The Observer

A Plea for Le Petit Prince

Some books should be read in the original. Eighty years after it first appeared in print, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella merits a re-read. Preferably in French.
Photograph courtesy of the Saint Exupéry-d’Agay Estate, illustration by Mathide Aubier

Some fictional characters never go out of fashion: Think Sherlock Holmes, d’Artagnan, or Batman. Arguably, the one who out-fashions them all is the Little Prince, a young intergalactic traveler-cum-philosopher from Asteroid B 612, created by the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in a novella published 80 years ago. The book’s main character and his musings have become so familiar to millions of readers that many are unaware of his French origins.

And yet Le Petit Prince, to give him his birth name, is indeed French. His creator was born into an aristocratic family – full name Antoine Jean-Baptiste Marie Roger, Count de Saint-Exupéry – in Lyon in 1900; he became a pilot and subsequently a journalist and writer. Like the scholar and theologian C.S. Lewis, whose fame rests largely on The Chronicles of Narnia, Saint-Exupéry was a cerebral author but is best-known today for a work that is supposedly for children but can be read on many levels. And, as with Lewis, the book is more famous than the man. (A 2010 Google doodle celebrating what would have been Saint-Ex’s 110th birthday featured the character, not the author.)

How the book came into being is a fascinating French-American story. Self-exiled in the U.S. in 1940 to escape Nazi-occupied France, Saint-Exupéry, by then a prize-winning novelist, was hospitalized the following year in Los Angeles, injured in a flying accident and deeply depressed by his country’s fate. One of his regular bedside visitors was the French actress Annabella, wife of Hollywood star Tyrone Power, who would read aloud to the invalid from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales in order to lighten his bleak mood. Together, the two began riffing on the idea of a childlike “little prince” who might live on in every adult long after they have grown up. In New York the following year, in the company of his American publisher Eugene Reynal, Saint-Ex was sketching a young blond-haired boy on the tablecloth of a Manhattan restaurant. When he explained the origins of the doodle to Reynal’s wife, she suggested that he write a children’s book about the prince to take his mind off darker matters. Which is why Saint-Ex’s fictional character – some say his alter ego – made his first visit to this planet via America.

Whether The Little Prince is really intended for kids is a question that has constantly exercised readers and critics, be they fans or detractors. Usually portrayed as un conte philosophique, or philosophical tale, the novella has been seen variously as an allegory of the author’s marriage, the story of lost innocence in a material world, and a critique of curiosity-killing consumerism. In an article for this magazine, Adam Gopnik called The Little Prince a fable of war, in which the central emotions of conflict – isolation, fear, and uncertainty – can be alleviated only by intimate speech and love. Others see it as contrast between the hidebound lives of adults – portrayed as businessmen, merchants, and the like – and the unfettered curiosity of children. Whatever the reality, the book’s success lies above all in the author’s ability to create an entire magical world and weave a simple, coherent narrative around it.

It is an understatement to say that The Little Prince has become a phenomenon – words like bestseller or chartbuster don’t do it justice. One of the most-read secular books of all time, it has sold an estimated 130 million copies and continues to sell 5 million annually. It has been adapted for the screen, theater, opera, and ballet, as well as cartoons, video games, and audiobooks – and there is even a museum in Japan and a theme park in Alsace. The Little Prince, his world, and fashions have been the subject of major exhibitions in capital cities, including New York and Paris. And so the phenomenon continues – yet another new musical opens in France next month – and expands.

Original watercolors for The Little Prince, painted by Saint-Exupéry in New York in 1942. © Morgan Library & Museum

I have a personal attachment to Saint-Exupéry, the first modern French writer that I read in the original. A long time ago, I set out to translate The Little Prince, naively believing that a book supposedly written for kids would be a cakewalk. I was wrong, and in spades. Nevertheless, the experience whetted my curiosity, so I beg your indulgence while I dwell on how well, or otherwise, the book has been rendered into other languages.

According to the Saint-Exupéry Estate, which administers the rights to the author’s work, there are a staggering 553 official translations of The Little Prince, including volumes in Esperanto and Klingon. That makes it the second most-translated book in the world after the Bible. Yet despite its apparently spare and simple prose, the novella is full of pitfalls for unwary wordsmiths. The first translation, into English, dates from 1943, the same year that the original book was published in New York. Rendered by the American author and editor Katherine Woods, it became the standard text for the English-speaking world until nearly the end of the last century. However, there is a truism that classics don’t age but translations do. By the mid-to-late 1990s, some critics were calling the Woods translation dated, whimsical, or even wooden. Fresh translations were commissioned to woo new generations of readers. One of them, from Richard Howard, an American poet, critic, and PEN Prize-winning translator, soon became the de facto standard. But it was also controversial.

Howard adopted a more direct, colloquial voice, ditching some of Woods’s supposed whimsy – the Prince in Plain English, so to speak. Howard’s work riled a host of readers, critics, and even translators, all of whom decried a loss of lyrical lilt. Irate bloggers gave examples ranging from single word substitutions – “salesclerk” for “merchant” (marchand), “jungle” for “primeval forest” (forêt vierge) – to whole phrases. For instance, where Woods rendered the Little Prince’s musing that if he had the luxury of time, “I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water” (je marcherais tout doucement vers une fontaine), Howard simplified the phrase to “I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain,” thus replacing a poetic interpretation (“fresh” doesn’t appear in the French) with a mundane device (a water fountain) while quietly ditching the elegant subjunctive (“I should walk”). In both these examples, and many others, the Howard translation is closer to the author’s words but much farther from his spirit. A dozen other English-language versions have since appeared, including one by the award-winning British children’s novelist Michael Morpurgo, who claimed that his grasp of French was sorely tested by the process. But, as some observers have noted, Saint-Exupéry’s style is notoriously hard to reproduce, so a creditable translation may require more than good foreign-language skills.

Another concern for translators is to align their interpretation with contemporary norms and expectations, which often involves self-censoring or modifying references that might offend a contemporary reader. While Saint-Exupéry is nowhere near as controversial as, say, Céline, his language still reflects the colonial 1930s and 1940s. For example, a parenthetical reference to les rois nègres – “Negro kings,” per Katherine Woods – has given pause. Ros Schwartz, who translated the book in 2010, admits that she had to decide whether the phrase was patronizing (they’re not real kings) or inclusive (everyone has kings and queens). She, like several other translators, simply omitted the adjective nègres, but later admitted that, based on feedback from African and Indian translators, “African kings” would have been a better choice. As one eminent linguist has remarked, translations often tell us more about the translator than about the source text!

The “translator or traitor” conundrum isn’t solely a matter of taste, however. With hundreds of translations available in languages from Abkhaz to Zulu, it is reasonable to ask whether all of them were made from the original French rather than from a bridging or relay language – especially English. This is crucial because a non-French speaker who reads The Little Prince in, say, Mandarin, will take it as the sole manifestation of the author’s intention, so a mistake in the source text will multiply and spread. One way of detecting whether the source language is French or English is the so-called sheep test. In chapter IV, Saint-Exupéry wrote that his character lived on a planet barely bigger than himself and needed a friend (avait besoin d’un ami – the masculine noun is epicene in this context). For reasons best known to herself, Katherine Woods translated un ami as “a sheep,” so the test consists in checking whether the translation cites a friend or a furry animal. An analysis of Asian-language versions, including Chinese and Japanese, found at least 30 editions which, by this measure, had been translated from English rather than the original French. There are other telltale signs, several of them more subjective than the sheep test, but the undeniable conclusion is that thousands, possibly millions, of people have read Saint-Exupéry twice-removed.

You might say that the message is more important than the messenger or, in this case the translator. After all, The Little Prince offers lessons that still resonate today: Take care of the planet; judge people by what they do, not what they say; don’t take yourself too seriously, especially if you’re a businessman. And, of course, things that are important can be seen only with the heart, not the eyes. Poetic wisdom for some, Hallmark-worthy schmaltz for others, Saint-Exupéry’s creation will doubtless continue in new iterations for another 80 years or more. Fifty years after my own failed attempt to translate the book, I have vowed to read it only in French. I humbly entreat you to do likewise. And when you’re done, to look up at the stars. Who knows? You might just see them differently.

Article published in the September 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.