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Un oiseau as translated in 'The Little Prince'
(Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese)

 

How large a bird should we imagine when the narrator likens the heartbeat of the little prince to that of a dying bird? Since the little prince himself is not very large, we can presumably rule out a large bird like an ostrich or an albatros. Powerful predators like eagles or scavengers like vultures would also be rather inappropriate.

On the other hand, too small a size would also be incongruous. After all, we are talking of a bird whose heart is still beating after being shot with a carabine or rifle. It's hard to imagine much being left of a sparrow or a wren after being hit by a bullet. It would take a reasonably-sized bird to survive the shot and still have a beating heart.

Given that the bird was hit by a bullet from a rifle, it is most likely the type of bird that people with rifles hunt -- in other words, a game bird. That means birds like ducks or pheasants, medium-sized birds that could survive a rifle shot without being totally obliterated. But that doesn't stop many translators from assuming that the little prince's heart was beating like that of a very small bird.

In the Chinese translations, oiseau or 'bird' is translated as follows:

Form Pronunciation Rough gloss
From the French
From the English
Source unclear
Total
小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo 'little bird'
13
16
0
29
鳥兒 / 鸟儿 niǎor 'birdie'
6
6
1
13
/ niǎo 'bird'
7
0
0
7
小鳥兒 / 小鸟儿 xiǎo-niǎor 'little birdie'
0
1
0
1
麻雀 / 麻雀 máquè 'sparrow'
0
1
0
1
Total    
26
24
1
51

What is striking is the number of translators -- well over half -- who use 小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo or 'little bird'. While the term 小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo refers to a small bird, it also has a sense of endearingness or cuteness.

Besides 小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo, a quarter of translators use the diminutive form 鳥兒 / 鸟儿 niǎor. This also refers to a small bird, although without being quite as explicit as 小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo. It usually refers to a small bird that can fly, often the kind of bird that is kept in cages. (In the table I've translated 鳥兒 / 鸟儿 niǎor as 'birdie'. However, the Chinese word doesn't carry the childish connotations of 'birdie' in English. The only things that the two share in common is the use of a simple suffix -- / 儿 -r or '-ie' -- to express the notion of smallness.)

One translator goes even further and specifies the type of bird, a sparrow (麻雀 / 麻雀 máquè).

That leaves only seven translators who use the simple word or niǎo meaning 'bird'.

Presumably the reason for the emphasis on smallness and cuteness is a feeling that Saint Exupéry's simile calls up an image of a small, pathetic, helpless creature. A larger bird such as a duck, a swan, or a pheasant (for instance) wouldn't arouse the same feelings of pity.

By some strange quirk, all seven of those who use the simple word / niǎo are translating from the French. That is, seven translators translate oiseau as / niǎo, but not a single translator renders 'bird' as / niǎo! It seems strange that one third of translators from the French would use / niǎo, but none at all from English. Could it be that oiseau in French conjures up images of a larger bird than 'bird' in English!?

Turning to the Japanese translations, a slim majority of translators (eight out of 15) use the word tori meaning 'bird'. Seven use 小鳥 ko-tori meaning 'small bird'. This is roughly the same ratio as that between / niǎo and 小鳥 / 小鸟 xiǎo-niǎo. Japanese doesn't have a word like Chinese 鳥兒 / 鸟儿 niǎor that incorporates smallness in a suffix.

tori 8
小鳥 ko-tori 7

Unlike Chinese or Japanese, chim in Vietnamese appears to be perfectly adequate for expressing the meaning of oiseau. All translators use the word chim.

chim 5

So there you have it. At least half or more than half of the Chinese and Japanese translators use compound words explicitly meaning 'small bird'. And another quarter of the Chinese translators use a word with a suffix that implies smallness.

One can only wonder at the reasons for this. Possible explanations that spring to mind are:

1. Since 'The Little Prince' has been identified as a 'children's story', the image of a cute bird is considered most appropriate.

2. These cultures do not have as prominent a tradition of game hunting as in the West. The idea that the injured bird might be a duck that has been shot by a hunter is less likely to occur to Chinese or Japanese translators.

Interestingly, the two Japanese translators who use the word 猟銃 ryōjū 'hunting rifle' both use tori 'bird'.

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