Bathrobe's Le Petit Prince
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The Fox's Secret:
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux
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Translating into Japanese (1)

(Japanese 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

L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux ('What is essential is invisible to the eye'), from 'The Little Prince'.

There are currently 16 translations of Le Petit Prince in Japanese, including the original one by Naitō Arō in 1953. That by Shinsan is more an adaptation than a straight translation and we won't treat it here, leaving a total of 15 translations.


little prince A. STRUCTURE

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The problem of invisible

The key word in this sentence is invisible ('invisible'), an adjective meaning 'which cannot be seen'. This is the pivot on which the sentence hinges.

In its most basic form, the sentence can be understood as meaning Les yeux ne voient pas l'essentiel 'The eyes do not see what is essential'. By using invisible, Saint Exupéry catapaults l'essentiel into subject position, like this:

les yeux
ne voient pas
l'essentiel
arrow
l'essentiel
est invisible
(pour les yeux)

In other words, invisible acts like passive voice, and l'invisible becomes the topic of the sentence.

Translating invisible is not as straightforward as it may seem. In European languages invisibility has got its own adjective: French invisible, English 'invisible', German unsichtbar, etc.

Japanese has coined a word on the model of the European languages: 不可視 fu-kashi (literally 'unseeable'). But this is a very specialised and rather difficult term (it's a Sino-Japanese compound) used mainly in expressions like 不可視光線 fu-kashi kōsen ('invisible light', i.e., light outside the visible spectrum) and 不可視インク fu-kashi inku ('invisible ink'). It's not a word likely to be used for the fox's secret.

An interesting equivalent of 'invisible' is found in the Japanese translation of 'Invisible Man', which is 透明人間 tōmei ningen ('the transparent person' or 'see-through person'). This places the emphasis on 'transparency', not on 'invisibility'. (For more on this, see The Invisibility Cloak at Harry Potter).

Basic sentence

But neither of these terms is really suitable as a translation of 'invisible' here. Indeed, the most natural translation is simply 'cannot be seen'. This is 見えない mienai, the negative form of the intransitive verb 見える mieru.

So all the Japanese versions of Le Petit Prince translate invisible as 見えない mienai 'cannot be seen'. This results in the following sentence pattern.

'Essential things to the eye cannot be seen.'

The following is a representative example of this structure, although there is no majority consensus on the translation of 'essential things' (see below).

かんじんなことは
kanjin na koto wa
les chose les plus importantes
'essential things (topic)'
目に
me ni wa
pour l'oeil
'to the eye (contrastive particle)'
見えない
mienai
ne peut pas être vues
'cannot be seen'

Grammatically this is quite straightforward.

(1) L'essentiel is expressed as 'essential things'. It is the topic of the sentence, marked with the topicaliser wa.

(2) Est invisible is expressed by the verb 見えない mienai, meaning 'cannot be seen'. The verb is intransitive. That is, it takes a subject but no object. The object seen ('essential things') is the subject of the sentence.

(3) Pour les yeux is expressed as 目に me ni 'to the eyes', using the particle ni. This is standard for the verb 見える mieru, which requires the perceiver to be followed by ni.

In most of the translations, the verb 見えない mienai, 'cannot be seen' is exactly the same as that in the preceding sentence (心で見なくちゃよく見えない kokoro de minakucha yoku mienai 'if you don't look with the heart you can't see well'). The result is that French and English use quite different words in the first and second sentence while most Japanese translators use the same one:

 
First sentence
Second sentence
French
ne voit (que)
invisible
English
'can see only'
'invisible'
Japanese
見えない
mienai
見えない
mienai

This is not an earth-shaking difference, but has a subtle impact on the meaning and tone. First, the Japanese sentence is more repetitious than the French or English. And secondly, the Japanese is arguably simpler, more immediately understandable, and possibly more directly appealing to children than the French and English versions.

little prince Translating pour les yeux

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All translators translate les yeux as me 'eye'. This is singular, with no definite article.

The interesting part in translating the expression is the particle used as an equivalent to pour, and the use of the contrastive/topic marker wa, which isn't found in the French at all.

Particle used

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As an intransitive verb, 見える mieru takes only a subject. To indicate the agent of seeing (in this case the eyes), it's normal to use the particle ni. That is, 'invisible to the eyes' is normally expressed as 目に見える me ni mieru. This is the form used by the great majority of translators.

Two translators, however, use the instrumental expression 目で見える me de mieru 'able to see with the eyes', where de indicates the instrument used for seeing. This may be under the influence of the previous sentence, which speaks of 'looking with ( de) the heart'.

'TO THE EYE' (+ CONSTRASTIVE wa)
 
目に
me ni wa
à l'oeil
'to the eye'
8
目に
me ni
à l'oeil
'to the eye'
5
目で
me de wa
avec l'oeil
'with the eye'
2
TOTAL
15

Given that the previous sentence uses 心で kokoro de 'with the heart', it is perhaps surprising that more translators don't use 目で me de 'with the eyes'. However, the natural and expected phrasing 目に me ni wins out in all but these two cases.

Contrastive は wa

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One of the most noticeable features of this phrase is the use of so-called contrastive wa (目には me ni wa, 目では me de wa) in ten out of 15 translations. This is called 'contrastive' because it expresses a contrast between the eyes in this sentence and the heart in the previous one. That is, 'with the heart one can see, but (in contrast) with the eyes one cannot see'.

If you've ever had doubts about the arbitrariness of deciding to use contrastive wa in Japanese, this example might set your mind at rest! Five translations fail to use contrastive wa at this position, even though it might be expected given the contrastive nature of the two sentences.

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