Translating Sade’s Obscenities.

Will McMorran’s piece on translating the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin might have been written with LH in mind. He calls it “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.

Translating obscenity into your own language takes some getting used to. […] 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.

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.

Click through to read about the exceptions; their choices seem sensible to me, though I completely fail to understand why “no dicks or cocks” when you’re trying to be rude, crude, and revolting. (Thanks, Trevor!)

Comments

  1. It’s very interesting, and I wish he’d given more details on more words. His approach sounds meticulous, as it necessarily must be in this case.

    P.S. Austryn Wainhouse is an excellent name, as good as Sacheverell Sitwell.

  2. I don’t have a clear sense at all of what they are doing with “prick” but heavens no dicks or cocks. What’s the problem with the latter two in the translator’s usage, are they too crude or juvenile? “Prick” is not really a live term for me (here in the U.S.)

  3. I also think the choice of “frig” for “se branler” is a little weird. Yeah, “wank” is not nearly as common in America as in the UK, but surely it’s commoner for this purpose than “frig”! [Actually, it might depend a little on if the doer is male or female…]

  4. “Frig” means the same as “fuck” for me. And if they were going to be so English about it, they may as well have stuck to English slang. Americans are reasonably familiar with “wank” in my understanding (although my spellchecker just corrected it to “sank”), and surely American readers could make allowances for differences of dialect or style. It seems to me that it’s probably hard to do convincing mid-Atlantic crudity.

  5. Eli Nelson says:

    I concur with the confusion about not using “dick” or “cock”. It sounds like McMorran finds these words distractingly ugly? I find it hard to understand this level of word aversion myself—compared to the distasteful and shocking concepts and imagery in Sade’s writing, obscene language seems like a minor thing to me.

    And I feel like they have not quite succeeded in the goal of using contemporary sexual slang if they’re going with “prick” for penis and “frig” for masturbate.

    @tangent: Agree, as I said above. I suppose “dick” might be felt to be somewhat juvenile in some contexts, but I wouldn’t classify “cock” that way. They’re both crude, but I wouldn’t say they’re cruder than “tits”, which apparently is used in this translation as one equivalent for “tétons”. If there is an issue with “cock”, I guess it might be that it is more pornographic than the alternative terms, although I’m not sure why that’s a flaw if you’re aiming to shock. Maybe the idea is that pornography and literature are mutually exclusive categories, so a translation needs to use a more literary term?

  6. It seems unlikely to me that a man who would propose a re-translation of 120 Days of Sodom believes in spurious distinctions between pornography and literature. I think we can probably give him the benefit of the doubt on that one if nothing else.

    Count me as another one baffled by the elevation of “prick” over “cock.” I suppose that’s the big disadvantage of deciding to use “modern” slang instead of choosing a slightly older register—obscenities change so fast and varies so much from region to region that a bunch of people on a blog are bound to object along the lines of “Who says ‘prick’ any more?”

    I was very surprised to read that ‘most dictionaries now give “have sexual intercourse with” as the first definition [of frig], and “to masturbate” as the second.’ I would never, ever use “frig” to mean “have sexual intercourse with”—even as a euphemism for “fuck” it only seems acceptable to me in the most abstract cases (“This friggin’ contract, I swear” = OK; “They were frigging in the Map Room” = NG; but “They frigged us good and proper on that deal” = also NG).

  7. “Frig” doesn’t work for me – it sounds a slightly arch mixture of old-fashioned, regional and semi-euphemistic. And “wank” to my (NZ-Australian, 50-something) ears is redolent of smutty schoolboy giggling. If se branler is/was a relatively neutral term of sexual slang, it doesn’t really have a close English equivalent. Why not simply use “masturbate”? There are times when a formal word, even if its register doesn’t reflect the original, is the least bad option.

  8. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I’m impressed by the industry of the translator, but like the others unimpressed by his judgment. ‘Frig’ doesn’t work at all for me for the intended sense.

  9. “Frig” is bizarre. To me it’s nothing but a euphemism for “fuck”, and then only curse-fuck, not fuck-fuck. Indeed I remember a dear old quirky Mormon friend who felt it was so transparent he would only use a euphemism for the euphemism: “feck”, which seemed to work for him despite (you would think) phonetically skirting far closer to the original. I’m not even sure “prick” works. Unlike most other vulgarities, it seems I learned the anatomical shading late enough that I still have vague memories of not understanding it.

    All in all I completely sympathize with the attempt to be exact, and of course it’s easy to second-guess, but I wish he had just gone with what felt natural and real to himself, and let the rest of us deal with it. I’d rather read a translation that “hung together” than one that tried to satisfy multiple incompatible cursing lexica at once. I’d submit that if the Anglosphere is still mutually intelligible enough to consider making do with a single translation for us all, native speakers willing to read through the whole thing are going to be able to puzzle out the calibration of profanity intended to a pretty good approximation. (And non-natives would be especially ill-served by a cursing regime they would have no way of knowing was somewhat artificial.)

  10. Does no one study the classics anymore?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRotvCVKAe8,

    cf more recently https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHEX9EpIL7o

  11. January First-of-May says:

    “Frig” is bizarre. To me it’s nothing but a euphemism for “fuck”, and then only curse-fuck, not fuck-fuck.

    To me it’s a set part of the euphemistic curse “frigging” (perhaps more commonly spelled “friggin'” with an apostrophe). And I didn’t even recognize that until it was pointed out by another commenter.

    I’m far from a native English speaker, however.

  12. Friggin’ in the riggin’,
    Friggin’ in the riggin’,
    Friggin’ in the riggin’,
    There’s fuck-all else to do.

    (refrain of “The Good Ship Venus”, as sung by Oscar Brand (who has done more than anyone else to make obscenity safe for folk music), the Sex Pistols, or Anthrax, depending on your generation)

    For me, the neutral terms for masturbating are jerking off and playing with [one]self; the pair jack off and jill off strike me as cute, maybe a little past that toward twee. Likewise for me, frigging means only ‘masturbating’, but as either a curse or a literal term it is considerably *more* taboo than fucking: I might say the latter to a woman, never the former. Using frigging to mean ‘intercourse’ strikes me as comic, along the lines of Browning’s misunderstanding of twat. I agree that prick is archaic: it makes me think of My Secret Life.

  13. I wish he had just gone with what felt natural and real to himself, and let the rest of us deal with it. I’d rather read a translation that “hung together” than one that tried to satisfy multiple incompatible cursing lexica at once.

    Well put; now that you say that, it’s clearly the best solution. I’m glad everyone agrees with me about the prick/cock/dick thing!

    Austryn Wainhouse is an excellent name, as good as Sacheverell Sitwell.

    Yes indeed! I’m glad you mentioned that; I’d meant to comment on it in the post but forgot.

  14. Likewise for me, frigging means only ‘masturbating’, but as either a curse or a literal term it is considerably *more* taboo than fucking: I might say the latter to a woman, never the former

    That’s truly amazing. This is utterly unknown to me. Is it a regionalism, I wonder? (Though perhaps “regional survival” would be more apt.) The obvious answer is a generational gap, but I wonder. A few decades is not so long, and my own family’s roots are in New England, so I shouldn’t expect that big of a difference. But then, perhaps I’m underestimating the New England/New York (iirc) split?

  15. Frig is not part of my vocabulary at all except as a foreign element comparable to wank. I have lived in California, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts.

  16. My family here in Massachusetts use frig/friggin’ as substitutions for some of the non-literal senses of fuck. It’s never really been part of my idiolect, though.

    @JC: There’s also onomatopoeic fap, which has become common in online Millennial usage.

  17. The version I read (forget which) used “fuck” in a delightfully unusual way. “He sprayed his fuck all over her face.” It sounded appropriately coarse, modern, but also a bit foreign, which Sade ultimately must be.

  18. I’ve seen that before (not in Sade) as well as the sense ‘single thrust’ (“He gave her a fuck and then another harder fuck”), but they both seem strange to me.

  19. Jim (another one) says:

    “Frig” sounds archaic to me – it sounds like it’s based on the god Frey, which is a pretty natural development after all – but “freak” is alive and well in AAVE, cf. Rick James’ “Super Freak” and Jill Scott’s “hide and go freak.”

  20. As synonyms for “penis,” “cock,” “dick,” and “prick” seem equally valid to me; I don’t expect any of them to become quaint or old-fashioned for quite some time yet.

    Perhaps McMorran hoped that be sticking to one word only, he would make de Sade’s pornography seem more “rude, crude, and revolting.”

  21. David Marjanović says:

    I have often read he’s a bit of a prick (not as often as … dick, let alone jerk), but I’m not sure if I had come across literal usage before Christopher Henrich’s comment.

    To me it’s a set part of the euphemistic curse “frigging” (perhaps more commonly spelled “friggin’” with an apostrophe).

    Thanks to the voicing phenomenon that has given us the flap sound, hundreds of millions of Americans have reanalyzed it as freakin(g) – and then they “restore” the [k] for emphasis.

    Anyway, I had never encountered frig without some form of -ing before this thread.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    Wank has gone productive on the Internet: fanwank seems to be wishful thinking that has become consensus among fans…

  23. What was de Sade’s intention? That’s the key question in my mind. I’m sure he was very aroused half of the time when he was writing the book and that he also expected his readers to become aroused (or experience a mixture of lust and disgust/horror). By this I’m not saying that it was his sole intention to produce pornographic literature.

    So the best option, in my opinion, is to use the words that are commonly used in modern pornographic stories. I’m not sure (I don’t read porn) but I’m willing to bet that in the US it’s cock for penis (and cunt and/or pussy for female genitalia. I don’t know about the UK. If the translator is British he should keep to British usage.

    I find “prick” pretty ridiculous. In real life as well as literature.

  24. Thanks to the voicing phenomenon that has given us the flap sound, hundreds of millions of Americans have reanalyzed it as freakin(g)

    Are you sure that’s the cause? I’m curious because I always thought of “freakin'” as a super-euphemism used by people unwilling even to say “friggin'”, rather than a reanalysis. (And I assumed that “freak” in the AAVE/Rick James sense to be entirely unrelated, based on semantic extension of the original meaning rather than influence from “frig”.)

  25. I wish he had just gone with what felt natural and real to himself, and let the rest of us deal with it. I’d rather read a translation that “hung together” than one that tried to satisfy multiple incompatible cursing lexica at once.

    I too agree.

    If I had read the 120 Days in English, I would likely never have learned what an étron is. I’ve been waiting all my life since then for an opportunity to slip it into a conversation. A comment thread will have to do.

    The other thing (of only two) that I remember from the Days is a remark by, I think, the archbishop, something like: “I can go happily for days together without seeing a cunt”. It’s the only jokey-poo in the novel. Early camp.

    Pasolini’s (by-him-unfinished) film of it, Salò, is more interesting. In one scene, a group of young male actors can’t refrain from snickering when a big steaming cauldron of étrons is brought on the set.

    Altogether more entertaining and edifying than the novel are the ways people have dealt with it over the centuries. Now a translator is kicking against the pricks. What larks !

  26. My family here in Massachusetts use frig/friggin’ as substitutions for some of the non-literal senses of fuck.

    Yes. I grew up in NH and lived in Mass and for me frig/frick is just a euphemism for expletive fuck, and not a very strong one at that. I have had many disagreements on that subject with my Pennsylvania native spouse, who feels that “friggin'” is almost as strong as “fuckin'”.

  27. I was trying to find a way of bringing “kicking against the pricks” into the thread. Congrats to Stu on doing it so well.

  28. Thanks to the voicing phenomenon that has given us the flap sound, hundreds of millions of Americans have reanalyzed it as freakin(g)

    That doesn’t seem likely to me either. My impression is that freakin’ has a different geographic spread, and is also redolent of 1960s slang. If anything I would have guessed that “frig/fricking” is a New England evolution of “freaking”. I am old enough to remember a time when “freaking” was fairly common and no one said “frigging”.

  29. I wonder how many people are visiting here expecting an analysis of Sharday’s obscenities.

  30. Ha! But do people even remember Sade any more?

  31. I do. And I immediately thought the article was about her. My interest was piqued…

  32. Well, I’ll be blowed. I hadn’t given her more than a passing thought in thirty years, though back in the day I played that album everybody was buying quite a bit.

  33. I hadn’t given her more than a passing thought in thirty years, though back in the day I played that album everybody was buying quite a bit.
    “Smooth Operator” is a song that’s still played on the radio every now and then here in Germany, at least on “general pop / oldies plus current pop” stations . My musically formative years were the late 70s and the 80s, so for me she’s still the epitome of lounge music. When I read this thread, I was thinking of doing a Sade / Sharday pun, but wasn’t able to come up with anything. 🙂

  34. Le Marquis de Sade,
    The bawdy fraud,
    Was rather awed
    By Miss Sade.

    But Miss Sade
    Said: “There’s no way
    That I will play
    In the Journées”.

  35. When my son was 15 (eight years ago), he was invited to attend a week-long sports camp in another city. He would have stayed in a dorm with the other kids, but he didn’t want to go. “Some good players will be there,” I said, and named three or four, “it will be great competition, why don’t you want to go?” And he answered, “All those guys, they’re all pricks.”

    So as of eight years ago, anyway, prick was a word in common usage among mid-Atlantic high school students.

  36. @Stu: (claps)

  37. I think “prick” as a literal term for the penis is obsolescent in all the American dialects I am fluent in. However, as vulgar slang for “jerk,” it is largely unremarkable. This meaning was probably influenced by both the double synonymity of “dick” and by phonetic similarity to “prig” (similar to the bidirectional influence between “frig” and “freak”).

  38. J.W. Brewer says:

    When I was a teenage exchange student in West Germany (1982), one of the guys in my host family and some other local teens took me to what was billed as an Italian art film but turned out to be Pasolini’s adaptation of the work in question, rather to my host mother’s chagrin when she found out. I remember the visuals being more striking than the dialogue and thus don’t remember anything about lexical choices in the dialogue, although obviously a translation of the novel has to conjure up the visuals with words. (At some point the same summer one of those German teens asked me to gloss the phrasal verb “jerk off,” which I guess he’d seen in English-language texts but hadn’t been addressed in English class at the Gymnasium, but unfortunately my vulgar German was insufficiently fluent to give him a simple translation that was idiomatic and in the right register.)

    I am familiar at the conceptual level with frigging as a thing one might do in the rigging, via the Sex Pistols version of the traditional refrain cited above, but I think of frigging as so much of a Briticism that I have no reliable intuitions on exactly what scope of sexual behavior it may cover. Perhaps one reason it is common in North America for devoiced “fricking” to be used instead of “frigging,” when the need for a mildly-minced expletive is felt, is because “frig” has no coherent freestanding meaning for us? Although that said, my vague impression is that I have over the course of the decades heard fricking, freaking, and frigging all used by native AmEng speakers with no particularly obvious pattern as to who used which (or any sense of hierarchy of relative tabooness v. non-tabooness among them). And maybe occasionally fracking, although Battlestar Galactica’s to blame for that.

    I likewise can’t recall having previously seen the hypothesis relating the AAVE sexual sense of “freak” to “frig.” Is there a scholarly literature on this or is it simply an intriguing stab in the dark?

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Are you sure that’s the cause? I’m curious because I always thought of “freakin’” as a super-euphemism used by people unwilling even to say “friggin’”, rather than a reanalysis.

    Oh, that could be its origin. Today, though, it seems to be used for variety by people who are also happy to say fuckin(g).

    Perhaps one reason it is common in North America for devoiced “fricking” to be used instead of “frigging,” when the need for a mildly-minced expletive is felt, is because “frig” has no coherent freestanding meaning for us?

    That, too, makes plenty of sense.

    unfortunately my vulgar German was insufficiently fluent to give him a simple translation that was idiomatic and in the right register.

    Wichsen.* There’s nothing stylistically between it and the noun Selbstbefriedingung, literally “self-gratification”.

    * More commonly with x, because the original meaning is lost to people who don’t read a lot. Shoe polish was called Schuhwichse at some point within the 20th century.

  40. Frigging brings Victorian porn to mind. The Pearl was full of frigging which was manual stimulation of the female genitals as far as I can remember.

  41. Wichsen.* There’s nothing stylistically between it and the noun Selbstbefriedingung, literally “self-gratification”.
    There’s also sich einen runterholen, lit. “to get / fetch yourself one down”; but it’s about the same level of vulgarity IMD.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    Oh yes, and yes. I’ll never learn not to post too late at night. 🙂

  43. January First-of-May says:

    As synonyms for “penis,” “cock,” “dick,” and “prick” seem equally valid to me; I don’t expect any of them to become quaint or old-fashioned for quite some time yet.

    My opinion is essentially the same, which is why I didn’t comment on that particular part earlier.

    Wank has gone productive on the Internet: fanwank seems to be wishful thinking that has become consensus among fans…

    And then there’s the alternate history meaning (a scenario where a particular nation or other group is especially fortunate).

  44. Sort of a collective Mary Sue, then.

  45. January First-of-May says:

    Sort of a collective Mary Sue, then.

    Essentially this, yes (in fact, the former title for the TV Tropes article “Alternate History Wank” was “Republic of Mary Sue”).

    EDIT: Not to be confused with Susan-Mary.

  46. I wish he had just gone with what felt natural and real to himself, and let the rest of us deal with it. I’d rather read a translation that “hung together” than one that tried to satisfy multiple incompatible cursing lexica at once.

    [returning late to an interestingly filthy discussion] This principle works for the translation of cursing, but does it work for the translation of unrespectable words in the depiction of sexual activity? The use of those words in literature (serious or other) always has a strong element of artifice. “What feels natural and real” is a mirage if the most a translator can aspire to is an equivalent artifice that doesn’t sound jarringly contrived.

    Wank has gone productive on the Internet: fanwank seems to be wishful thinking that has become consensus among fans…
    And then there’s the alternate history meaning (a scenario where a particular nation or other group is especially fortunate).

    These seem American or at least mid-Atlantic developments of the base figurative sense of “wank” as “excessive self-indulgence”. In British/Aust/NZ English the figurative sense is well established but is directed at individual behavior (a wanker, wanking on, what a wank!) rather than at a group trend dissociated from personal characteristics. Are “fanwank” etc perceived as still vaguely British?

  47. Is “fan wank” a “circle jerk”?

  48. To my ear, “foo wank” is American, and the British equivalent is “foo wankery”. But maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

  49. Allan from Nevada, Iowa says:

    Wichsen.

    Well that sheds a whole new light on the surfboard accessory product called Sex Wax.

  50. I’ve wondered: when Life of Brian came out in 1979, did the “wanks as high as any in Wome” joke completely go over Americans’ heads? I imagine the word was pretty unknown here back then.

  51. I’m sure it did, including mine.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    Well that sheds a whole new light on the surfboard accessory product called Sex Wax.

    Not really; wichsen is a weak (regular) verb. What you do to skis in German is called wachsen, and never their vowels meet.

  53. Chris McG says:

    I like to imagine the conversation between a US Vicks VapoRub representative and their German marketing team when the product was first launched in Germany.
    “So it’s called Vicks.”
    “We can’t call it that here, it sounds like the German f-word.”
    “Ah of course, because V is F in German, but W is V, right? So could we call it Wicks?”
    “No, sorry, that means wanking.”
    “Probably best if customers don’t use it for that, though having ‘rub’ in the English name has misled a few people…”
    “Okay, how about Wick? Close to the original name, but no dodgy meaning in German.”
    “But in English, ‘wick’ means penis! There must be some word ending in -ick that is innocuous in both English and German.”
    *90 minutes later*
    “We can’t call it Sick, it’s meant to be medicine…”
    “Fine, Wick it is.”

  54. David Marjanović says:

    I like your way with words.

  55. After my mother’s stepmother had committed suicide in their Detroit apartment and my grandfather had fainted over the body, it was up to my mother, as the oldest child (something like 15), to summon the landlord from his basement apartment. She had only been in the U.S. for a few years, and she spent the entire time going down the stairs trying to remember the English past participle of shoot. She was able to rule out the weak form shooted by analogy, but she knew there was an obscene word very close by, phonologically speaking, and was determined to avoid it at all costs.

  56. @John Cowan: Would it be offensive to say that that would make a wonderful first paragraph for a novel? Or memoir of course.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Rodger C: I agree!

  58. So it would, except that something needs to be added to make it clear that my mother’s family was from Germany, and so the pairs of verbs she was worrying about were not only shoot and shit, but also schiessen and scheißen.

    Perhaps I should enter it in the next Bulwer-Lytton contest.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    schießen even after the reform: there’s a long vowel in front of the ß.

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