John Galbraith Simmons
2011 Translation Projects
The great themes that pervade Aline and Valcour, the beauty of the French prose, and its insistent relevance with respect to contemporary dynamics of personal, social and political conflict make the project of translating it a rare privilege and a durable pleasure. Jocelyne Barque and I undertook this translation with only a glimmer of understanding what a complex task it would be in terms of length and demanding prose. We are deeply gratified by what we can only take to be wisdom and courage at the NEA for providing a grant to bring into the English language a major and long-neglected work by an author whose brilliance and stature are surpassed only by his notoriety.
excerpt from Aline and Valcour by Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade.
[translated from French]
From Déterville to Valcour
Paris, 3 June 1778
Yesterday, my dear Valcour, Eugénie and I supped at the home of your goddess. Where were you? Was it jealousy? Were you brooding? Was it fear? For us your absence was an enigma that Aline could not or would not explain and which we were hard pressed to decipher. I was about to ask after you when round blue eyes, brimming with love and decency, stared me down as a warning to dissemble. I fell silent, but soon after tried again; I wished to know the reason for the mystery. A sigh and a nod were the only answers I received. Eugénie had no better luck; we pressed no further, from Madame de Blamont too, an audible sigh. Most delightful, my friend, is this lady and mother; I can scarcely imagine a more lively mind or sensitive soul, with such grace of manners, affability and charm. It is rare to find such cultivation in one so amiable. To me it has always seemed that well-educated women possess a certain hardness when in society, an affectation which for the pleasure of their company one pays dearly. They manifest wit only in private or else, finding too little of it among those around them, they deign not show they possess it. How different the adorable mother of your Aline! If, despite her thirty-six years, she still aroused great passion, in truth I would not be surprised.
As for M. de Blamont, unworthy husband to a most deserving wife, he acted stubborn, categorical and rude, as if he were a judge seated on the royal bench. He railed against tolerance, defended torture, and delighted in telling us about an unfortunate man that he and his colleagues planned on having pummeled on the morrow; he said the man is possessed of a malevolent nature and that nothing could be done but to put him in chains; that fear is a monarch's most powerful resource; and that a tribunal charged with receiving denunciations was the crowning achievement of politics. He went on to tell us about land he had just acquired, about the sublime nature of his rights thereto, and most especially about his project to establish a menagerie -- among the animals in which I daresay he will be the most spiteful.
A few minutes before the first course was served, there arrived quite another type of individual. He was short and squat, his torso adorned with a juste-au-corps made from olive-colored fabric top to bottom, some fifteen inches wide, its needlework of a design, it seemed to me, identical to the one with which Clovis embellished his royal robes. This tiny man had huge feet, grotesquely crammed into high heels, supporting two oversized legs. Looking for a waist you would find a paunch. Seeking a glimpse of his face? Only a wig, cravat and, from time to time, the eruption of a discordant falsetto that made you wonder if the gullet belonged to a human or a parakeet. This ridiculous mortal, precisely as I sketch him herein, was introduced as M. Dolbourg. Just as he made his ceremonial bow, a rosebud flung by Aline in Eugénie's direction disturbed the laws of equilibrium upon which he depended. Man and said rosebud collided and he went stumbling forward headfirst. The unexpected shock to his bulky mass convulsed his factitious accessories -- his tie flew to one side, his wig to the other. Spilled and so stripped, this unfortunate fellow provoked an outburst from my crack-brained Eugénie. So convulsed with laugher, she was taken off to an adjacent sitting room, where I believed she would faint. Aline contained herself, the President grew angry, bit his lip for restraint and made a show of concern. Two servants put to right the little man who, like a turtle on its back, could not muster the necessary suppleness to turn over onto his stomach. Back on his head went the wig, the cravat was tastefully re-tied. Eugénie returned and the happy announcement that supper was served returned things to order by diverting all minds to a common end.
About Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade
Nearly two centuries after his death in 1814, Sade has become an author of extraordinary significance for world literature. The insistent beauty of his language, his political engagement and the philosophical challenges he poses for conventional morality make him eminently relevant and exciting. A harbinger of anthropology and psychology at work in literary fiction, he possess the advantage, too, of a thorough lack of parochial limitations. Sade touches earth invariably on the side of freedom, no matter how dark and frightening the picture he paints of humankind.
John Galbraith Simmons has broad range as a writer and translator. He is the author of four published novels, including The Sharing (1983) and Midnight Walking (1986), two collective biographies around science and medicine, The Scientific 100 (1996) and Doctors and Discoveries: Lives That Created Today's Medicine (2002), and the forthcoming tPA for Stroke, (2010) written with Justin Zivin, MD, PhD. Simmons broke into translation in 1994 with Return to Vietnam. He and his wife, Jocelyne Geneviève Barque, joined the board of translators in 2004 for the three-volume International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis; they also worked on The Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. Simmons is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he studied philosophy, and Long Island University. He lives in New York City.
Photo by Jocelyne Barque