Le Petit Prince

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The Fox's Secret in 'The Little Prince'
in Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mongolian translation

The fox's secret at Chapter 21 is the heart of the message of Le Petit Prince. The fox tells the little prince:

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Directly translated, this is:

'Here is my secret. It's very simple: One sees well only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes'.

Back in 1943, Katherine Woods translated it like this:

'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye'.

To see how this critical message is translated in 5 English translations, 53 Chinese translations (not including adaptations), 5 Vietnamese translations, 15 Japanese translations (publication details here) and 2 Mongolian translations, see the table of all translations.

While picking over differences in 80 or so translations may sound about as interesting as watching grass grow, it's actually fascinating to see how so many people have tackled these outwardly simple sentences. Some interesting phenomena get thrown up. For instance:

  1. L'essentiel in Chinese is translated in about nine different ways, as might be expected with a philosophical concept. In Japanese it is translated in two different ways. On the other hand, virtually all Chinese translators translate simple with exactly the same word.
  2. All Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translators translate the word secret with the same word (which is common to Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese) -- except three: one Taiwanese translator and two Vietnamese translators, who choose words with subtly different nuances.
  3. Voit bien ('see rightly' or 'see clearly') is translated 12-13 different ways, with the largest variety in Chinese. Invisible is translated only 2-3 ways.
  4. Les yeux, which in English can only be 'the eye' or 'the eyes', is translated into Chinese in four different ways.
  5. Voici ('here is') is translated in about 5 different ways.
  6. There is less variation in translation of le coeur, except in Chinese, where translators are split between two different words.

We'll also discover that some translators have 'cheated' by translating from the English version rather than the French original.

Navigation Table for detailed analysis of different language versions

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple. French English Chinese 1 2 3 Japanese 1 2 Vietnamese
On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. French English Chinese 1 2 Japanese 1 2 Vietnamese
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. French English Chinese 1 2 Japanese 1 2 Vietnamese

For a look at how online translation software makes a complete hash of these two sentences, especially the first one, see here.

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