The Translation Challenges of ‘The Little Prince’

The animated film “The Little Prince,” which gets its long-delayed U.S. release this week via Netflix and in some theaters, attempts to breathe new life into Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved 1943 children’s story. And while the story is hailed as a classic, translating Saint-Exupéry’s French words into English, both in print and on screen, has always posed some challenges.

In the new adaptation, the original book serves as a story within a story, told to a young girl by an aging aviator (voiced by Jeff Bridges) and presented with stop-motion animation. The filmmakers have tried to retain the quirkily poetic style of Saint-Exupéry, even when translated into English.

I checked in with the film’s director, Mark Osborne (whom I have known since high school), to learn more about how he and his screenwriters chose words in English that could capture the soul of a book that has enthralled generations of children.

In developing the script, Mr. Osborne (with the blessing of Saint-Exupéry’s estate) relied heavily on the first English translation of “The Little Prince” by Katherine Woods, published in 1943. Though the Woods translation fell out of print in 2001, it still has many admirers who prefer it to more contemporary renderings (including Mr. Osborne, whose wife gave the book to him when they were dating in college).

Mr. Osborne pointed to one passage in particular from the Woods translation that has special resonance for him. In the story, the Little Prince, who has landed on Earth from his planet, encounters a fox who tells him, “Let me make you a present of a secret.” That is a very literal translation of the French, “Je te ferai cadeau d’un secret.”

Read more: The Wall Street Journal

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