Bathrobe's Le Petit Prince
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The Fox's Secret:
On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur.
French original

(French original) ▶ Here is my secret. It is very simple ▼ One sees clearly only with the heart ▶ What is essential is invisible to the eyes

The essence of the Fox's Secret in Le Petit Prince: 'It is only with the heart that one can see rightly' (On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur). These are seven simple, everyday words in the original French. To translate them, shouldn't it be possible to take those seven simple words and just replace them with a few equally simple words in another language? On this page we take a look at the original French, pointing out the particular effect of each grammatical aspect of the sentence and how it might impact on translation of the sentence into other languages.

This sentence is ideal for a block-by-block buildup, starting with the basic sentence, then adding elements meaning 'with the heart', 'well' ('clearly'), and finally 'only'.

1. Basic Sentence Structure:

At its most basic, this is a simple Subject-Verb-Object sentence:

Subject
Verb
Object
On
voit
[des choses]
'One'
'sees'
['things']

2. Avec le cœur

Then we add avec le cœur 'with the heart', a prepositional phrase identifying the heart as the 'instrument' of perception.

Subject
Verb
Object
Prepositional phrase
On
voit
[des choses]
avec le cœur
'One'
'sees'
['things']
'with the heart'

3. Omission of the object of the verb:

Before we go further, notice that the fox's sentence omits the object of the verb, i.e., the fox doesn't identify exactly what is seen:

Subject
Verb
Object
Prepositional phrase
on
voit
--
avec le cœur
'one'
'sees'
--
'with the heart'

There's nothing strange or unusual about this. It's possible to do the same with many other verbs. Usually we say that the object is 'understood'. But what is understood here?

We can tell from both the broader and the narrower context that the fox is talking of the nature of 'things' in general, and in particular the nature of emotional ties.

In the narrower context, the fox says in the very next sentence that the eyes can't see 'what is essential' (l'essentiel). This is the 'understood' object of the sentence.

We can also tell from the story: the fox is telling the little prince that, while his rose looks the same as a hundred thousand other roses, it's truly unique to him because of the time he has spent 'taming' it.

With the omission of the object, the sentence is both very succinct and very general in scope. It shifts the point of the sentence from what is seen to the method by which it's seen.

Translating into other languages could present a potential problem as it's always conceivable that the verb might require some kind of object to be specified.

4. On:

The subject of the sentence is on, a pronoun used for making statements about people in general. By using on, the fox makes it clear that he is not talking about either himself or the little prince in particular; his secret is applicable to everyone. (French does also have a colloquial usage of on that applies it to the speaker, thus meaning 'I').

A translation must come up with a word that is equivalent to on, or an expression that is equivalent in effect, that is, a statement about experience in general, not confined to one person.

5. Voit:

This is the second person singular form of the verb voir, agreeing with on. The verb itself is in plain present tense, which in this case does not refer to specific events but to things in general (although in French, more than in English, it could refer to a specific event of seeing). Note especially that voir does not take an auxiliary such as pouvoir ('can, be able to'). That is, the fox does not say On ne peut voir bien qu'avec le cœur 'One can see well only with the heart'.

The most straightforward meaning of voir is percevoir par les yeux 'to perceive with the eyes'. But this sentence does not talk about seeing with the eyes. It talks about seeing with the heart.

6. Le cœur :

Defining 'heart' is one of the more subtle exercises in lexicology. One French dictionary defines it, among other things, as: Siège de l'affection, de la tendresse, de l'amour; Sièges des pensées intimes; ... Disposition à être ému, à compatir. 'Seat of the affections, of tenderness, of love; Seat of intimate thoughts; ... Disposition of being moved, having sympathy'. The appropriate nuance here appears to be the seat of affection or of intimate thoughts.

It's apparent that the heart is not an organ of 'visual perception' in the ordinary sense. By saying that we 'see' with the heart, the author is referring to a different kind of seeing from simple percervoir par les yeux. 'Seeing' involves not merely noting the physical properties of a physical object; it involves interpreting and understanding that which is seen. Moreover, this interpreting and understanding is not related to the intellect, but to the emotions.

It's this concept of perceiving with something other than the eyes that makes the fox's secret special.

7. Bien:

The meaning of the adverb bien is relatively vague, but is clear enough in the context. It may be broadly considered to encompass aspects such as seeing 'properly' (without visual distortion) and seeing 'clearly' (without visual blurring). However, perception 'with the heart' invokes a further non-visual dimension: that of perceiving 'correctly', especially in terms of the emotions.

8. Ne ... que:

Now we add the element of exclusivity. The fox does not merely claim that the heart can see; he claims that proper perception ('seeing clearly') is possible only with the heart.

This exclusive connection between 'seeing clearly' and 'seeing with the heart' is the nub of the fox's secret. In the sentence that follows this, the fox claims even more explicitly that proper perception of essential things is not possible through the ordinary organs of sight: 'What is essential is invisible to the eyes'.

The French uses ne ... que, a construction equivalent to 'only', to express this concept of exclusivity.

Syntactically, ne ... que belongs to a family of negative forms such as:

ne
pas
Plain negative
ne
plus
'no longer'
ne
rien
'nothing'
ne
jamais
'never'
ne
personne
'nobody'
ne
point
'not at all'

These are all split forms with a negative ne before the verb and a second particle occurring later in the sentence. In ne ... que, the que is added before the semantic 'focus', avec le cœur. This is how the two are tied together.

Subject
Verb
Adverb
Prepositional phrase
on
ne
voit
bien
qu'
avec le cœur

Semantically, ne ... que places the focus on one element. It restricts how things can be 'seen clearly' to one method: 'with the heart'. Other methods are ruled out as invalid.

The method of expressing 'only' is one of the more complex areas of grammar. Quite simply, different languages often use quite different structures to express the same meaning.

In the following pages I want to look at the linguistic aspect of how this profound message is translated into:

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