Mor­purgo and the B-612 vis­i­tor

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The Lit­tle Prince An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry (trans­lated by Michael Mor­purgo) Vin­tage Chil­dren’s Clas­sics, £9.99, pp96

To all ap­pear­ances The Lit­tle Prince is a chil­dren’s book. But ever since its orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion in French in 1943, An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry’s story has en­chanted au­di­ences of all ages. The book’s beloved hero is a small, blond-haired boy from as­ter­oid B-612, which he leaves to jour­ney across the galaxy. Along his way, he vis­its a num­ber of plan­ets each pop­u­lated by a sole per­son with an ab­surd pro­fes­sion (the lit­tle prince ul­ti­mately learns that there is no other kind). When he lands on Earth, in the mid­dle of the desert, he is met by a mys­te­ri­ous snake. “Where are all the peo­ple?” the lit­tle prince asks. “I’m be­gin­ning to feel lonely in this desert.” “You can feel lonely among peo­ple, too,” replies the snake.

How­ever elu­sive the story’s mean­ing, few have matched the uni­ver­sal­ity of its ap­peal. In April 2017, The Lit­tle Prince be­came the most trans­lated book in the world, ex­clud­ing re­li­gious texts (which en­joyed sig­nif­i­cant head starts). It now ex­ists in 300 lan­guages, a sum that doesn’t even in­clude the range of trans­la­tions within lan­guages. In Korean, there are said to be about 50 dif­fer­ent ver­sions. Un­til re­cently, Eng­lish could claim only a mea­gre six. Now, Michael Mor­purgo, master sto­ry­teller and untested trans­la­tor, has de­liv­ered a de­fin­i­tive sev­enth.

“To be asked to trans­late one of the great­est sto­ries ever writ­ten was an hon­our I could not refuse,” Mor­purgo writes in his fore­word. “And if I am hon­est, I thought my knowl­edge of French would be just about up to it. Well, I was wrong about that.” The mis­take is easy to make, even if Mor­purgo’s mod­esty de­ceives. The Lit­tle Prince is known for its spare and sim­ple prose, and while it is stud­ied in uni­ver­si­ties, it is taught to be­gin­ners of French at school. Saint-Ex­upéry worked through dozens of drafts to achieve the fi­nal aes­thetic. On the sur­face, it leaves trans­la­tors lit­tle room to ma­noeu­vre and it’s tempt­ing to ask: do we re­ally need all these dif­fer­ent trans­la­tions? Or are pub­lish­ers just try­ing to cash in (say, by adding a celebrity author)? But on a deeper level, Saint-Ex­upéry’s style is no­to­ri­ously hard to repli­cate, and so perhaps a wor­thy trans­la­tion re­quires more than good French. Mor­purgo’s ver­sion cer­tainly sug­gests so, a few strange de­ci­sions aside. As with his own work, there is a clar­ity and di­rect­ness, an affin­ity with the an­i­mal world, all un­der­lined by emo­tional force. If war was more present in the story – the world in which Saint-Ex­upéry wrote it, af­ter all, and a theme in Mor­purgo’s work – you could al­most imag­ine Mor­purgo hav­ing writ­ten it him­self.

Then again, as Mor­purgo notes, there is some­thing in­con­tro­vert­ibly French about The Lit­tle Prince, even as it ap­peals across the world. Sain­tEx­upéry isn’t afraid of sug­gest­ing an in­her­ent sad­ness in the world, or of point­ing to the mean­ing­less lives so many lead. “Peo­ple never have the time to un­der­stand any­thing that is worth­while,” a fox laments. “They buy ev­ery­thing ready made in the shops. That’s why peo­ple don’t have friends, be­cause they can’t buy friends in the shops.” The story’s wis­dom on lone­li­ness – in cities crowded with peo­ple – and con­sumerism – in a world re­plete with nat­u­ral joys – re­mains as res­o­nant as ever. Mor­purgo’s trans­la­tion re­minds us why. Sa­muel Earle

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