“Draw me a sheep”: When Le Petit Prince speaks the language of Shakespeare

Many of us have read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French literary classic published in 1943; in many of us, the slightest mention of the little boy with the golden hair is enough to evoke a fluttering of emotion. Most importantly, even after all these years, one question still haunts us: Did the sheep eat that precious flower?

You know the story, but did you know that it is the most translated book in the world after the Bible? To date, the tale has been translated into no less than 300 languages and dialects. It is a reflection of how this philosophical story, filled with allegories and symbolism, exudes a universal and timeless charm.

Nevertheless, the translation of a publication cherished throughout the world is no small task, and even respected, experienced translators have not escaped criticism from readers and literary critics alike.

Rivalling translations

First of all, keep in mind that Le Petit Prince has been translated into English almost a dozen times over the years. The most well known are those of Katherine Woods, the very first, published in 1943, and Richard Howard, published in 2000. The translation by Woods is practically inseparable from the original French version; it was therefore inevitable that a new adaptation would be met with criticism.

According to the website Inverse, many readers bemoaned Howard’s style as excessively modern and refined, in contrast with the poetic quill of Woods. The clincher? Having lived in the same era as Saint-Exupéry, Woods was more capable of embodying the spirit of the period in which the story came to light. Let’s not forget that Howard, born in 1929, was a teenager when the book was published in the United States…. Furthermore, detractors accused Howard of lacking respect not for the French version but the original translation by employing overly simplified language. Some also believe Woods better captured the ambiguity of the time and space the little prince comes from, notably by translating buveur to tippler, a word denoting an alcoholic in the common language of the late 19th century. According to numerous critics and readers, the deliberate use of old vernacular gave rise to a translation in line with the spirit of the original work.

Despite this, does Richard Howard’s work deserve such scorn? It could be argued that the award-winning poet, essayist, and translator (he was awarded a Pulitzer prize, after all) simply opted for an alternative interpretation, and while certainly less creative, it was without judgment, and more faithful to the French version. He possibly sought to replicate the simplicity of the original by leaving words such as primeval forest and tippler aside and replacing them with jungle and drunkard. Thoughtful selections just as meaningful as those of Woods.

Incidentally, he appeared to be aware that his translation would draw criticism, as indicated by the translator’s note in the preface stating the following:

“new versions of “canonical’’ translations raise questions (or at least suspicions) of lèse-majesté. A second translator into English of The Little Prince accepts the responsibility of such an imputation, for it must be acknowledged that all translations date; certain works never do.”

In the beginning, a dedication

Let’s now assess in detail the discrepancies between both translations.

The famous dedication to Léon Werth sets the tone. Indeed, Saint-Exupéry states from the start that this book is intended first and foremost for children. Grown-ups, well, they understand nothing about anything. Or at least they don’t grasp the essential, that which we know is invisible to the eyes.

Have a quick look at the dedication in French and the two translations:

À Léon Werth.

Je demande pardon aux enfants d’avoir dédié ce livre à une grande personne. J’ai une excuse sérieuse : cette grande personne est le meilleur ami que j’ai au monde. J’ai une autre excuse : cette grande personne peut tout comprendre, même les livres pour enfants. J’ai une troisième excuse : cette grande personne habite la France, où elle a faim et froid. Elle a bien besoin d’être consolée. Si toutes ces excuses ne suffisent pas, je veux bien dédier ce livre à l’enfant qu’a été autrefois cette grande personne. Toutes les grandes personnes ont d’abord été des enfants. (Mais peu d’entre elles s’en souviennent.) Je corrige donc ma dédicace :

À Léon Werth

quand il était petit garçon.

Translation by Katherine Woods:

To Leon Werth

To Leon Werth  I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up. I have a serious reason: he is the best friend I have in the world. I have another reason: this grown-up understands everything, even books about children. I have a third reason: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs cheering up. If all these reasons are not enough, I will dedicate the book to the child from whom this grown-up grew. All grown-ups were once children–although few of them remember it. And so I correct my dedication: To Leon Werth When he was a little boy

To Leon Werth

When he was a little boy

Translation by Richard Howard:

To Leon Werth

To Leon Werth I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication:

To Leon Werth

When he was a little boy

From the outset, it can be seen that Howard’s translation is much closer to the source. Notice the use of the same simple, refined language as in the French, which is much more adapted to a young audience. It is highly possible that some children understand words such as indulgence. Moreover, it is commendable to encourage enriching their vocabulary through reading. However, Howard’s translation better reflects the level of language and vocabulary of the original work, as is the case for the rest of the book.

Another interesting fact of note: Saint-Exupéry wrote, “Je demande pardon aux enfants d’avoir dédié ce livre à une grande personne,” which Woods translated to, “I ask the indulgence of the children who may read this book for dedicating it to a grown-up.” The use of may read, which expresses a possibility, suggests that despite the clear intentions of Saint-Exupéry, Woods assumed the book would mostly be read by adults, not children. While certainly a question of interpretation, it still leaves an opportunity to question the choice of the translator.

Diverging styles

As previously mentioned, the level of language varies widely from one translation to another. Consider, for instance, an excerpt from a paragraph where the little prince, freshly touching down in the Sahara Desert, encounters a snake:

 « Celui que je touche, je le rends à la terre dont il est sorti, dit-il encore. Mais tu es pur et tu viens d’une étoile… »

Le petit prince ne répondit rien.

« Tu me fais pitié, toi si faible, sur cette Terre de granit (…) »

Let’s take a look at Woods’ translation:

“Whomever I touch, I send back to the earth from whence he came,” the snake spoke again. “But you are innocent and true, and you come from a star…”

The little prince made no reply.

“You move me to pity – you are so weak on this Earth made of granite,” the snake said.

Now, that of Howard:

“Anyone I touch, I send back to the land from which he came,” the snake went on. But you’re innocent, and you come from a star…”

The little prince made no reply.

“I feel sorry for you, being so weak on this granite earth,” said the snake.

The contrast between the poetic language of Woods and the simpler version of Howard is abundantly evident. These translators clearly adopted vastly different approaches. Is one preferable to the other? It is all a matter of perspective. If we consider the fact that Saint-Exupéry’s objective was making his book accessible to children, Howard’s modern translation is more appropriate. Regardless, we can appreciate the rich, elegant prose of Woods, whose style reflects the classical side of the work.

Mentalities evolve… do translations?

As there are 57 years between the two translations, it goes without saying that society has immensely changed since the publication of the initial translation.

One of the most fitting examples is the translation of the word nègre. Saint-Exupéry states that the Earth has “cent onze rois (en n’oubliant pas, bien sûr, les rois nègres.” Over the years, this French word (and its equivalent in English) has acquired a racist connotation. Howard therefore had the right idea in translating rois nègres to African kings, instead of opting for Negro kings. How did Woods go about this one? Undoubtedly in 1943, mentalities were very different, and the word Negro most likely didn’t raise an eyebrow from anyone at the time. However, today it is unacceptable, and the reason why new translations were required is obvious.

Perfection is not of this world…

Although many readers prefer Woods’ translation, it is still not free of errors. Take for example the following sentence from Chapter 4: “Il était une fois un petit prince qui habitait une planète à peine plus grande que lui, et qui avait besoin d’un ami…,” which Woods translated to, “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep…” It is unknown why Woods choose the word sheep (mouton) rather than friend (ami), but this misstep produced a domino effect, as no less than 22 editions of Le Petit Prince distributed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China, which were translated from Woods’ work, have reproduced the error.

A serious question

One of the most interesting translation points regarding Le Petit Prince involves the “choses sérieuses”, which concern the pilot and business person, who have no time to waste on the little prince’s “nonsense.” Woods conveyed the concept with matters of consequence, a more suggestive choice than serious things. Yu-Yun Hsieh provides a fascinating explanation for Woods’ choice in an essay published on the site World Literature Today:

(…) the ongoing war made publication of The Little Prince urgent for this fairytale-like novella to fulfill its therapeutic mission, not only to console children, but also to heal adults. Seriousness is a relative concept, and the meaning should arise from its comparison with lightness. Matters of consequence, on the contrary, indicate responsibilities, referring to the cause and effect of one’s behavior. Woods’s decision indicates her moralistic interpretation of the text, her response to the time, and, therefore, “matters of consequence” is her peculiar euphemism for war.

In other words, Woods was commenting on the spirit of the time (or Zeitgeist) through her translation and, deliberately or not, provided a moralist perception of Saint-Exupéry’s text. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that people prefer the work of Woods to that of Howard; more than a simple translation, it acts as a veritable time capsule, a snapshot frozen in time.

Translation, to stray… or not

Can it be objectively stated that one translation is superior to another? Whatever detractors say, Woods and Howard have both provided a personal and credible interpretation of Le Petit Prince, with their strengths and weaknesses, and a preference for one translation over another is an element of the never-ending debate between source-oriented and target-oriented translators. Howard is presumably a part of the first category, considering his translation a faithful one, while Woods, through her moral judgments and her interpretation which strays from the author’s intentions, demonstrates the leanings of a target-oriented translator. Elsewhere, there is occasion to wonder if the rejection of recent translations does not arise from a sentimental attachment to Woods’ version rather than an impartial critical analysis. Of course, it is completely normal to have a preference, but render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; Howard made an ethical choice and with gusto embraced the challenge of providing a translation that is more accessible to children and more closely reflects the tone of the French version.

In the end, both translations, from two very different eras, have paid homage to Saint-Exupéry in their own way. Rather than comparing them, let us instead draw inspiration from Le Petit Prince and focus on the heart of the work: the beauty of the story.

Laurence Blais, Translator


DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, Antoine. Le Petit Prince, Éditions Gallimard, collection Folio, Paris, 2013, 97 pages.

DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, Antoine. The Little Prince, translated from French by Richard Howard, Harcourt, Inc., Florida, 2000, 83 pages.

DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY, Antoine. The Little Prince, translated from French by Katherine Woods, Ancient Wisdom Publications.

HSIEH, Yu-Yun. “The Matter of Forking Consequences: Translating Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince”, World Literature Today, [online], January 31, 2017. (Accessed June 30, 2019).

KIM, Matt. “A Battle Rages Over ‘The Little Prince’ Translation”, Inverse, [online], August 9, 2016. (Accessed June 26, 2019).

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