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. Continue reading