Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


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A Labour of Love

by Alan Wakeman (Translator THE LITTLE PRINCE new edition, Pavilion Books London 1995. ISBN 1 85793 283 8)

When I first read Saint-Exupéry’s LE PETIT PRINCE while studying French at l’Alliance Française in Paris thirty years ago I was captivated by his profound, witty, lovingly-crafted, moving story - and particularly by his simple, everyday spoken French. But when I bought the English translation for a friend I was so bitterly disappointed I didn’t hand it over. The so-called ‘classic’ English translation - by Katherine Woods - is literal, clumsy, twee and riddled with errors. (Ask yourself why Heinemann sell more copies of her translation in Japan than in Britain!) She conveys the meaning but misses the essence. It’s a measure of the strength of the original story that, despite this handicap, it has remained in print for fifty years.

Getting the meaning right is the easy part for a translator; capturing the essence is harder and may be impossible. Take this French word play:

  ‘Si six scies scient six cyprès chaque scie scie son cyprè.’

Literally translated, it means: ‘If six saws saw six cypresses each saw saws its cypress.’ But the meaning isn’t the point. The point is that, spoken aloud, the same sound is repeated six times. It is clearly impossible to translate this and the meaning without recourse to footnotes - out of the question for a children’s story. So what is a translator to do? Depending on the context an English joke sentence might be used instead; something like:

  smith where jones had had had had had had had had had had had more effect on the examiner

where the meaning is similarly immaterial. (See below for correct punctuation.*)

But what if an author had skilfully incorporated the literal meaning into the finished text too? Despite such conundrums, in 1979, twenty years after I first read LE PETIT PRINCE, I determined to attempt a new translation myself as a labour of love. (I knew no matter how successful my new version it couldn't be published at that time for copyright reasons.)

The opening sentence of Chapter XI is an example of the thorny problems I faced. In the original French it reads:

  ‘La seconde planète était habitée par un vaniteux.’


  ‘The second planet was inhabited by a vain man.’

Katherine Woods translates this almost word for word:

  ‘The second planet was inhabited by a conceited man.’

But although in French ‘vaniteux’ and ‘vaniteuse’ are common words (meaning ‘vain man’ and ‘vain woman’) we have no equivalent in everyday English. Maybe this is because vanity is the dark side of chic - another common French word! Significantly, the French often say the English lack chic. They’re probably right but this may be because we have less vanity too. Certainly I’ve never seen a pub or café in England with mirrors lining every vertical surface. In France it’s a common sight, though why customers should want to check they’re still chic every few seconds is beyond me. (I’ve seen them doing it and it looked like vanity to me.) My point is that perhaps a word for ‘vaniteux’ doesn’t exist in English because we have less need of it. So how is the word to be translated? Well, LE PETIT PRINCE is for children who would never say:

  ‘A conceited man inhabits...!’

but might say:

  ‘A swank lives…’

So I opted for:

  ‘On the second planet lived a swank.’

It’s still not perfect but it’s certainly closer to the spirit of the original. And to support my claim that my translation is generally closer to the spirit of Saint-Exupéry’s original, here are a few more examples, together with word-for-word translations, Katherine Woods’s versions and mine.

In the opening chapter, after describing how he became a pilot, Saint-Exupéry writes about how lonely his life has been...

  ‘...jusqu’à une panne dans le désert du Sahara, il y a six ans...’


  ‘...just to a break-down in the desert of Sahara, there is six years...’

which Katherine Woods renders...

  ‘..until I had an accident with my plane in the Desert of Sahara, six years ago...’

Notice Saint-Ex makes no reference to ‘accident’ or ‘plane’ and that ‘panne’ means ‘break-down’. Furthermore, have you ever heard a native English speaker refer to the ‘Desert of Sahara’? This is my version:

  ‘...until six years ago when I had a break-down in the Sahara Desert...’

After the little prince’s astounding appearance ‘a thousand miles from human habitation’ Saint-Ex comments:

  ‘Or mon petit bonhomme ne me semblait ni égaré, ni mort de fatigue, ni mort de faim, ni mort de soif, ni mort de peur...’


  ‘Now my little goodman nor me seemed nor lost, nor dead of fatigue, nor dead of hunger,
   nor dead of thirst, nor dead of fear.’

which KW renders as:

  ‘And yet my little man seemed neither to be straying uncertainly among the sands,
   nor to be fainting from fatigue or hunger or thirst or fear.’

This is my version:

  ‘Yet this little fellow didn't seem to be either lost, or tired, or hungry,
   or thirsty, or frightened.’

Later Saint-Ex asks the little prince:

  ‘Où est-ce chez toi?’


  ‘Where is it at yours?’

Which KW, unbelievably, has rendered:

  ‘What is this ‘where I live’ of which you speak?’

while I’ve simply put what any grown-up would ask a child:

  ‘Where's your home?’

There are even places where KW has the meaning wrong. (Surely they can’t be typographical errors after fifty years in print?) For example, at one point Saint-Ex writes:

  ‘Si je vous ai raconté ces détails sur l’astéroide B 612 et si je vous ai confié son numéro,
   c’est à cause des grandes personnes.


  ‘If I you have recounted these details on the Asteroid B 612 and if I you have confided
   its number, it is for the cause of large persons.’

Unaccountably, Katherine Woods’s version of this is:

  ‘If I have told you these details about the asteroid, and made a note of its number for you,
   it is on no account of the grown-ups and their ways.’

which not only omits the number referred to but means the exact opposite of Saint-Ex’s original! This is my translation:

  ‘I've given all these details about Asteroid B 612, including its number, for the benefit of grown ups.’

The next paragraph - too long to quote here - confirms that I’m right about this. Some of Katherine Woods’s translations make me wonder what her native tongue was because her English is often grammatically wrong. For example, where Saint-Ex has:

  ‘Alors les épines, à quoi servent-elles?’


  ‘Then the spines, to what serve they?’

she has:

  ‘Then the thorns, what use are they?’

Which is not only clumsy but bad English. (Definite articles are not used for generalisations.) This is my version:

  ‘So what's the point of thorns then?’

And compare:

  ‘A cet instant-là je me disais: < Si ce boulon résiste encore, je le ferai sauter d’un coup de marteau. >’


  ‘At this instant there I me said <If this bolt resists more, I it will make jump of a blow of hammer.’

KW has:

  ‘At that instant I was saying to myself: “If this bolt still won’t turn,
   I am going to knock it out with the hammer.”’

This is my translation:

  ‘At that moment I was thinking: “If this bolt resists one second longer,
   I'll knock it to bits with a hammer.”’

Here’s another example of the same mistake:

  ‘Il faut bien que je supporte deux ou trois chénilles si je veux connaître les papillons.
   Il paraît que c’est tellement beau. Sinon qui me rendra visite? Tu seras loin, toi. Quant
   aux grosse bêtes, je ne crains rien. J’ai mes griffes.’

Word-for-word, this reads:

  ‘It makes well that I support two or three caterpillars if I wish to know the butterflies.
   It seems that it’s so beautiful. If not who will me visit? Thou wilt be far, thou. As to
   the gross animals, I not fear nothing. I have my claws .’

KW laboriously, incorrectly and ungrammatically renders this as:

  ‘Well, I must endure the presence of two or three caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted
   with the butterflies. It seems that they are very beautiful. And if not the butterflies - and
   the caterpillars - who will call upon me? You will be far away... As for the large animals, I
   am not at all afraid of any of them. I have my claws.’

Teachers of English as a foreign language will recognise:

  ‘if not the butterflies - and the caterpillars - who will call upon me?‘

as typical foreign student’s inelegance and bad grammar. This is my version:

  ‘I must put up with a few caterpillars, mustn’t I, if I want to see butterflies? I hear
   they're so beautiful. Besides, who else will come to see me? You'll be far away. As for
   big animals, they don't frighten me. I've got my claws . . .’

A word or two about question phrases (‘Must I? Don’t you? Have you? Wouldn’t he? etc.) The twelve special verbs that make them in English (called anomalous finites) are also used for negatives, interrogatives, short form replies and several other expressions unique to English. Nothing remotely like them appears in the original wording of any foreign text. (Some languages express one form with an invariable ‘isn’t it?’ e.g. ‘N’est-ce pas?’ in French tagged onto anything, but that’s as far as it goes.) Yet these expressions are an integral part of English syntax. Consider this interchange:

  ‘I’ve just sold my car.’ ‘Oh, you have, have you?!’

With five short words the second speaker expresses surprise and disbelief and simultaneously confirms accurate perception of what was said (by repetition of the anomalous finite used, in the tense used, by the first speaker). If the second speaker had replied: ‘Couldn’t you?!’ the first speaker would have known immediately that he or she hadn’t heard properly. This is one of many practical, efficient communication devices made possible by the twelve anomalous finites. Now consider the plight of a French translator faced with this piece of dialogue. How is the second speaker’s utterance to be translated? The only solution is to imagine what a French speaker might say in a similar context. Probably: ‘C’est pas vrai!’ But suppose you then had to translate this back into the original English. Katherine Woods would undoubtedly have put: ‘It is not true!’ and missed it. In fact few translators have experience teaching English to foreigners, or are aware of anomalous finites, or of much English syntax at all, but this surely doesn’t mean a text translated from a foreign tongue should never contain these quintessentially English forms, does it?!

I’ve saved another Katherine Woods’s howler till last. Where Saint-Ex has:

  ‘Bonne nuit, fit le petit prince à tout hasard.’


  ‘Good night, made the little prince at all hazard.’

KW has:

  ‘“Good evening,” said the little prince courteously.’

Which she must have known was downright wrong. This is my version:

  ‘“Good evening,” said the little prince, on the off chance.’

Sometimes, happily, a phrase works better in the new language than it did in the original. Thus where Saint-Ex has:

  ‘Ce sera tellement amusant! Tu auras cinq cents millions de grelots, j’aurai
   cinq cents millions de fontaines..’


  ‘It will be so amusing! Thou wilt have five hundred millions of bells, I shall
   have five hundred millions of fountains...’

KW missed it, of course:

  ‘That will be so amusing! You will have five hundred million little bells, and
   I shall have five hundred million springs of fresh water!’

But I grabbed my chance:

  ‘It'll be fun! You'll have five hundred million bells,
   and I'll have five hundred million wells...’ 

© Alan Wakeman 1994

  • Solution to punctuation problem:
  Smith, where Jones had had "had had" had had "had". "Had had" had had more effect on the examiner.

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