17 September 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 126

Virtually the only editions of Der Kleine Prinz that use a cover image that wasn't drawn by Antoine de Saint Exupery are the graphic novel "adaptations." And if they are all like Joann Sfar's, they don't get very adventurous anyway. I wonder whether even more is lost (and found!) in these sorts of "translations" than in the usual ones involving only words.

Der siebente Planet war also die Erde.

Die Erde ist nicht irgendein Planet! Man zaehlt da hundertelf Koenige, wenn man, wohlgemerkt, die Negerkoenige nicht vergisst, siebentausend Geographen, neunhundertausent Geschaeftsleute, siebenneinhalb Millionen Sauefer, dreihundertelf Millionen Eitle, kurz--ungefaer zwei Milliarden erwaschene Leute.

Um euch einen Begriff von den Ausmassen der Erde zu geben, muss ich euch sagen, dass man vor der Enfindung der Elektrizitaet dorf auf allen sechs Kontinenten zusammen eine ganze Armee von vierhundertzweiundsechzigtausendfunfhundertelf Lanternenanzuendern in Dienst hatte.

Look at all those Zaehlen to make the grosse Leute happy! How could such a quantifiable planet fail to be real? =P (How did you handle all the numbers in another language, by the way? It was so tempting just to skim over those endless German ones, but I'm glad I didn't.)

I'm also getting a better sense of the German text as something different from the English. There's simply a whole other quality to the former, though I still struggle to articulate it.

Folge XVI - Folge XX

Perhaps we first notice the differences between languages through the effect they have on us. When I was reading the passage about the army of 462,511 Lanternenanzuender--a bit I remembered well from the English--I started thinking that it seemed so much more beautiful in German. I really don't know if it's an emotional effect of getting German more easily now . . . or if long-time bilingual readers would agree with me . . . or if Grete and Josef Leitgeb were just defter with German than Katherine Woods with English . . . or if German simply is the lovelier language of the two.

This time around, I was also reminded that the author was an aviator, and that he would have been among the first in the world who saw with their own eyes what could only have been imagined before and what the imagination takes for granted now: cities slowly starting to light up for the night, each streetlight like a tiny star, when seen from just the right distance in the air.

* * * * *

The first characters the little prince meets on earth aren't people. And in English, these encounters always just cute. I don't know about anyone else who has read (only) The Little Prince, but until now, I've known these chapters as merely pretty allegories. I've felt detached from them--and from the little prince. And I've thought him silly at least once, because he cried over the flowers.

Basically, whenever I read this in English, I zeroed in on the symbols, and just thought about whether I agree or disagree with what Saint-Exupery is saying. So it was a surprise to read them again in German and find them emotional. That is, to find myself emotional . . . and very aware, for the first time, of the little prince's deep loneliness. Just when I thought it could get no sadder than the part when he climbs a mountain and asks the echo to be his friend because he is so allein . . .

. . . I got to the part where he cries because the big rose garden makes him feel poor for the first time, and I wanted to reach into the book and give him a hug. But then I'd probably find, as the narrator did, es ist so geheimnisvoll, das Land der Traenen. The land of tears is so mysterious.

* * * * *

During our last meeting, I brought up the way travel can expand a mind that doesn't know it is little. Now it occurs to me that there is a big emotional toll to seeing how little you have been. There's an element of self-preservation in the myopia of the grosse Leute of Asteroids 325 to 329--though I venture to say that their current selves are hardly worth preserving!

And what happens when you have billions of these grosse Leute on a single planet, as we do on der Erde? Either mass myopia or widespread discouragement of pointing out that wer sein Leben zu bewahren sucht, wird es verlieren. (Who can guess which Gospel verse that might be without googling???)

* * * * *

This new emotional connection is like a light that I can shine on the whole text, including chapters I've already read. Now I understand why, back in Folge IV, the narrator says that the little prince has led a "melancholy life"--a "schwermuetiges Leben"--and also why the latter is initially so uncommunicative about it. Until now, I had always thought the little prince had been kind of happy on his tiny planet . . . and just really rude about answering questions. I'm not sure if this is something I can pin on the translation or on English in general, unless I learn that more people who read Le Petit Prince in English have had similar impressions.

And now I wonder what personal experiences Saint-Exupery was basing the little prince's literal "desert experience" on. They must have been really sad.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions:

1. Have you ever pictured the little prince differently from the way Antoine de Saint Exupery has drawn him?
2. If you are also rereading in a different language, what differences have you noticed between the two texts?

Image Source: Der Kleine Prinz graphic novel


Brandon said...

I think it's interesting that the first thing le petit prince meets on Earth is death, in the form of the snake. I don't know if it's reading it in a different language or just at a different time of life, but it came across to me as much more chilling than I remember it being.

Likewise, I don't know if it's the French original itself or just having to read it differently, but the little prince when he comes on the garden seemed much more -- well, stupefied:

-Qui êtes-vous? leur demanda-t-il, stupéfait.

"Who are you?" he demanded, thunderstruck.

'Thunderstruck' seems a good translation, but I (at least sometimes) think that it fails to capture something important in the French word.

Enbrethiliel said...


Believe it or not, the meeting with the snake was chilling for me, too! I remember thinking, "It's not this scary in the English!" I don't know if it's because English is also (for me) the language of cute anthropomorphised animals. When an animal starts speaking German, however, watch out!!! =P

The snake also made me think of the Garden of Eden; so what I found striking was that when the little prince comes to earth, he is greeted not by a lush garden, but by a seemingly endless Wueste . . . because that's how long it has been since the Fall. When we read Genesis, we don't have a lot of time to feel sad for Adam when he looks around and sees no true companion for himself, but I wonder if his first loneliness was similar to that of our little prince. (And then I also wonder: how does loneliness feel to a non-fallen man?)

Without looking it up, I remember that the little prince was "erstaunt" at the rose garden. It sounds enough like the English "astounded" for me to take it to mean that and just keep reading; but now that I've looked it up, I see my favourite online dictionary defines it as "astonished."

Not that there is much difference between them (she says after another quick Google search yields a surprise)! "Astounded" and "astonished" have the same Latin root--"extonere," which is, of course, cousin in meaning to the English thunderstruck. I wonder how many other translators make a similar call!

According to my favourite online dictionary, "stupefied" would be either "betauebt" or "abgestumpft." But the former has acquired extra baggage and can refer to being drugged up, while the latter's meaning is closer to being made numb or dull.

Brandon said...

Now that you mention it, French also has a word in the extonere family -- étonné. But the French dictionary also seems to back up my feeling that stupéfait is somehow stronger -- one of its definitions is très étonné, very astonished.

It's also possible that the French has a stronger contrast -- demanda-t-il is not necessarily as strong as 'he demanded', since it's used for all sorts of questions.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Wer seid ihr?" fragte er sie hoechst erstaunt.

We get the basic "fragen" (to ask) in the German--and also a modifier I totally forgot about: hoechst. The little prince isn't simply thunderstruck here, but highly thunderstruck. But I'm not sure whether that brings us closer to or further from "stupefait"!

Brandon said...

I think it confirms at least that the German translator also thought that the original was saying something very strong.

The Spanish:

—¿Quiénes son ustedes? —les preguntó estupefacto.

Preguntar is the basic 'to ask'; and the Spanish, of course, sticks fairly close to the French with estupefacto. (Incidentally, Spanish also has an extonere word: atónito.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I checked out the Filipino translation today, and it probably strays furthest from the original. The munting prinsipe is described as "nagtataka," which means that he is just very confused at the sight of the other roses! It's a very odd translation for either "stupefait" or "thunderstruck."