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a review of four translations
le 19 août 2014
In 2000, the Richard Howard translation of The Little Prince was released to supercede the original of Katherine Woods from 1943. When a publisher comes to one to translate such a classic how does one ever turn them down and say the last translation was good enough! I guess one doesn't. Money and ego prevail.
But `good enough' is the debating point. Is it good enough? Howard writes in his preface "...it must be acknowledged that all translations date." Do they? Would one clean up and modernise the language of A.A. Milne in Winnie-the-Pooh? or of Kenneth Grahame in the Wind In The Willows? Of course not. Then Howard modernises Katherine Woods' rendition, "cry" with his "weep" during the departure from the fox. And he thinks this is more `modern?' What self-contradictory nonsense translators can write to justify themselves and their publishers.
I grew up on Katherine Woods' translation and prefer it over the Howard, but I must admit, when I look at my French copy, the Woods too has some elisions in translation. During the farewell from the fox, she translates: "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important." Howard translates: "It's the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important." The French actually states: "C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante." Literally this translates far more meaningfully and philosophically than either of the Woods or the Howard as "It is the time which you have lost for your rose which makes your rose so important." So that leaves me thinking both translations have their flaws. I am not sure why both of them would dilute the original like they have, for it has surely been diluted from what St. Exupery wrote and intended, but the Woods translation is very close to St. Exupery's text and meaning and brings a layer to think about beyond merely "spent" time.
From 2011 another translation is on the scene, by Ros and Chloe Schwarz, and it needs comment too. First of all, the illustrations: it is anything but sensitively rendered as its publicity blurb asserts. The colors have been filled in like old cellular film animation, and are just flat, losing St. Exupery's delicate drawing and watercolor washes. The hunter, as another example, has had circles drawn completely around his eyes now making him look like a goth caricature. The drawing of the fox in his lair has completely lost all the grass that was so delicately drawn by St. Exupery. The beautiful sense of all his drawings, that they flowed, without borders, right off the page, conveying their own meaningful addition to this borderless story, has been lost on many many of the drawings by the illustrator putting boxes around drawings that don't originally have any. The boa constrictor for instance. The sheep, for instance. Here the baobab trees and the weeding of Asteroid B-612 are now set against the dark background of space, not the daylight of the originals. The tiger no longer looks fearsome; it looks like a cute questioning pussycat, its line-work tampered with as it has been on most of the drawings. This illustration tampering is unforgiveable and reason alone not to buy this book.
The Schwarz translation has a third perspective on the French, but still, for example, loses the quote mentioned above from the fox. "Perdu pour" is translated here as "spent on" again. St. Exupery chose "perdu pour" for a reason; he did not write "passé," or any other verb. "Perdu pour" brings many other things, more layers of meaning, to mind. Then these translators do other things. They do things so blatantly wrong like alter his word "mouton" into "little lamb." If St. Exupery had meant little lamb he would have written "petit agneau" but he didn't. The little prince is not so dumb to not know little lambs grow up into bigger sheep. Also, in the geographer chapter, St. Exupery explains "ephemeral" as "menace de disparition prochaine," "a menace which disappears soon." The Schwarzs translate that phrase as "likely to die very soon." Clearly they completely don't get St. Exupery's thought and subtlety and at the same time possess the unbelievable arrogance to write words that St. Exupery did not.
They clearly don't have the soul of poets or philosophers ideally necessary, nor even the workman-like craft to simply translate what is there. Their approach to translation, like Howard's is unforgivable, and is another reason this book too should absolutely just sit on the rubbish heap until someone re-does it properly. The book itself is charming: tiny, hardcover, with gilt page edges and a ribbon marker. Full marks for being sturdy and beautifully portable, but otherwise... do yourself a favour and stay away from it too.
I recently found another translation of which I was unaware, from Alan Wakeman, 1995 (hardcover), illustrated from St. Exupery and Michael Foreman. Michael Foreman is one of my favourite illustrators and I have many of his books. Works in beautiful watercolors. I wondered. When it arrived I knew I was in for something special. Wakeman (he says in the preface), started translating in 1979, not under contract, but simply because he was dissatisfied with the Katherine Woods' translation. He worked in his favourite retreat by the sea, overlooking the Golfe de Giens, which turned out from the beginning discovery in 1993 of St. Exupery's sunken plane, to overlook the crash site in the sea where St. Exupery was lost. It took another decade or so to absolutely confirm that this is where St. Exupery went down, but Wakeman was apparently eerily in touch with something from St. Exupery through their labors of love.
Wakeman's translation is extraordinarily accurate. He still translates "perdu pour" as "spent on," but okay. He translates "ephemere" as "doomed to disappear soon," fairly accurate, and with a layer of fate the Schwarz's miss, but which Woods captures, albeit a bit more clumsily with "in danger of speedy disappearance." Foreman's illustrations are what is special about this book. All of the St. Exupery ones used, which is most of them, have been taken and re-worked. The line work and watercolor is far more skillful than St. Exupery, but extraordinarily faithful, and retains that childlike naiveté. It really takes a second look to realize it is not actually St. Exupery's line work with Foreman's color. All drawings have been given color, more subtle but more extensive and skilled than the originals. Some, for the older editions of which I have been sorely tempted to pull out my own paint box, like the little prince watching the sunset, were clearly done in color originally, but left sitting in a museum somewhere, and only ever published in black and white (why?) and are now shown as they ought to be. But where Foreman has excelled is in introducing 8 full page or double page paintings of the little prince and the pilot: comforting the little prince when he was sad, walking with the little prince in his arms when exhausted to find water, sharing his drawings with the little prince, running with his revolver to kill the snake if he could... whole new enhancements to the story, bringing more forward the relationship that it was, not just story-telling about the little prince. For it is not just the story of a special individual, but also one of a special relationship, and the special place in our lives of special relationships and what makes them special.
The Woods translation is still head and shoulders above the new ones, except for the Wakeman. Both are far more evocative of what was intended. The Foreman illustrations with the Wakeman translation I think makes it even better. The Woods translation hardcover is now a collectors item and can often be very expensive and harder to find. It appears to be available economically as a paperback (white cover, pre-2000 publishing date), but with no color illustrations. The Howard translation, both hardcover and softcover (blue cover) both with color illustrations, is easily available at a quite reasonable price. The Schwarz translation is available in England and Canada easily, but hard to locate and has very poor notes on amazon.com. The Wakeman/Foreman collaboration (hardcover) can still be found used, in good shape, economical, for now, but also as a very expensive collectors item. I cannot vouch for the paperback version, publications of which often get cheap and sometimes do paperback versions with black and white illustrations (see my review of Michael Foreman's Arthur High King Of Britain).
So buy the Wakeman/Foreman hardcover edition, or the Woods translation, (or both), and if your French is alright, get one of those too. It is worth working through Le Petit Prince. You will learn more about life and language and different cultures in doing so than in many larger weightier, more adult tomes and our children will too.
Le Petit Prince: 5 stars
English translations to date:
Wakeman/Foreman: 5 stars
Woods: 4.5 stars
Howard: 1 star
Schwarz: 1 star