Part of the attraction of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is surely its air of mystery. The tale itself is mysterious – part realistic, the plane and its pilot marooned in the desert; part fanciful, the Prince and his planet and flower – and it ends on the biggest of question marks.
But that mystery has been enhanced by the mystery of the author’s death, in a plane crash in 1944 off the French Riviera; fragments of what was probably the plane and a bracelet belonging to Saint-Exupéry were recovered more than 50 years later.
This was not just any old plane crash, but one full of romance: a professional pilot, but too old and injured for active service, the anti-Fascist but also anti-de Gaulle airman had to cajole the Free French authorities to allow him to resume reconnaissance flights. Explanations for the crash have ranged from suicide – Saint-Exupéry was acutely depressed in the months before he died – to downing by a German fighter. Reading his own accounts of flying early passenger planes, you would not discount engine failure.
I have to admit straightaway that I have always – until now – resisted The Little Prince. I would not go so far as Andre Gregory in the film My Dinner with Andre, who found something repulsive, even fascistic, in the tale, but my nose detected a whiff of tweeness. Could the bestselling book ever written in the French language be little more than a flimsy whimsy?
Two new versions – Joann Sfar’s graphic adaptation, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, and a translation by Ros Schwartz – both of which were the subject of a discussion at the French Institute recently, have forced me to reconsider. Even quite radical reimaginings such as Sfar’s seem particularly pertinent because The Little Prince combines its high poetic polish with such an obvious air of incompleteness. My sense is that the work comes out of an agonising tension between a desire for a perpetual childhood, and a recognition of adult ties or commitments, which Saint-Exupéry never resolved – unless he resolved it by pushing the joystick down towards the blue waters of the Med.
But for translators, the questions and problems are not so speculative but eminently practical. How, for example, do you translate that famous opening request by the Little Prince, which in French consists of the words: “S’il vous plaît ... dessine-moi un mouton.”
It sounds simple but mouton in French can mean either sheep or lamb. Sarah Ardizzone and Ros Schwartz, in her beautifully judged Collector’s Library version, come to different conclusions for excellent reasons. Schwartz opts for lamb because “‘Please ... draw me a sheep’ ... was not something I could imagine a child saying spontaneously.” Ardizzone takes the opposite view: “I actually like the plosive, slightly cartoony sound of ‘sheep’. I didn’t want any echoes of ‘lamb of God’ in what is already a spiritually charged text.” Ardizzone’s sheep had another advantage: it enabled her to translate the Pilot’s exasperated “Il me broute avec son mouton celui-là” (literally, “He gets on my nerves with that sheep/lamb of his”) as the brilliant “I wish he’d stop bleating on about his sheep.”
How do you translate another of the Little Prince’s deceptively simple and childlike sayings: “Quand on a terminé sa toilette du matin il faut faire soigneusement la toilette du planète”? Not easy at all. As Schwartz says, “I could think of no single expression in English that worked for both a person and a planet.” Her solution – “Once you’ve brushed your hair and cleaned your teeth, then you clean your planet” – for once doesn’t sound quite right to me, a little too brisk and prosaic, lacking in Saint-Exupéry’s cosmic and ecological resonance.
As always, hearing literary translators talk about their work reminded me of the immense difficulty, creativity and importance of the task. A literary text is woven in a particular language as intimately as a garment is woven in a particular fabric. Once the fabric is changed, all sorts of minute yet invisible adjustments of tailoring need to be made. The original suit cannot be reproduced in every detail.
On the other hand, literary translation is just part of the unending process by which, as Auden put it in his great elegy for Yeats, “the words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living”. The literary tailor-translator cannot copy the original suit, but she or he must come up with a suit for contemporary taste. Who knows, a translator may sometimes improve on the original.
Sfar’s bold graphic reworking, and Ardizzone’s fresh, unsentimental text remove the troublesome whimsy from The Little Prince. Do they also remove some of the mystery? Whereas Saint-Exupéry’s flower hovers on the border between floweriness and capricious femininity, Sfar’s flower is more openly and nakedly seductive. The Pilot-narrator becomes a much more tangible presence than in the original – an improvement, I feel. In one respect, though, Sfar in his concluding drawings deepens the mystery, poetically connecting the Little Prince’s disappearance with the author’s own last flight.
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