Will McMorran, Queen Mary University of London
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 | source: The History Blog