release in the various letters, gifts and visits he received. To give just one example from 1784, ‘When the notary comes, I’ll have been here for 7 weeks and 3 days, with 7 months and 3 weeks left, but nothing from 16 to 9 [. . .] That’s 169 and forms 37. Now all the 37s have ended by making 169. That’s sublime.’ The same obsessiveness with numbers and dates, and the same leaps from reason to unreason, are evident in The 120 Days of Sodom. Numbers matter in the 120 Days, from the ages of the girls and boys in the harems, to the penile dimensions of the ‘fuckers’, to the hours set aside for meals, orgies, and storytelling in the castle of Silling.


Translation itself is something of an obsessive activity. Working on a text like the 120 Days, the devil is in the detail – and that detail soon assumes an importance that may seem out of all proportion to other readers. Sade’s numbers are a case in point. One of the striking features of the text is the way that Sade switches apparently randomly between figures and words to express numbers: ‘the 3 kitchen maids shall serve these two tables, the first of which shall include the 8 little girls and the four old women, the second the four wives, the 8 little boys and the 4 storytellers.’ This switching also extends to the ways in which Sade writes his months: while he sometimes writes them out in full, he often abbreviates them too: thus October becomes 8ber, November 9ber and December Xber – a common practice in the eighteenth century but one which has died out since. While looking for a pattern in such switches can soon resemble a form of madness, we decided it would be wrong to erase them – as all the French editions over the last seventy years have done. What it reveals about the state of mind of the prisoner writing in his cell will be for the reader to decide, but to erase these little differences or eccentricities is to make the text more polished, and more finished, than it really is. This is an incomplete text, part draft and part notes, and we wanted to capture its rough and unready nature.


The circumstances in which Sade wrote his novel were evidently very different from those in which we translated it. Whereas Sade worked alone in his cell, we worked – often together – in the comfort of our own homes or offices; whereas he wrote his draft in thirty-seven consecutive evenings, we took about three years to complete our translation; whereas he wrote in a minute script, barely looking back at what he had already written, we typed away on our laptops, revising draft after draft until we felt the job was done. If we took a lot longer than Sade, it was clearly because we did not work with the same intensity that drove him on night after night. Although our other commitments – personal and professional – may have slowed us down, they also kept us sane, offering the kind of welcome distractions forbidden to Sade throughout his imprisonment in Vincennes and the Bastille. As overwhelming as the process of translation threatened to become at times, particularly when working on the scatological passions of Part One, or the increasingly frenzied violence of Parts 3 and 4, we always had an escape – something that can be said neither of Sade in the Bastille, nor of the doomed prisoners trapped in Silling.