During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled The Reader Over Your Shoulder. It was presented by Ros Schwartz and focused on her work translating Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince."
Ros has translated over 60 literary works published both in the U.K. and the U.S. during her 30-year career. Her co-translation of Dominique Manotti's "Lorraine Connection" won the 2008 International Dagger Award and her translation of Dominique Eddé's "Kite" was long-listed for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award. In 2009, she made Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
With such an impressive resume, tackling a classic should be piece of cake, but she says otherwise, since the simplicity of the vocabulary in the original is what becomes tricky to convey in the translated version.
"The Little Prince" was first published in 1943 and is the most read book in the French language, voted the best book of the 20th century in France. It has been translated into more than 250 languages and dialects, including braille, and has become one of the best-selling books ever published.
Ros decided not to revisit previous English translations, so she would have a fresh look at the original while working on her own rendition. She explained that she not only wanted to stay true to Saint-Exupery's words, but also wanted the translation to sound natural, as if the Little Prince were indeed telling us the story in English.
With a nice bilingual hand out, showing ten hand-picked extracts from the book, Ros discussed her decision-making process. Basic vocabulary, such as ouverts ou fermés (open or closed), mouton (sheep) and chez (home) proved to be challenging during the translation, and Ros said that she sometimes asked for her daughter's advice, who speaks some French and interacts with children on a regular basis.
Here's how she addressed some of these issues:
...boas ouverts ou fermés...
When the Little Prince is talking about how he had to explain to grown up that he had not drawn a hat, but a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, he mentions "open or closed boas," referring to the drawing of the boa seen from the outside and then as a transparent layer to show the elephant it had swallowed. Ros decided to drop the "open" vs. "closed" or "inside" vs. "outside" debate and go with "elephants inside boa constrictors."
...dessine-moi un mouton!
When the Little Prince is asked to draw a mouton, which is literally "sheep," Ros decided to use lamb instead. Even though the term indicates the meat provided by this animal, the "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme came to mind and she thought it would be at a more appropriate register for the character.
Chez moi c'est tout petit.
Such a simple sentence, but so many options! Chez means "house" or "home" and petit means small. Ros pondered the part of the book when this sentence comes up―when the narrator and the reader don't yet know that the Little Prince is from another planet―and opted for "My place is tiny."
Je m'occupe, moi, des choses sérieuses!
Je suis un homme sérieux!
To show a contrast between the grown up world and the imagination of children, the character of a "serious man" who takes care of "serious things" is introduced. Ros depicted him as saying, "I have more serious matters to attend to!" Another description of the same character also says that he fait gonfler d'orgueil ("swells with pride,") but nevertheless c'est un champignon ("is a mushroom"), which was translated as "puff up with pride (...) he's a puffball!"
In addition to the basic, but not-so-simple vocabulary, Ros found some cultural sensitivity issues throughout the translation as well. When Earth is described, the original points out that On y compte cent onze rois (en n'oubliant pas, bien sûr, le rois nègres...). That is a reference to "black kings," and Ros believed the observation could raise an issue with audiences today, because there should be no reason to say that African kings must not be forgotten if society today strives for equality. She used simply "Altogether, it [Earth] has one hundred and eleven kings..." without making the same ethnic distinction of the original.
RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).