Le Petit Prince

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Table of all translations of the fox's secret here.

The Fox's Secret:
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux
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

L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Having told us that On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur, the fox goes on to point out that L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux -- 'What is essential is invisible to the eye'. Here we look at the French original.

This sentence is Subject-Copula-Adjective-Prepositional phrase:

Subject Copula Adjective Prepositional phrase
L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux
What is essential is invisible to the eyes

Grammatically, this is not terribly difficult. However, it hides difficulties not only in vocabulary used, but also thematic and contrastive subtleties achieved through the choice of structure and vocabulary.


The expression l'essentiel presents two difficulties:

1) The French "article + adjective" construction:

L'important That which is important
Le moderne That which is modern
L'essentiel That which is essential

This kind of shorthand expression is not necessarily available in other languages. (English is one of them).

2) Essentiel is a word with its roots in Western philosophy. Oriental languages have long been vehicles for sophisticated philosophies, and more importantly, they have imported many of the concepts of Western philosophy and developed the terminology to express them. But philosophical words that have made their way into ordinary usage in Western languages still pose problems. Both philosophers and foxes may speak of l'essentiel in French without blinking an eyelid; the same is not necessarily true of the equivalent word in, say, Chinese.

Philosophically, the word essentiel is related to the word l'essence, a term meaning 'That which constitutes the fundamental character, the permanent reality of a thing (as opposed to the 'accidental'); the nature of a being, independent of its existence'. See this article on 'essence' in English for more information on the philosophical concept.

This philsophical meaning has given rise to a second, everyday meaning. Since essentiel refers to the very nature of a thing, which can't be removed without destroying the thing itself or its character, in ordinary language it has come to have the related meaning of 'necessary, very important'.

In Le Petit Prince, it's not possible to pin the fox's statement down to either of these meanings. Both are appropriate, and both can be understood in the context.

The word essentiel is used at one other place in Le Petit Prince, at Chapter IV:

Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much does his father make?"

Essentiel in this passage could either refer to matters which form the 'essence' of a person, as opposed to facts and figures, or it could refer to that which is 'important' about a person. Similarly, the fox's secret is both about the essential nature of the little prince's relationship with his rose, and about what is important in relations between people.

The problem in translation is going to be choosing a suitable word that expresses the desired meaning (with its double aspect), and making sure that the word chosen is not too 'philosophical' for the fox to use.

Invisible pour les yeux

The word invisible means Qui ne peut pas être vu 'which can't be seen'. It's thus related to the word voir of the preceding sentence (On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur, 'One sees clearly only with the heart').

What the fox is actually saying in the two sentences is that:

    1. The heart can see what is essential
    2. The eyes cannot see what is essential

Of course it would have been be possible to write:

Les yeux ne peuvent pas voir l'essentiel
(The eyes cannot see what is essential)

But it is difficult to imagine a craftsman of Saint Exupéry's stature writing such a weak sentence. L'essentiel is a word of vital importance here; leaving it to finish up the sentence would fail to give it the prominence it deserves. The fox stresses l'essentiel by leading his second statement off with it. L'essentiel is, in fact, the theme of this sentence.

Of course, something similar could be achieved by resorting to the passive voice, thus:

L'essentiel ne peut pas être vu par les yeux
(What is essential cannot be seen by the eyes)

But this is a very ugly sentence in French, and it's a relief that Saint Exupéry uses the adjective invisible instead:

L'essentiel est invisible à l'œil
(What is essential is invisible to the eye)

In effect, the adjective invisible is equivalent to using the passive form of the sentence.

With the adjective invisible, however, 'the eye' is normally relegated to a mere prepositional phrase (à l'œil) attached to the adjective. And as in the passive, it would be quite natural to omit it altogether:

L'essentiel est invisible
(What is essential is invisible)

But, of course, it 's not at all appropriate to delete 'the eye'! The entire point of the sentence is that the eyes are unable to see what is essential, and that in this they stand in direct contrast with the heart. In other words, the inability of the eyes to see has a very important contrastive function with the first sentence.

So not only does Saint Exupéry leave 'the eyes' in the sentence, he goes out of his way to emphasise them by using pour les yeux 'for the eyes' instead of the more natural form à l'œil 'to the eye'. This involves more than a change of adjective, from à to pour. Saint Exupéry also changes the singular form l'œil, which represents 'the eye' as an abstract organ of sight, to the plural form les yeux, which refers to 'the eyes' in a specific and concrete sense. In this way Saint Exupéry manages to draw a very clear contrast between the heart, which sees well, and the eyes, which cannot see that which is essential.

Thus we arrive at Saint Exupéry's sentence:

L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Everything in this sentence, from the order of elements to the choice of words, has been carefully considered to convey the fox's secret with the appropriate emphasis and utmost clarity.

I now want to look at the linguistic aspect of how this message is translated into English, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese (coming).

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