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The Fox's Secret:
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux
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Translating into English

(English translations) ▶ Here is my secret. It is very simple ▶ One sees clearly only with the heart ▼ What is essential is invisible to the eyes

 

L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Three English translations of this sentence are identical; Howard's and Wakeman's are different.

Name of translator English version
Woods 1943 What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Cuffe 1995 What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Testot-Ferry 1995 What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Wakeman 1997 What matters is invisible to the eyes.
Howard 2000 Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Grammatically, they all run parallel to the French.

Subject Copula Adjective Prepositional phrase
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux
What is essential is invisible to the eye

L'essentiel

The main difficulty in this sentence is l'essentiel. In English, this structure ('definite article plus adjective') is used for people, for example, 'the wise', 'the just', 'the poor', 'the weak', 'the disinherited'. Unfortunately, 'the essential' doesn't quite make it.

It's thus necessary to translate this another way -- as 'essential things', 'that which is essential', or (somewhat more elegantly), 'what is essential'. Woods and other translators choose 'what is essential', the most neutral and 'normal' translation.

Howard translates it as 'anything essential'. By using 'anything', Howard goes a little further than the French, making a more sweeping claim about the eyes' inability to see. (At least one reviewer has taken issue with this translation at Amazon). But Howard is right in one sense. 'What is essential' sounds stiff -- somewhat restrained and bookish -- and doesn't resonate quite as strongly as the single word l'essentiel does in French. Howard tries to make up for this by using the more natural and forceful 'anything essential'.

Most translators use 'essential' to translate essentiel. The word 'essential' is cognate with essentiel and has the same dual meanings: 1. 'Of, relating to, or constituting essence; inherent', 2. 'Of the utmost importance, basic, indispensable, necessary'. Only Wakeman changes 'what is essential' to 'what matters'. 'What matters' is a more colloquial way of saying 'what is important'. He thus skews the meaning towards the second meaning, 'Of the utmost importance, basic, indispensable, necessary'.

Invisible

This adjective goes straight into English as 'invisible'. There's no need to use circumlocutions like 'What is essential can't be seen by the eyes', and none of the translators do so.

There is a slight issue here, however. In French, invisible is immeasurably superior to ne peut pas être vu par les yeux. Thus, invisible is a much more natural choice in French. Indeed, one might argue that French offers few other choices to invisible in this context.

Invisible is also a natural choice for another reason. Etymologically, invisible, which is of Latin derivation, is related to the French verb voir used in the preceding sentence (On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur). Since French is originally descended from Latin, the words are reasonably similar in form and French speakers are therefore reasonably aware that voir 'to see' stands in a direct relation with invisible 'unseeable'.

In English, on the other hand, the choice is less clear cut. For a start, the stylistic gap between the two ('invisible to the eye' and 'can't be seen by the eyes') is arguably somewhat narrower. This is especially so given that the fox is speaking rather than writing. In the spoken idiom, it would be quite unexceptionable for the fox to say 'What is essential can't be seen by the eyes'.

What is more, in English there is no etymological relationship between the adjective 'invisible' and the verb 'to see'. English speakers are less likely to perceive a direct link between the two words than French speakers.

For both these reasons, invisible in a French context is subtly different from the word 'invisible' in an English context. In retaining 'invisible', translators have unquestioningly chosen a straightforward transposition of the French adjective into English over other possibilities.

Of course, the translators may have considered other possibilities and eventually concluded that 'invisible' is still the most elegant solution, but one can't help but suspect that a habit of literal translation may have been a factor in their choice.

Pour les yeux

Literally 'for the eyes', the preposition in pour les yeux must be changed to sound natural in English. All translators replace pour 'for' with the more natural 'to'.

A second issue is the use of the plural form. In fact, French itself would normally use the singular à l'œil 'to the eye' when speaking of the eye as an 'organ of sight'. But Saint Exupéry rather pointedly uses the plural form to emphasise the 'eyes' in a concrete sense over the abstract term 'eye'. Only Wakeman and Howard follow him in this. The other three translators depart from the original French to use the more natural expression 'to the eye'. There is, of course, no real loss of meaning, but the effect is subtly different from the original French.

On the following pages, I will look at the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese (coming) versions.

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