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A very well-known aphorism from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n'y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n'y a plus rien à retrancher. (Terre des Hommes, 1939).

The canonical English translation is

...perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away... (translation by Lewis Galantière).

If this were prefaced by the words "It seems that", it would be a literal translation from the French. Unfortunately I don't have a better source than wikiquote to see if Galantière's version includes those words.

However, the quote in English seems to be most common in the active voice: A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away (Google)

When did this version of the quote originate, and am I correct that this version is more recognizable in English? It seems "better" and more powerful to me, but it does change the sense of the original.

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I have a feeling that this is more suitable for French SE –  Thursagen Aug 22 '11 at 10:49
    
@Thursagen: the question as posed is not about the original, nor the nature of the translation, but purely about the source pf the translation. Nothing to do with that site either. –  Mitch Aug 22 '11 at 14:15
    
Any other suggestions? I don't believe my question was too open-ended or unclear. Is there any stackexchange site where such a question would be on-topic? –  RoundTower Aug 22 '11 at 17:24
    
I can't post an answer now that the question has been closed, but: The translation in question is exactly the one voiced by Leonard Nimoy in the computer game Civilization IV. You might want to ask Firaxis Games where they got it. –  ʇsәɹoɈ Jul 5 '12 at 1:32
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closed as off topic by simchona, Thursagen, JSBձոգչ, aedia λ, Mitch Aug 22 '11 at 14:14

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1 Answer

For the original context, here's Lewis Galantiere's full translation of the first two paragraphs of the third chapter (The Tool) of Wind, Sand and Stars:

And now, having spoken of the men born of the pilot's craft, I shall say something about the tool with which they work-the air-plane. Have you looked at a modern airplane? Have you followed from year to year the evolution of its lines? Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man's industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of 'a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.

It's notably longer than the wikiquote version, and closer to the French meaning.


Dredging Google Books, the earliest I can find is in 1940's The poetry of flight: an anthology, by Selden Rodman, as part of a longer section of text, presumably all by De Saint-Exupéry.

In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness. It results from this that perfection ...

And the same in Air University quarterly review.

This shorter section is quoted by a number of books, such as in 1949's Treasury of the Christian faith: an encyclopedic handbook of the range and witness of Christianity:

"In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."

And a longer quote in 1950's Michigan alumnus quarterly review: Volume 58

Sand and Stars: "If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness. ...

The "If anything at all" is dropped in 1950's Philanthropy in America:

Saint Exupéry wrote of airplanes, "perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away."(1)

And also dropped in 1953's Metal treatment and drop forging: Volume 20. And again, later books either have "In anything at all", or "If anything at all", or drop it.


For the later quote, the only reference I could find is in The new hacker's dictionary By Eric S. Raymond from 1996:

The French aviator, adventure and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, probably best known for his classic children's book The Little Prince, was also an aircraft designer. He gave us perhaps the best definition of engineering elegance when he said "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

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Thanks for the answer. There are many more quotes of the latter version on Google Books, but they are all later than 1996. I wonder if everyone has misquoted Saint-Exupery based on Raymond? I strongly suspect Raymond was quoting someone else, but I'm not sure how to research it further. –  RoundTower Aug 22 '11 at 17:31
    
Aha, I had the 20th century filter on; you're right, of course there's lots of later quotes. So... The New Hacker's Dictionary is based on the electronic Jargon File computing dictionary. It was absent from the elegant definition of version 2.9.11 (01 Jan 1993 jargon-file.org/archive/jargon-2.9.11.dos.txt ) and was added in version 2.9.12 (10 May 1993 jargon-file.org/archive/jargon-2.9.12.dos.txt ): "a few new entries & changes, marginal MUD/IRC slang and some borderline techspeak removed, all in preparation for 2nd Edition of TNHD." Raymond was an editor. –  Hugo Aug 22 '11 at 20:06
    
Further, the quote could have been suggested by a member of alt.folklore.computers where the Jargon File was distributed. One member, Lars R{der Clausen, had a had similar quote in his signature, going as far back as Jun 14 1993: "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine de St. Exupery" groups.google.com/group/alt.folklore.computers/browse_thread/… –  Hugo Aug 22 '11 at 21:06
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