Translating Sade: The Grove Press Editions, 1953-1968

By Wyngaard, Amy S. | The Romanic Review, May-November 2013 | Go to article overview

Translating Sade: The Grove Press Editions, 1953-1968


Wyngaard, Amy S., The Romanic Review


In the last paragraph of their foreword to the 1965 Grove Press edition of The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings, the translators Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse quote the marquis de Sade's wish, expressed in his last will and testament, that acorns be scattered over his grave, "in order that, the spot become green again, and the copse grown back thick over it, the traces of my grave may disappear from the face of the earth, as I trust the memory of me shall fade out of the minds of men" (xiv). Seaver and Wainhouse, who believed in the importance of Sade's writings and were deeply invested in their efforts to produce the first unexpurgated American translations of his works, express doubt that this prophecy would ever come to pass. The success of the Grove Press translations, however, has in fact caused certain aspects of Sade's (critical) history to be forgotten. Five decades after their original publication in the 1960s, and two decades after their reissue in the early 1990s, these once-controversial editions of Sade's works can now be considered mainstream. Widely referenced and readily available, they are more or less an accepted part of the American literary landscape, with only their original prefatory materials left to bear witness to what was one of the most fraught and revolutionary moments in the history of American publishing, not to mention Sade studies.

Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset saw the publication of Sade's works as integral to his fight for the freedom of the press. After Rosset bought Grove in 1951, he systematically set out to challenge obscenity laws and battle censorship. The press is perhaps best known for its publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1959) and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1961). Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned from the mails; Tropic of Cancer was prosecuted as obscene in over sixty court battles from 1961 to 1964 (McCord vii-x). The lawyer Charles Rembar successfully defended the press's right to publish and circulate the works according to the definition of obscenity at the time, established in a 1957 Supreme Court decision known as the Roth opinions, as material appealing to prurient interest that was "utterly without redeeming social importance"; Rembar transformed this into the so-called social-value test, guided by the belief that "importance" imposed a higher standard than "value." (1) In 1958 the Parisian publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert won a similar, if mitigated, victory in French courts, which allowed his editions of Sade's works--the first complete, modern versions of the author's texts--to continue to circulate in France. (2) In producing translations of Sade, Rosset sought to capitalize on these victories and break new ground. In all, the press published five volumes of writings and criticism pertaining to Sade: The Marquis de Sade: An Essay by Simone de Beauvoir with Selections from His Writings Chosen by Paul Dinnage (1953); Gilbert Lely's The Marquis de Sade, /\ Definitive Biography (trans. Alec Brown, 1962); The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings (trans. Seaver and Wainhouse, 1965); The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings (trans. Seaver and Wainhouse, 1966); and Juliette (trans. Wainhouse, 1968). That these editions were not subject to censorship is a testimony to the careful planning and positioning executed by Rosset and the translators--the success of which would prove to be a bit of a letdown for the men, who had anticipated a battle. (3)

The story of the Grove Press translations of Sade, contained in the Grove Press records and the Austryn Wainhouse papers housed in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Library, reveals the editorial strategies and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that enabled these texts to be published and to circulate--and which recall those used by authors, printers, and booksellers in Sade's eighteenth-century France. …

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