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“El Little Príncipe”—Translating Saint-Exupéry’s Classic into Spanglish

By Ilan Stavans


Ilan Stavan’s Spanglish translation of The Little Prince, El Little Príncipe, was published in 2016 by Edition Tintenfass.

The death of a language is frequently accompanied by a litany of regrets. Progress runs too fast, it is said, and people are oblivious to change. For instance, there were probably close to 2,000 aboriginal languages in what is known today as Latin America, of which around 600 still remain. Their disappearance is no doubt a tragedy.

In contrast, the birth of a language, ironically, is often greeted with animosity and discomfort, not to say mistrust.

For all intents and purposes, Spanglish is not yet a language. It doesn’t have a standardized grammar and spelling is unstable. Yet this hybrid tongue is spoken by millions across the Americas, more assiduously in the United States, which includes the second-largest concentration of Hispanics around the globe, after Mexico and before Colombia. There are dozens of varieties, not exclusively defined by national background (Chicano, Nuyorican, Cubonics, Dominicanish, etc.). They are also shaped by the age, race, and education of the user, and for how long that user has been in the United States.

The base of Spanglish is often Spanish but it can also be English. The three most salient characteristics in a fluent speaker are code-switching (a back-and-forth from Spanish to English), simultaneous translation, and the coining of neologisms, as I discuss in my book Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (Harper, 2002).

My new translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, called El Little Príncipe (Germany: Edition Tintenfass, 2016), exemplifies, to the degree possible, the way Spanglish has been “normalized” in the new millennium. It uses a neutral form that results from the convergence of multiple varieties, a form that is commonly used in the media (print, radio, TV, and the Internet).

Herein the first three paragraphs:

Cuando yo tenía seis años, encontré un beautiful dibujo en un book llamado True cuentos sobre una jungle. El book mostraba una boa constrictora tragándose un wild animal. Esta es la copia del dibujo.

El book decía: ‘La boa constrictora se traga sus presas whole, sin masticarlas. Después ellas son incapaces de movimiento.

Después ellas sleep por seis meses while hacen la digestión.’ That me puso a pensar sobre todas las cosas que están en la jungle, y, con una crayola, yo hice mi primer dibujo. Lo llamé drawin número uno.

Since Spanglish is currently in its transition from an oral vehicle of communication to a written form, I felt it was crucial in the translation to allow for the jazzy, syncopated sounds of it to be registered. The intrusion of English doesn’t need to be uniform: thus, “dibujo” and “drawin,” which uses a phonetic spelling. Likewise, speakers tend to use adjectives in English and nouns in Spanish and to apply them by keeping the noun’s gender, although, again, this varies from circumstance to circumstance. Thus, “una boa constrictora.” Finally, the choice of certain terms depends entirely on the apparent capital a word might have in the speaker’s lexicon.

However, Spanglish, as explained before, isn’t only about word choice. It is about the intercourse of two syntaxes, two grammars, and, generally, two weltanschauungs. My translation seeks to establish that neutral, autonomous space where Spanish and English cease to act as cohesive standardized languages to donate their DNA to a new child.

The making of El Little Príncipe (cover pictured left) was sheer joy. I had first read the book in Spanish when I was a child growing up in Mexico. I still remember exactly where it sat on my bookshelf. I left it behind when I immigrated to New York City in the mid-eighties. Out of sight also meant out of mind. For years, whenever I would come upon a reference, I would think of Saint Exupéry’s novel as prepubescent.

It wasn’t until a student of mine last year embarked on a research project comparing various Spanish translations that I thought about it again. Various translations? I got myself a copy of the original French and as I delved with her into the topic, I realized there are dozens of Spanish versions of The Little Prince. The first appeared in Argentina in 1951, followed by a Mexican, an Iberian, a Colombian, a Cuban, a Chilean, a Peruvian, a Venezuelan, and a Uruguayan. Those are only the ones I know. In English too there are close to a dozen different translators, starting with Katherine Woods.

All this was happening as the release of the animated film, The Little Prince, directed by Mark Osborne, was becoming widely available. Almost immediately, I felt the urge to create one in Spanglish.

I used the annotated French edition as my source. I was surprised by how unimpeded my first draft came out. It was in the dozens of redrafts that I spent weeks. In fact, the publisher will attest to my punctiliousness at the time of the proofs. Since the Spanglish needed to sound right, I reread the translation aloud several times, correcting as I went. The tempo was essential.

Translation, it goes without saying, is about appropriation. At its “official” birth in the mid-seventies, Spanglish was derided as “a language of dogs.” In time it has been upgraded to the ignoramus. But with its growth have come along bestselling novels, children’s stories, poetry, political speeches, even liturgy written in it, proof—as if any were needed—that the ignoramus has a soul.

Unlike previous partial renditions into Spanglish of classics I have done—Don Quixote and Hamlet, for instance—the source text by de Saint-Exupéry is relatively modern (it was released in 1943), thus requiring a different strategy than those needed for a book several centuries old. It is neither about bringing a piece from the past to the present, nor about making the reader travel to that past. Rather it is about making a beloved contemporary classic feel utterly new and accessible to a different group of readers who deserve it in their own tongue.


Published Jan 25, 2017   Copyright 2017 Ilan Stavans

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