“…what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art”. — Vladimir Nabokov, 1964
Many people still love certain children’s books. They cause cherished childhood memories to flood back. Magic Tree House and Captain Underpants can restore faith in humanity for some brief moments before tossing you back upon the shores of cruel adolescenthood.
The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, however, endures. Its message of truth and innocence transcends age. I was thirteen when I first read it. I cried for two reasons: it moved me immensely, and I didn’t get to read it when I was a child.
The narrator is a plane-wrecked pilot who is stranded alone in the middle of the Sahara Desert. While he is trying to fixing his engine, a bright, charming child dressed in splendid costume appears. He is the prince and lone inhabitant of the asteroid B-612, which is no bigger than a house.
Through their acquaintance, the narrator learns about the little prince’s life story. He tells the narrator about his planet’s tiny, extinct volcanoes and how he could watch the sunset over and over again just by moving his chair. He tells of the only rose on the planet, whom he loved and cared for with utter devotion. He recounts his visits to other tiny planets, each with their own queer, sole inhabitants. Arriving at last on Earth, he made friends with a fox and learned about Earth’s own absurdities.
Had I read the book as a child, I would’ve been enraptured by its fairy tale, where logic makes sense only in children’s imaginations. I might not have truly understood its truths about human nature, but would have developed a much greater sense for humanity. I could’ve turned out better.
When I read it for the first time as a teenager, the story’s fairy tale still enchanted me, but the messages about “matters of consequence”, life’s beauties, and the importance of sentimental relationships touched me the most. I still can’t say that I’ve truly grasped them, but I am certain it will become even more significant to me as an adult, overcome with life experiences. And that’s the power of The Little Prince. It transcends age and grows with the reader while being essentially a children’s book. Since only with a child’s heart, one can see what is essential. Did I also mention that it’s beautiful?
Before you read it, make sure you get the original Katherine Woods translation. Avoid the “new”, 2000 translation by Richard Howard at all costs. Even though I don’t read a word of French and can’t speak for literalness or accuracy, it’s still obvious that Howard drained the story lifeless. Here’s the central quote of the book:
Original French: “…on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
Katherine Woods translation: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Richard Howard translation: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
What’s “anything essential”? The emphasis on “heart” is also lost. Howard even turned “walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water” (Woods) into “walk very slowly toward a water fountain” (Howard). Woods’s great attention to details and sense of poetry makes for a beautiful rendering of the novel’s spirit. Despite being out of print, it’ll be the version that endures.