4 Passages in the “Little Prince” Show Why Translation is an Art

Is translation an art or is it a science? A little bit of both? 4 passages from The Little Prince show just how much influence a translator has on how readers experience the original work in another language.

Did you know that Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s story The Little Prince  is one of the most-translated books in the whole world? It’s been translated into 253 different languages from around the world.  And it’s been translated from the original French into English several times. From 1943 to 2001, the most widely-read translation of The Little Prince was by Katherine Woods. That translation is now out of print, scrapped in favor of a more “modern” translation by Richard Howard. Native English readers have strong feelings about which translation is the best. When you look at how each translator interpreted the same passage, it’s easy to see why!

Here are 4 passages from each of the Little Prince translations that show the differences between the two.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

This quote, spoken by the fox in the Woods translation, is often cited as the quote that best illustrates the theme of The Little Prince. Here’s how it fared in the Howard translation: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

While you can tell both versions are based on the same original, each one has a different rhythm, cadence and voice.  And you can bet that readers noticed. For example, one Amazon reviewer commented

“Huh? “Anything essential is invisible to the eyes”? Far from expressing Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s meaning, this generalization means, in effect, nothing. And it is obviously not true: Water is essential, and you can see it (more or less).

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Here’s another quote from the very quotable Fox, this time about the nature of sacrifice and love.  Howard translates it: “It’s the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important.”

Again, there’s only a few words’ difference, but the meaning subtly shifts. “Spent on” just doesn’t carry the same sense of sacrifice as “wasted for.” I spent time writing this post, but it wasn’t “wasted,” because I will get paid for my work. I “wasted” time unnecessarily re-reading large chunks of The Little Prince because I love to read. There is a difference.

“As for me,’ said the little prince to himself, ‘If I had fifty- three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

Here’s the Howard version: “If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked,’ the little prince said to himself, ‘I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain. ”

Again, it’s the same but different. Not only is the language more modernised, but the images evoked are quite different. In the Woods version, “at my leisure” and “a spring of fresh water” suggested a meditative walk through the woods. That’s a bit different than walking “very slowly” toward a common “water fountain.”

“You — you alone will have the stars as no one else has them”…  In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You — only you — will have stars that can laugh!”

This is the Little Prince’s poignant goodbye to the narrator,  before he commits suicide-by-snake to send himself back to his home planet. Here’s how it sounds when Howard translates it:

“You, though, you’ll have stars like nobody else … Since I’ll be living on one of them, since I’ll be laughing on one of them, for you it’ll be as if all the stars are laughing. You’ll have stars that can laugh!”

Woods’ translation uses repetition (“you alone” and “only you”) to emphasize how unique the shared experiences are that bind the Prince and the narrator together. Howard forgoes this for a more streamlined version.

So, which translation is the best? Some would argue Woods, others would argue for Howard. And neither version is exactly like the original French.

Mrk Osborne, the director of the new Little Prince animated movie, gave this example in the Wall Street Journal:

The fox also asks the Little Prince to “tame” him, though this is an admittedly imperfect translation of the French verb “apprivoiser.” “That is a really beautiful word,” Mr. Osborne said, explaining that it has a set of special connotations in French. The verb does not simply mean “to domesticate” but instead suggests a process of gently forging a relationship. “I love that,” Mr. Osborne said, “because it’s the biggest example of how difficult it is to translate the French language.”

Translation is about much more than swapping out one word for another.  Even Google Translate can get that right some of the time. (But not always!)  A good translation also transfers intangible qualities, like tone and emotion.  It’s an art. Reading these translations of The Little Prince is like watching two painters paint the same scene, each in a different style.

Literature isn’t the only type of writing that depends on having the correct meaning expressed in the right voice. Most businesses depend more than you might think on carefully chosen words (and images): on websites, on advertisements and even on internal company documents. At K International, we’ve been helping businesses communicate in other languages for two decades. Want to make your voice translates into their language? Contact us – we’d love to help! 

Which translation of The Little Prince do you prefer? Sound off in the comments!

2 replies
  1. Greg
    Greg says:

    Actually, I did a feature on translations of the Little Prince some years ago in which I discussed the ways that the fox’s secret were translated into English, although I admit I stopped short of passing judgement on the quality of the translations. It can be found here: http://www.cjvlang.com/petitprince/foxsecret/foxsecret.html (click on Français).

    I also looked at the way “Je sentais battre son cœur comme celui d’un oiseau qui meurt, quand on l’a tiré à la carabine” is translated. I’ve always wondered how the heart of a bird shot by a rifle would be beating exactly.

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