Review: The Miracle of the Little Prince

The Miracle of the Little Prince is a film about translation, following Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince as it is translated into a number of rare languages. In doing so, director Marjoleine Boonstra uses the familiar whimsical story as a gateway into discussions of the importance of language and cultural autonomy, while capturing our world with the childlike wonder that made The Little Prince so beloved.

The documentary follows four separate translations of The Little Prince[1]― Tamazight,[2] Sami, Nahuat,[3] and Tibetan. Some translations are complete, some are works in progress; some have a single translator, others are a group effort. What all translations share is the struggle to preserve a language that has, at some point, been forcibly erased or suppressed in favour of another dominant culture and language group ― Lahbib Fouad (the Tamazight translator) and Kerttu Vuolab (the Sami translator) both recall being forced to use another language in school (Arabic and Finnish respectively).Vuolab describes the forced language transition as feeling like her throat had been slit. Similarly, the use of Nahuat was violently repressed during the  Spanish colonisation of El Salvador, leaving only a handful of speakers now in their 70s and 80s, most of whom cannot write the language. Tibetan remains the “official” language of Tibet, yet all official documents and formal conversations are held in Mandarin. The Tibetan translation of The Little Prince occurs in Paris, where it is translated by Tibetan language teacher Noyontsang Lahmokyab and his student Tashi Kyi, both of whom cannot return to Tibet, where their families live.

The film is split into sections by language group, capturing the day-to-day life of the translators and native speakers, along with interviews with the translators that stretch far beyond the subject matter of The Little Prince, dissecting language as a cultural identity, as a construct, and as a way to understand the world we live in. With this format, differences in technique arise between the translations of each language. The Nahuat translation of The Little Prince is exacting ― linguist Jorge Lemus works with three native Nahuat speakers (Guillerma Pérez, Sixta Pérez, and Andrea López) to find the exact translation of each word. They spend long minutes on the correct way to translate every word of the sentence “You are so beautiful”, spoken by The Little Prince to a rose. Lemus later admits the task is impossible, since Nahuat has no word for rose ― the flower is not native to El Salvador and arrived during the Spanish conquest and the suppression of language. Lahmokyab and Kyi take a much looser approach to their Tibetan translation, looking to adapt the spirit of the story rather than each sentence ― they also use three different language versions of the book (French, English, and Mandarin) to build their translation.

The documentary captures its subjects in naturalistic, handheld wide shots, quietly observing their daily activities and life without judgement or commentary. The often remote locations, a combination of deserts, snow fields, cities, and mountains, puts the audience in the place of the Little Prince, focusing on animals and natural environment. When humans are centred, translators interact directly with camera while other are treated with the same curious, anthropological attention paid to the natural world. Excerpts of the novel, in each translated language, are read over picturesque shots of the translator’s homes. Partially due to the small numbers of people who speak these languages, there are rarely crowd shots or large groups ― even in Paris, Lahmokyab and Kyi are shown mostly in isolation.

The frequently beautiful cinematography is, however, affected by the ever present subtitles ― since the film makes heavy use of voiceover interviews over landscape and environmental shots, the eye is inevitably drawn to the subtitles, to the detriment of the rest of the frame. This feeds into another, more philosophical conundrum ― The Miracle Of The Little Prince is a film about translation, comprised largely of interviews in numerous languages, yet for almost any audience to understand it, it has to be translated―in this case, through English subtitles. Occasionally, subtitles will linger for a few too many seconds while the interview subject works their way through a long sentence that appears in English as a short one, leaving the viewer to wonder what nuances have been lost in translation.[4] The subtitles homogenise all languages into English, often without acknowledging which language is being spoken at any time. It is only during the Tibetan translation that the original language of the book being translated in acknowledged ― whether the other translations used the French, English, or other translations to build their version isn’t discussed.

Though not discussed in the film, the English translation of The Little Prince is also a complicated subject ― Katherine Woods’ 1943 translation of the book is well-respected for capturing the spirit of the original novel, but is well known for taking liberties with the text. Woods’ translation was the only English version of the book for more than 50 years, but has been out of print since the mid 1990s. Since then, six different translations of the book have been published, many of which have been dismissed as lacking the charm of Woods’ work. At the same time, one of Woods’ most obvious errors ― mistranslating “friend” as “sheep” at one point ― has been used to test whether Asian language translations of The Little Prince have been translated from the original French or Woods’ English version. It’s a complicated question, whether translating from a translation can ever be considered a true translation or merely an echo of an echo, but it’s also unfair to act as though the translators from remote, small language groups need to learn a whole other language to be able to translate the book faithfully. In my view, translating from a translation may produce a new, different version of the text, but that does not mean it is somehow lesser.

However you interpret the question of the film’s translation, and the translations upon which the translations are based, they do not detract from the film, which is charming, philosophical, and often unexpectedly sad, much like the book it follows. Ostensibly a children’s book, The Little Prince’s innocence and disbelief at the cruelty of adults has long made it a favourite for deeper reading, and in discussions about languages which have been violently and culturally suppressed, innocence, openness, and understanding can feel radical.

The Miracle of the Little Prince will be playing on Thurs 6 June and at a sold out session on Sat 8 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.

[1] The world’s most translated non-religious book.

[2] A Berber language spoken in Morocco.

[3] The indigenous language of El Salvador.

[4] Further complicating matters, each section of the film is translated by a different 
person, which - getting pretty meta here - leads to the same difference in interpretations 
of meaning and intention that occurs during the book translations that the film chronicles.

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Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard

Tansy Gardam

Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard.