The Fox’s Secret

At last!
I found a translator’s breakdown of one of the most profound truths as expressed by the Fox in Saint-Exupery’s, The Little Prince.

Many thanks to the site for posting what is, for me, a very satisfying breakdown of the many different translations into English of that beautiful nugget of truth in The Little Prince:

On ne voit bien quavec le coeur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

My favorite translation: “One sees clearly only with the heart, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Below is the full examination from the cjvlang website…

((By the way:  Translators are among my favorite invisible things.))

. . . . . . .

The Fox’s Secret:
On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur.
Translation into English

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

Here we look at how the sentence On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur, from Le Petit Prince (‘The Little Prince’), is translated into English.

What I want to do here is see how the English translations stick to or depart from the French, and whether or how these choices affect the meaning or tone of the fox’s statement. This involves looking at each particular element in turn.

All five English translations are a little different as each translator has made certain choices. The five English versions are:

Name of translator English version
Woods 1943 It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
Cuffe 1995 You can only see things clearly with your heart.
Testot-Ferry 1995 It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly.
Wakeman 1997 We only really see with our hearts.
Howard 2000 One sees clearly only with the heart.

Of the five versions, Howard’s is virtually a word-for-word translation from the French. The other translations vary in certain ways. Here we make a point-by-point comparison with the French and see where the translations vary. We will start with the basic Subject-Verb-Object sentence ‘One sees [things]’:

1. Basic Sentence

The basic underlying order and elements of the sentence are the same in English and French:

Subject Verb Object
on voit [les choses]
one sees [things]

Adding ‘with the heart’, there is still no difference from the French. Like French, English uses a prepositional phrase.

Prepositional phrase
on voit [les choses] avec le cœur
one sees [things] with the heart

2. Omission of the object

English can omit the object of the verb in situations like this, and most of the translators follow the French in doing so. The result is a general statement like the French.

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

There is, however, one exception: Cuffe uses the vague all-purpose noun ‘things’ as an object.

Subject Verb Object Prepositional phrase
on voit X avec le cœur
one sees things with the heart

This addition of a fairly meaningless object to the verb, just to fill in a ‘slot’ in the sentence, is a feature of spoken English. By using ‘things’ Cuffe’s fox speaks a language closer to everyday life. However, this is at the cost of losing the terseness of the original.

3. On

On allows the fox to make a statement of general validity because on is understood as applying to people in general.

The literal English equivalent of on is ‘one’, and three of the translators use it. However, English ‘one’ is somewhat different from French on. In French, on is frequently used, even in colloquial speech. The usage is equally broad, ranging from ‘people in general’ to ‘I’, ‘we’, and ‘you’.

By contrast, ‘one’ in English is less often used and has a rather formal, bookish feel. It is mostly used for statements about people in general, although like French it can also be used to mean ‘I’ or ‘you’. But using ‘one’ in any of these ways sounds much stuffier in English than in French.

So two of our translators find more natural ways of expressing the concept of on.

In colloquial English, ‘you’ is widely used to make a statement applying to ‘people in general’, and Cuffe makes use of this in his translation: ‘you can only see things clearly with your heart’ (notice that at the same time ‘the heart’ becomes ‘your heart’).

Subject Verb Object Prepositional phrase
on voit [les choses] avec le cœur
you see [things] with your heart

The disadvantage of ‘you’ is that it can sound ambiguous — it could sound like advice specifically tailored for the little prince rather than a statement of a general truth.

Wakeman adopts a different solution: he uses the pronoun ‘we’, which can similarly be used in making general statements. (This is inclusive ‘we’, which includes the listener, as opposed to exclusive ‘we’, which excludes the listener. English ‘we’ and French nous are used in both meanings.)

Subject Verb Object Prepositional phrase
on voit [les choses] avec le cœur
we see [things] with our hearts

4. The verb ‘sees / can see’

It’s possible to say ‘One only sees clearly’ — using the plain present verb ‘sees’ — in English. Indeed, Howard and Wakeman do so in their translations. The use of the verb in the plain present indicates an eternal or general truth, which matches the meaning of the French. (As is well known, French also uses the plain present for actions in progress, which in English are better expressed with the present progressive: je le regarde = ‘I am looking at him’.)

However, it’s generally more natural in English to say ‘One can only see clearly’. I’m not sure of the reason for this. Possibly the plain verb ‘sees’ sounds too formal to be used in normal conversation. So three of the translators transform voit into ‘can see’:

Subject Verb Object Prepositional phrase
on voit [les choses] avec le cœur
one can see [things] with the heart

While it may be more natural, adding ‘can’ does bring about a subtle change in nuance. ‘Sees clearly’ makes an objective statement about perception. ‘Can see clearly’ indicates an ability or capability to see, at the same time suggesting a subjective element of purpose, intention, or desire. For instance, ‘I don’t see it’ and ‘I can’t see it’ are not completely the same: ‘can’t’ might be used where there’s a need or desire (even an impatience) to see the object in question.

This means that seeing sounds like a conscious action with a purpose. The implication is something like: ‘If one wants to see clearly, then one can only do so with the heart’. This is subtly different from the French.

5. Voit bien

This is literally ‘sees well’. (The normal position of the adverb in English is different from French, although this is mostly irrelevant since the object is omitted in both the French original and most English translations. For simplicity, we will omit the object from further discussions.)

Subject Verb Adverb Object Adverb Prepositional phrase
on voit bien [les choses] avec le cœur
one can see [things] well with the heart

The adverb ‘well’ presents something of a problem here. It’s possible in English to use ‘well’ with a negative (‘I can’t see it very well’) or when qualified (‘I can see it pretty well’). But ‘to see well’ in a general statement (‘I can see well’) is not very idiomatic. Moreover, ‘see well’ doesn’t sit very comfortably with expressions of volition or purpose. It’s fine to say ‘I want to see clearly’ or ‘I want to see properly’, but ‘I want to see well’ is awkward, to say the least.

If ‘well’ is not suitable, what adverb can convey the correct nuance? This requires a subtle judgement about what the fox means.

  • Woods chose ‘rightly’, implying that using anything other than the heart will result in incorrect perception.
  • Three other three translators chose ‘clearly’, which implies that any other method will result in unclear perception.
  • Wakeman uses ‘really’. He also puts ‘really’ before the verb: ‘We only really see…’ This emphasises the adverb. ‘Really’ implies that not looking with our hearts will not result in true or complete perception.

6. Avec le cœur

Virtually the only expression in the sentence that raises no particular issues is, surprisingly, avec le cœur. This kind of abstract expression is often cited as an area where different languages and cultures perceive things quite differently. In fact, there’s a good match between English and French and nothing important appears to be lost in a direct and literal translation.

An English definition of ‘heart’ in the relevant sense goes as follows (from Webster’s):

The emotional or moral as distinguished from the intellectual nature;
one’s innermost character, feelings, or inclinations.

This fits in exactly with the concept of ‘seeing’ in an intuitive or emotional sense, which is what the French is trying to convey.

7. Ne … que (‘only’)

English uses ‘only’ to express the meaning of ne … que. Unlike ne … que, which is fixed in position, ‘only’ is relatively free to roam about the sentence. In spoken English, it usually goes immediately before the verb, with intonation highlighting the focus, ‘with the heart’:

Subject Verb Adverb Prepositional phrase
on ne voit bien qu’ avec le cœur
one only sees clearly with the heart (stressed)

As usual, Cuffe selects this more conversational style in his translation.

In written English, for greater clarity, it’s normal to try and place ‘only’ in front of the focus. This results in a clearer but somewhat more formal style. In line with his preference for what might be described as a ‘formal elegance’, this is the construction that Howard chooses:

Subject Verb Adverb Prepositional phrase
on ne voit bien qu’ avec le cœur
one sees clearly only with the heart

English does, however, present another option: highlight the focus by placing it at the start of the sentence. There are a couple of ways of doing this:

1. ‘Only with the heart does one see clearly’. (Note that this requires inversion — the dummy verb, ‘does’, is placed before ‘one’, the subject of the sentence.)

Focus Verb Subject Verb Adverb
Only with the heart does one see clearly

2. A second alternative is the so-called ‘cleft construction’: ‘It is only with the heart that one sees clearly’.

Focus Subject Verb Adverb
It is only with the heart that one sees clearly

Both Woods and Testot-Ferry resort to the cleft construction. This is a departure from the French in the way information is arranged. However, it’s hard to find fault with this departure. ‘It is only with the heart…’ is more natural in English than the equivalent cleft construction ce n’est qu’avec le cœur… would be in French. Despite the rather large change in word order to highlight the focus, the sentence is still quite close to the original.

Wakeman, on the other hand, actually moves away from the original. While placing ‘only’ before ‘really see’ does not seem a remarkable departure, what it actually does is place the focus on ‘really’. This results in a strong contrast with the concept of not really seeing.

Subject Adverb Verb Prepositional phrase
one only really sees with the heart

8. Other alternatives

What is interesting in all this is that translators have not tried any alternative ways of packaging the same information. It would be quite possible to, say, use a passive instead:

‘Things can only be seen clearly with the heart’.

The passive captures perfectly the concept of a general truth, and the word ‘things’ expresses quite well the notion of ‘things in general’. None of the translators adopt this option, probably because of the stylistic infelicity of a passive starting with ‘things’.

But even without such stylistic considerations, one can’t help but suspect that translators have steered away from alternative renderings out of sheer inertia — a simple tendency to follow the form of the original French. Despite the oft-repeated ideal of dynamic equivalence, which holds that translation should recreate the force and meaning of the original and not merely transpose it word for word, in practice most translators, in the absence of compelling grammatical, stylistic, or semantic reasons to the contrary, simply tag along with the original text.

2 thoughts on “The Fox’s Secret

  1. Lab Chief says:

    Message I sent to translator on 5 Jan 2018:

    Recently I came across your site from a Google search looking for a better translation of “On ne voit bien qu‘avec le coeur, l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”
    Your thorough examination and breakdown of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s profound observation as expressed by the Fox in The Little Prince was truly helpful and instructive. It’s amazing how each translation gives the original phrase such a different feeling…
    Are you a translator yourself? Translators strive for invisibility, attempting to make the language so flow so seamlessly as to sometimes miss the essence of the author’s words.
    Based on the amount of work on your cjvlang site, it appears you love research.

    Thank you for the wealth of information!

    Best regards,



  2. Lab Chief says:

    Message received from translator on 14 February 2018:

    Hi Gabrielle,

    Thank you for your email and your praise for my humble, pedestrian analysis of the Fox’s Secret. I notice from your websites that you are deeply involved in the arts, which is a wonderful place to be.

    As you can see, I like to look at the little things that go to make up sentences. It’s nothing like gazing at the stars but it’s strange how minutiae often reveal the secret inner workings of language.

    My original background is in linguistics, a field that has long been dominated by lovers of theory and mathematics, although I don’t find that aspect so satisfying. In my working life I worked in translation in various capacities for many years, but nothing of a literary nature. Mostly humdrum information gathering. I’m now semi-retired, living in Mongolia, and trying, with very moderate success, to learn Mongolian.

    I’m pleased that you could gain something from my website and wish you all the best with your researches into the ‘invisible’. If I remember, it was James Joyce who spoke of the ‘ineluctable modality of the invisible’. I could never quite understand what that actually meant.

    Best Regards,

    Greg Pringle


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