“THE MIRACLE OF THE LITTLE PRINCE”
An Influential Book and Language
“The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was published in 1943. In those almost 80 years, it has become one of the most important books in history with relevance that goes far beyond popularity. The simple story has deeper meanings which have allowed it to be adapted into over 300 languages, making it the most translated book in the world next to the Bible. It has become an invaluable resource in keeping cultures alive.
“The Miracle of the Little Prince” looks at four of these languages – Tamazight from the Sahara, Sami on the border of Norway and Finland, the ancient Aztec language of Nawat from El Salvador, and Tibetan. We meet the people who were passionate enough to translate the novella and find out why the story is important to them and what it means to their culture.
Director and cinematographer Marjoleine Boonstra brings us the story of the book that becomes a story of pictures. The cinematography is beautiful and provides a very personal glimpse of the isolated regions we visit. The editing is slow and precise with long shots and scenarios so that we can thoroughly absorb them. We see the daily lives of the Berber people in Morocco and the hard-working women of El Salvador, those that live a simpler way of life and whose existence is tied to their environment and everything within it.
These languages of these cultures are exceedingly fragile and are diminishing by the generation. Nawat is spoken by less than 300 people – most of whom are now between 80 and 90 years old – after most native speakers were massacred by the Spaniards in 1932. Similarly, Tamazight and Sami weren’t taught in schools – and Sami was banned from being written or spoken – when ‘The Little Prince’s’ translators were studying. Although Tibet is now “autonomous”, it is still law to use Chinese rather than Tibetan for all official meetings and events. The documentary also captures the beauty of their existence and the frailty of these places and their people.
The film focuses on the parallels between ‘The Little Prince’ and the lives of those who have translated it. The story is loved for its innocence, as the Prince visits a foreign place with great curiosity and without judgment, a reflection of the goodness of the human spirit. The Berber are able to identify with the desert setting from the story, but also much more; they are an ancient culture, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, yet have never known warfare. We see the book being translated by three female speakers of Nawat, as they and linguist Jorge Lemus attempt to preserve a language that has almost been erased; a challenge with such an ancient dialect that no longer grows and adapts, and doesn’t even have a word for “rose”, a major element in the story. Tibetan translator Tashi Kyi sadly explains, “Language defines a person’s personality. It’s difficult to separate language from identity.” She and story editor and writer Noyontsang Lamokyab left Tibet and can never return. They now live in exile in Paris and teach hundreds of people back in Tibet the traditional language using WeChat.
“The Miracle of the Little Prince” examines the cultures whose story “The Little Prince” belongs to, and gives us a time capsule of their dying languages and civilizations. We see the relationship that these people have with their environment and everything living within it.
Divided into four “chapters,” the film opens at dawn in the Sahara Desert as the book’s famous epilogue is read in French in a voice-over. We meet a Berber family coming out of their tents, milking their camels, preparing breakfast, and setting out for school in a nearby village.
Another passage is read in Tamazight by its Berber translator Lahbib Fouad, who speaks about his childhood, when he was forced to learn Arabic in school. He has dedicated his life to preserving his native language for the next generation.
The film’s most fascinating section is set in the arctic reaches of Finland and introduces Sami translator Kerttu Vuolab, who describes how her parents sent her to boarding school after her sister’s drowning. There she was bullied because she could not speak Finnish, and she sought refuge in the library where she read “The Little Prince”. She says that it gave her friendship and consolation. When she was a university student, she decided to translate Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece into Sami.
In El Salvador, linguist Jorge Lemus works with three elderly indigenous women to translate the book into Pipil (Nawat). In the wake of a 1932 massacre by government forces, survivors were so fearful of being caught speaking the language.
The fourth section with Tibetan translator Tashi Kyi and story editor and writer Noyontsang Lamokyab reminds us that “It’s difficult to separate language from identity.” If one’s language is being erased, who is there?