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Review: The Miracle of the Little Prince Is a Clarion Call for Saving Languages

The snapshots of the painstaking task of translation are filtered through the delicate framing of its subjects and the worlds they inhabit.

The Miracle of the Little Prince
Photo: Film Movement

When the lonely title character of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince lands on Earth after descending from his tiny planet to explore the rest of the universe in search of friendship, he believes it to be uninhabited. But in a vast, empty expanse of the Sahara Desert, he meets a snake who explains that Earth is a very large planet, and that its people happened to be elsewhere. The little prince later comes upon a desert flower who, when asked about the whereabouts of men, explains that “no one ever knows where to find them. The wind blows them away. They have no roots, and that makes their life very difficult.”

Marjoleine Boonstra’s documentary The Miracle of the Little Prince examines our rootlessness in the context of the things we leave behind—specifically, our languages, and how they can become lost. With four sections each devoted to different translators of Saint-Exupery’s novel, the structure of the film is designed so that the details of its disparate sections gradually accrue, gathering meaning in much the same way as the little prince forms his worldview based on information gleaned from the people he meets on his journey.

Just like the novel, the film begins in the Sahara, in a Berber village where a Moroccan man, Lahbib Fouad, is translating The Little Prince into Tamazight, the endangered language of his native people. Fouad’s translation efforts are motivated by a desire to reclaim the language of his youth and to pass it down to the next generation. Boonstra weaves together intimate glimpses of village life and exquisite shots of the desert landscape to capture the essence of life near where the little prince first arrived on Earth in Saint-Exupery’s story, just as she does when the film moves to the snowy landscape of northern Scandinavia, where a Finnish woman, Kerttu Vuolab, is also translating The Little Prince, this time into Sami.

“It felt like someone had cut my throat,” Vuolab says of being sent away from home as a young girl and abandoning her native language, as she was forbidden by the teachers at her boarding school to speak anything but Finnish. At school, she found comfort and solace in the story of a little prince who flew away, and now many decades later she reclaims a lost childhood by bringing the story that saved her at school back into the language she’d left behind.

The theme of translation as a way to reclaim something lost continues in the subsequent section, about a group of unlikely translators in El Salvador, three mostly uneducated local women who are among the few who still speak the ancient Aztec language of Nahuat, which was once forbidden by the communist regime of the 1930s. Working with linguist Jorge Lemus, these women painstakingly translate The Little Prince into Nahuat in honor of the children who had no longer been taught their native language for fear of retribution.

And in the film’s final section, Boonstra introduces the audience to two traditional Tibetan translators who are refugees now living abroad in Paris and who describe the erasure of their language by Chinese occupiers. “It’s difficult to separate language from identity,” says Noyontsang Llamokyab, expressing his feelings of rootlessness following his exile. It’s no wonder, then, that these translators are drawn to the story of the little prince, who also finds himself far from home and faced with uncertainty about what comes next.

United by an abiding love for the natural world, the documentary’s snapshots of the painstaking task of translation are filtered through Boonstra’s delicate framing of her subjects and the worlds they inhabit, the disparate landscapes coming alive as the various narrators read selections from The Little Prince in voiceover. The narrative occasionally and poignantly pauses while the frame lingers on a shot of a child gazing into the camera, curious and unembarrassed, and we’re reminded in these moments of who these translators are doing this for—the next generation of readers. In a world increasingly resistant to cultural exchange, the miracle of The Little Prince is how it’s become so universally beloved, and Boonstra’s film is a worthy homage to its passionate translators who’ve been so inspired by Saint-Exupery’s story about a boy whose open curiosity about our world makes us all see it anew, that they’ve committed to strengthening its roots through the act of translation.

“He keeps searching and never gives up,” says Tashi Kyi, the other Tibetan translator featured in The Miracle of the Little Prince, her eyes brimming with tears as she speaks of the little prince. She’s referring—from the perspective of a political refugee who hasn’t seen her family in more than 20 years—to his ability to go anywhere he wants, hopping from planet to planet. She’s also admiring his conviction to seek knowledge and understanding wherever he might find it. But at the end of the story, after the little prince succeeds in finding friendship, all he wants is to go back home to his planet and tend to his rose. He’s realized that it’s his responsibility to protect her from harm. “I’d love to be like him,” says Kyi with a sad smile. But by working to preserve Saint-Exupery’s story in a threatened language, she in fact already is.

Director: Marjoleine Boonstra Screenwriter: Marjoleine Boonstra, Lies Janssen, Pieter van Huystee Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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