On Translation and The Little Prince

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote the brilliant novella, The Little Prince in 1943. Originally written in French, it’s become the most translated book from its original language, into over 250 different distinct languages and dialects. But part of the charm of The Little Prince are its original watercolour illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Those illustrations require no translation, as the old saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words” holds true in this case. Despite illustrations needing no translation, there is often a choice made regarding what material is to be illustrated, and which is not to be. In 1993, during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the publication of The Little Prince, pages from the handwritten manuscript (on onionskin) were displayed at the Pierpoint Morgan Library. Those pages included passages stricken out and some illustrations that Saint-Exupéry chose to exclude from the final version of the book.

One of the illustrations so excluded was that of the narrator asleep next to his crippled airplane.

“To picture the pilot”, Mr. Parks [the curator of the exhibit] said, “would give the story a literalness that would not help.” [1] Reif, Rita. A Charming Prince Turns 50, His Luster Intact. New York Times, 19 September 1993.

As with all design choices of including text or illustrations, deciding to explicitly throw out material in order to tell the story the author wished to in their original version of the story is a valid choice made by Saint-Exupéry. He chose the best illustrations in his opinion to maintain the ethereal tone he wanted his story to exude. Choosing between ambiguity and producing literal text & illustrations that depicted the actual scenes based in reality, Saint-Exupéry chose in every case to obfuscate.

Understanding the author’s intent is part of the translator’s challenge. Depending on the purpose of the translation, the translator can be afforded a great deal of liberty. A great translation can enhance a book, while a substandard translation can doom a book. Due to this dual nature of attempting to convey the story as faithfully as possible, while maintaining the “feel” of the story itself, the translator can have a huge impact on the story itself. The translator should always be acknowledged and disclosed in order to fully appreciate the contribution that they have made in presenting the author’s story. The translator is essentially performing an artistic retelling of a story for people unable to understand the original version, much like a wandering minstrel in the Middle Ages would do, but the translator must remain faithful to the author’s intent and the story itself.

The greatest impediment for translators is the cultural differences that exist not just in the target market, but also within the use of idioms and other literary devices by the author. Authors writing in their own native language are able to encode subtle linguistic devices that advance the story in a method not otherwise possible. The use of such devices by the author is also very difficult to translate properly.

As an example, consider the Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The novel is set in 1960s New Orleans, and part of its appeal is how realistically the city at that period of time was depicted by Toole. The rich descriptions of the city itself, its inhabitants, and even the dialects used in the city are all details that have been interwoven together in order to provide a lush and realistic portrait of a living city. However, if the translator is unfamiliar with all these details, or about New Orleans’ culture and the corresponding translation was produced without this background information, it would end up being nearly unreadable.

Part of the problem is that there are so many subtle ‘in-jokes’ and obscure details that Toole put into A Confederacy of Dunces that the reader also has to be familiar with the subject matter in order to fully enjoy the book as Toole intended. Being a work of fiction, sometimes nuggets of real information are assumed to be fictional but are so esoteric, that only people with intimate knowledge of the culture recognize them as being factual. One such example is that of the protagonist’s favorite soft drink, Dr. Nut. That was an actual soft drink produced in New Orleans itself during the period of time that the novel is set in, and had an almond flavor. It ceased production and has never been able to make a successful comeback since. Without knowing this, most people would assume that Dr. Nut was simply a fictional drink.

Another ‘hidden feature’ that Toole used that would definitely not be readily apparent to the casual reader, much less a translator without prior knowledge of this is the structure of the novel itself. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly’s favourite book is Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy. Toole structured his Dunces to have the same structure as Consolations. So the translator has to be aware of all of these intentional acts taken by Toole, especially of the ‘meta-structure’ formulated in the novel’s structure, and all the background information required just to understand New Orleans in the 1960s. Despite all these barriers, Dunces has still been translated into over twenty-five different languages already. (For those unaware, Dunces is rather notorious for how it was even published in the first place, given that Toole committed suicide due to his inability to find a publisher for his novel. It was eventually published by LSU Press, which explains why it was even published in the first place – as that would probably be the only publisher at the time that’d understand the culture of New Orleans).

Left unstated by everybody is the simple fact that the translator must love (or understand) the material and/or the languages in order to provide a superb rendition. Otherwise, we’d be left with tepid literal translations that capture none of the exuberant energy that the original possesses. The Little Prince in its original French is endowed with that rare ebullience that everybody wants to bottle up to sell or use to write that next great novel. Being rather slim in page count (only about 100, depending on version, translation, and the size of the book itself), The Little Prince packs a lot into these few pages. It also possesses a great variety of words and aphorisms, making it an excellent choice for translators that want to translate something short and meaningful. Left untranslated, it’s also a wonderful introductory book for French students to practice reading.

There have been a number of translations of The Little Prince over the years, but a certain illustrative phenomena has emerged within the world of The Little Prince translations. People became attached to their favorite translation of the book and reject others for not possessing the same “charm” as their preferred translation. This has led to a ‘perfect storm’ for some readers who want to be able to pass down the same translation of the book that they grew up with to their children or grandchildren. Unfortunately, they often find that their preferred translation in English has been out of print for quite a while, leading to a backlash against the publishers. As a result, “as-new” copies of the old English translation have been steadily increasing in price. With millions of copies of The Little Prince still being sold on an annual basis, this is not a trend that the publishers can afford to ignore for much longer. Some have taken action by attempting to commission new translations, or to provide some other new ‘value-added’ feature.

The original English translation was done in 1943 by Katherine Woods, and this version had some notable errors that have taken on a life of their own. The most obvious error occurs in Chapter Four where Woods mistranslated a French word as ‘sheep’ instead of ‘friend’. I have my doubts about if this error was produced by Woods or by the publisher (and thus remained uncorrected for decades). The chapter in question actually contains several references to sheep, and after writing and translating sheep so much, I’m certain that Woods had sheep on her brain when she translated that line in error. This error is actually part of the “charm” of the Woods translation for several people.

A fan of The Little Prince collects Asian language translations, and noticed something interesting. He was able to develop a “sheep test” in order to determine whether or not the new Asian translation utilized the original Saint-Exupéry French text or the Woods English text as the basis of their translation. Apparently, it’s rather hard to find a translator for an Asian language that knows French (English has become an international business language standard worldwide). This ‘sheep test’ is an indicator of the Woods translation, as this was a mistranslation in the first place (and further translations into English have not repeated this error). The problem is that translating something into another language from a translation will lead to further deviation.

By not utilizing the original source material, the translator risks undermining the resulting translation. And yet, the errors in the Woods translation have added to its allure to readers over the years. Many readers enjoy the overall job that Woods performed – by producing a poetical translation that evoked some of the original’s spirit, even if it wasn’t always literally correct. The fact is that Woods’ translation just happened to fit The Little Prince exceptionally well. If the translation matches the author’s intent for the book’s feel and meaning, then the translator has done a great job (and minor errors do not detract from the overall translation).

Woods’ translation was the only English version available and published for several decades until T.V.F. Cuffe’s translation was published by Penguin in 1995. So for fifty-two years, the default version for English readers was the Woods translation. That’s more than enough time for readers to become attached that one particular translation. Generations of children grew up with that translation, and since it had remained unchanged for so long, most of those children, now grown adults assumed that they would always be able to purchase a new copy of the book they remembered from their childhood to present as gifts. But the Woods translation went out of print in 2000.

Harcourt Brace, the publisher of The Little Prince in America decided that they wanted to publish a new translation for the 100th anniversary of Saint-Exupéry’s birth. And so in 2000, they published the Richard Howard translation. By choosing the Howard translation, the publisher sent the Woods translation into retirement. This led to great disappointment to many readers, especially when they purchased the trumpeted new edition of The Little Prince only to find the Howard translation had changed the feel of the book for them. Gone were the charming idiosyncrasies produced by Woods. The structure, diction, and language choices were different as well. The Little Prince has been a common gift book presented to graduates, so many gifters were disappointed about the changed translation.

While the Howard translation is more ‘accurate’ and ‘updated the language’, Woods’ fans claim that the “charm” The Little Prince had has been lost. As can be seen from this example, a translation can make or break a book. All the in-print editions of The Little Prince in English feature a non-Woods translation. In fact, it’s rather difficult to find information about specific translations and editions of the The Little Prince in English, despite being one of the most collected books ever produced.

The job of translating thus becomes one of the most unrecognized and thankless professions within the publishing world. Even with the huge role they play in the success of a book by essentially rewriting the entire book, the translator is still given short shrift in just about everything from payment to acknowledgement. So then, why would a translator want to undertake a translation? One reason may be that they want more people to love the same material that they do and believe they’re providing a worthy service (we’ll ignore obvious reasons such as, “it’s a paying job”). Another reason may be for personal growth (with the byproduct being happily shared) or for themselves to understand the work better. Translating a book yourself, and doing it well, requires a dedication to understanding the work and author in depth.

The Little Prince is clearly a fantastic book to translate and it is beloved worldwide. However, there’s a dearth of detailed information about the multitude of editions, both common and rare. A Japanese superfan has put together a staggering collection of Little Prince editions and ephemera highlighted at lepetitprince.net. This person has three (!) copies of the signed limited edition first printing, which are incredibly rare (only 525 English-edition and 260 French-edition books were signed total). These copies also retail for above $10,000 USD which is justified due to two factors, it’s a first edition, and Saint-Exupéry was lost at sea the year after these editions were published, thus the supply of actual books signed by Saint-Exupéry is rather low. Apart from the limited edition version, the standard printings of The Little Prince are also quite collectible in their own rights. Deluxe editions have been produced from time to time, especially the 50th anniversary edition published in 1993. That edition came in a box with a letter and other ephemera, and was a hardcover book.

The 60th anniversary edition is a paper hardback with a dust jacket, a silk ribbon, and a “bookplate” (really a special dedication page). However, the slipcase has been made out of cloth. A bit strange to have better binding material for the slipcase rather than the book itself, but it was probably done on purpose in the name of profit. I can only wish that it had been bound in a better edition. This edition was published in 2003.

Obviously with the original publication date in 1943, this means that the 70th anniversary is just around the corner in 2013. Hopefully the 70th anniversary edition has better production value than the 60th did, and is closer to the 50th anniversary version. I noted that this was a great opportunity for a publisher such as The Folio Society.

I proposed to The Folio Society that they consider publishing The Little Prince in 2013. The Society has already published Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars in a lovely edition in 1990. Given their standing in the publishing hierarchy, they could certainly publish a version of The Little Prince that would satisfy many people. The Woods translation is out of print. Printing the book in its original English translation with the author’s own illustrations would fit right into their somewhat current series of classic children’s books with the original or author’s own illustrations. Some examples of this “series” would include: Charlotte’s Web and Just So Stories (not the limited edition version)and The Secret Garden, amongst others. I promise that such an edition with a nice blue cloth cover similar to some of the original bindings of the early editions of The Little Prince would sell very well. It’d probably also introduce a lot of people to The Folio Society, making this a winning proposition. The Folio Society responded to this post in 2012, informing the author that they indeed had been considering The Little Prince as part of their shortlist of books to be published. To date, they have yet to publish such an edition, but it remains a perennial consideration.

There are of course, issues that have to be resolved by The Folio Society, such as licensing and rights fees. But given the price that this book would be sold at, that’s probably not going to be much of an issue. And if they were to only use the Woods translation, it’d not be a direct competitor to any publisher’s current editions of The Little Prince. This can be strictly viewed as a edition of a beloved book with a beloved translation. If they wanted to add an introduction, I even have a suggestion – Howard Scherry.

In the course of researching editions of The Little Prince, I wanted to see the differences between the translations available, and of course the editions themselves. There’s a great variety of new and used books out on the marketplace just in the English language alone, much less all the other languages available. I endeavored to at least check every “major” English translation:

  • Katherine Woods, 1943 – The original translation, Harcourt Brace
  • T.V.F. Cuffe, 1995 – Penguin U.K.
  • Alan Wakeman, 1995 – Pavilion U.K.
  • Richard Howard, 2000 – The “new” translation, Harcourt Brace
  • David Wilkinson, 2011 – Omilia Languages (a dual French/English version meant for students)
  • Rowland Hill, 2016 – Chouette Editions (An interesting take on translating)
  • John Hinds, 2016 – The Annotated Little Prince (self-published)

I also of course wanted to take a look at original French editions, along with some other interesting editions. So after collecting all of these books – I’m able to compare and contrast these editions. A in-depth look at the translations themselves will have to wait for another day. The original post here contained images of all of these editions, but given the opportunity to provide my blog with a face-lift, I’ve found that it’s probably going to be better served to have a separate post for each and every edition. As I complete those posts, they will be linked to from this post.

One Reply to “On Translation and The Little Prince”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.