Thoughts after re-reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince 10 different times/ways today
September 25, 2011 § 6 Comments
Those few who know me well know that one of my favorite literary works to re-read regularly is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince/The Little Prince. Ever since I first read it (in English alone, at the time) in 2000, I have been moved by it. Every year or two, sometimes in the summer and other times in the darkening nights of autumn, I re-read the book. There are many reasons why I do so, some of which are related to my love of the story and others to my love of languages.
I currently own 10 editions of the book (French, English, Spanish, Latin, Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, German, Serbian, and Hungarian), with an Irish Gaelic edition ordered earlier today that should arrive in October. I often use these translations as a measuring stick for my reading fluency in a particular language and if I have improved over a year or two period. Reading 5-10 chapters of this short book at a time per language certainly tests my brain’s ability to switch back and forth between languages. I found it interesting, upon my eighth or ninth re-read, to see which passages were resonating more for me in one language compared to another. Little effort is required for me to read in either English or Spanish; I sometimes switch my thoughts from one language to the other when I pick up a work in one of those particular languages. French, Italian, and Portuguese require a little more effort, yet I have noticed that my French in particular has jumped significantly over the past year; I no longer need a dictionary to assist me with the majority of the words. Italian and Portuguese feel “off,” not because I don’t get immediately the gist of the words, but rather that each is close enough to Spanish that the constructions require me to re-read on occasion.
I attempted Catalan for the first time today. It was a beautiful experience, combining some of the best aspects of Spanish and French constructions. I felt the irony of the serpent’s comment on solitude more when I read:
¿On són els homes? – va continuar finalment el petit príncep –. M’hi trobo una mica sol al desert.
– Entre els homes també t’hi trobes sol – va dir la serp.
German is not as “graceful” to me. Yet there is something about the same passage that casts it in a harsher light than the Catalan translation that suits another interpretation:
“Wo sind die Menschen?” fuhr der kleine Prinz endlich fort. “Man ist ein bißchen einsam in der Wüste…”
“Man ist auch bei den Menschen einsam”, sagte die Schlange.
But the German translation on the whole did not move me as much as the Romance language editions. Not surprising, considering the affinity between those and the original French:
– Où sont les hommes? reprit enfin le petit prince. On est un peu seul dans le désert…
– On est seul aussi chez les hommes, dit le serpent.
The Serbian translation I cherish the most because it is the only edition gifted to me. Although its structure, replete with noun declensions and participial constructions, departs markedly from the French original, it is beautiful because of associations held with it. Funny how much emotional associations can assist in creating a favorable reading (re)experience, but here is certainly the case. Here is a passage that caught my attention for the first time today, despite the multiple re-reads over the past few years:
– Vi uopšte ne ličite na moju ružu, vi još ništa ne predstavljate, reče im on. Niko vas nije pripitomio i vi niste nikoga pripitomile. Vi ste kao što je bila moja lisica. Bila je to obična lisica slična stotinama hiljada drugih lisica. Ali, ja sam od nje napravio svog prijatelja i ona je sada jedinstvena na svetu.
Hungarian I do not know, or at least not more than a handful of words and the barest understanding that its structure, much less its vocabulary, is alien to me, yet that alien quality allows me to wander and wonder. Words used to be incomprehensible to me in any language, then I mostly taught myself how to read English and then Spanish and then the other languages, yet there are no common roots and very few borrowed terms in Magyar. It has acute accents and umlauts in strange places, enough to spark curiosity. Does the prince (presumably, “a kis herceg,” since that is the title of the Hungarian translation and that term appears frequently there) still have that winsome wistfulness in an agglutinative language? Just viewing it made me focus harder on what the text was saying in the other languages and I think I learned a few new words in that tongue.
Yet the value I take from The Little Prince is not limited to linguistic study; that is only the tip of the semantic iceberg. Rather, there are close associations I have with this story. I remember reading it and thinking of a woman I knew, one who at first I thought could be a lover and who ended up being one of my two best friends during a dark and troublesome time in my life nearly a decade ago. I gave her a copy of this book one Christmas (I can’t recall if it was 2001 or 2002, but I want to say 2001), because I worried that she was becoming too much like the adults in the story, after “serious” matters. I never have asked her if she read the book; perhaps I should at some point.
With another, I think of the fox. That scene keeps resonating with me, changing slightly each time. There are, of course, seven billion people in this world (or over three billion more than when I was born in 1974). But how many of us put forth the effort to “tame” another, to make that person special in our lives because of the time we’ve “lost” to them? The lesson the little prince learns from the fox, that it is okay to, as the Italian translation says:
É amerò il rumore del vento nel grano…
Not to mention that it is best that we see with our hearts, as the essential is invisible to the eyes. What do we value most in this world? Material possessions? There are people who would love to have my book collection, all 1800 books or so, yet the books are not the most valuable things I own. I own (and am owned by) several friendships with people across the world. I have come to value more a few handwritten letters and gifted books than any books that might be worth $500 or more today which sit on my bookshelves. There is something valuable about suffering along with someone and not having to allude to it at all afterward. As the little prince says:
“Water can also be good for the heart…”
So can people thinking and rethinking little words written almost seventy years ago. The essential may be invisible to our eyes, but if our hearts are receptive, perhaps each time we think of a Le Petit Prince or a close friend with whom we’ve fallen out of touch recently, there might be something there that rekindles that spark which life’s struggles threaten to snuff out.