Table of all translations of the fox's secret here.
The Fox's Secret:
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple.
|▼ Here is my secret. It is very simple
|▶ One sees clearly only with the heart
|▶ What is essential is invisible to the eyes
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple -- 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret'. This is how the fox starts telling his secret in 'The Little Prince'.
|1. The fox announces that he is about to reveal his promised secret. (Voici mon secret.)
|2. The fox comments on the simple nature of the secret. (Il est très simple.)
Here we will take a look at these two sentences word by word, phrase by phrase.
(1) Voici, a word of 'presenting': Voici in French is a rather special word, used to announce that something is being presented. This is not the same as saying 'This is my secret'. It includes an idea of 'handing over' or 'pointing out'. While it's highly unlikely that there are languages that are incapable of expressing this meaning, not all languages will necessarily have a simple, single expression like voici.
The fox refers to the secret as mon secret, making use of the masculine possessive pronoun mon ('my').
The possessive in French, as in many languages, covers a variety of relationships -- inalienable parts of the body ('my arm'), possession of external objects ('my book'), relationships with other people ('my boss'), and relationships with larger entities ('my country'). All of these are expressed in terms of 'possessing'. In this case, possession of the secret indicates that the fox knows the secret and the little prince doesn't. The fox therefore regards the secret as 'belonging' to himself.
Besides this notion of possessiveness, the word mon inherently includes the concept of 'definiteness'. This is the same definiteness as that expressed by the definite article (le or la in French, 'the' in English).
What exactly is 'definiteness'? A speaker will use a definite form if he/she knows exactly which item is under discussion, and he/she assumes that the listener knows too. In this case, the fox knows which secret is being referred to, and he assumes that the little prince knows too. There are many conditions under which something may be treated as definite -- for example, the object has been mentioned previously ('the ball I just mentioned'), it can be clearly identified in the situation ('the red ball'), only one of its kind exists ('the sun'), etc. Parts of the body are conventionally treated as definite ('he touched me on the arm'), even if it's not clear which arm was touched.
In this case, the fox assumes that the little prince knows what secret he is talking about because he's already mentioned it to him (je te ferai cadeau d'un secret 'I'll make you the present of a secret'). Notice that first time round, he said un secret, with the indefinite article, the normal way of introducing a new person, thing, or idea into a conversation. The second time it comes up, both the fox and the little prince are aware that they're discussing a specific secret, which is therefore 'definite'.
Thus, mon secret in this case means: 'that particular secret -- the one that I mentioned earlier -- that belongs to me'.
(3) Secret: The word word secret 'secret' doesn't look like it should cause any problems, until you look at the dictionary. In French, secret is:
1. ce qui ne doit pas être divulgué, qui doit rester connu d'un nombre limité de personnes (that which should not be divulged, which should remain known to a limited number of people).
2. moyen de réussir (means of succeeding).
3. mécanisme caché (hidden mechanism).
In this case, the fox's secret fits both senses 1 and 2:
- First, it is knowledge that is shared confidentially only with a few. Only the fox knows this secret, although he is about to share it with the little prince.
- Secondly, it is a 'means of succeeding'. The fox's secret is knowledge that brings us a deeper understanding of the meaning of love and life. For the little prince, it clears up the confusion in his feelings realise the importance of his rose.
Il est is admirably clear in French. Il is the masculine third-person pronoun and refers to le secret, which is a masculine noun. Est is the copula linking il to the adjective simple.
The main problems here are grammatical.
- While French classifies its nouns into masculine and feminine nouns, most languages of the world do not. English, for instance, has lost this distinction and in this case would use the neuter pronoun 'it'.
- Pronouns are a complex area of language. Even if many -- perhaps all -- languages have them, they are not always used the same way. For example, not all languages habitually use third-person pronouns to refer to inanimate objects.
- The copula (the verb 'to be') is not used, or not used the same way, in many languages. Many languages don't use 'to be' with adjectives.
We can thus expect il est simple to take different grammatical forms in different languages.
Très ('very' in English) is meant to emphasise how simple the secret is. Très is a pretty simple, everyday word. While there may be differences in the way that the adjective is intensified, très is probably the least susceptible to variable interpretations.
Dictionaries give a lot of meanings for the French and English word 'simple / simple'. The central meaning in this context is: 'not complex or complicated or involved'. However, it does carry the additional implication of 'not difficult, easy to understand'.
In looking at the word simple, however, we need to consider not merely the word simple itself, but what the fox meant when he said this.
The sentence Il est très simple is a straightforward declaration. However, least three possible implications spring to mind:
- It's a way of reassuring the little prince that the content of the secret is not difficult.
- It's a way of downplaying the momentousness or pomposity of the advice, that is, it's meant as a kind of modesty. This might be expressed as, "Well, actually, it's nothing at all".
- It's designed to emphasise the gravity, or no-nonsense clear-cut nature of the secret. This is the tone conveyed in a sentence like: "I'll give you some simple advice, my friend...", which could even sound ominous.
In fact, all of these nuances could be present at once. The problem is that a translation could slant the tone of the statement in any of the above directions.
(7) Level of formality
Finally, an aspect of translation that is less dependent on grammar and more related to matters of language in social context and literary style: the tone and level of formality of the fox's speech.
In Saint-Exupéry's original, the language is so simple that it could have been said by anybody: Voici mon secret. Il est très simple. Not a single word is wasted.
But translators telling the story in another language will not necessarily be content with such bald, spare language. They may want to make it more familiar, friendly, or chatty so that it seems natural coming from the mouth of a fox. Or they may want to make it more impressive-sounding, as befits the importance of the fox's secret in the story. The exact way that this varies will depend not only on the conventions and expectations of the target language, but also on the intentions and understanding of the translator.