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I came across this sentence in Le Petit Prince:

Cet astéroïde n'a été aperçu qu'une fois au télescope, en 1909, par un astronome turc.

I understand the general meaning of this sentence is that: this asteroid was seen in 1909.

But I can't see why it's n'a été aperçu and not a été aperçu if it was seen. In other words, why the use of negation ne here?

Should I maybe translate this as:

This asteroid hasn't been spotten until once by a telescope in 1909 by a turkish astronomer.

?

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First, it means "This asteroid was seen only once through a telescope..." I agree the use of negative form seems odd, and there are a few like that in French. Basically, there are two ways to say this :

  • Cet astéroïde n' a été aperçu qu' une fois.
  • Cet astéroïde a été aperçu une fois.

They mean almost the same thing, though the latter does not necessarily mean the asteroid was not spotted again later on. But that's your starting sentence, to which the added words forming the first sentence exclude that possibility. If I were to give you a plausible explanation, I would say that the first one is presumably a contraction of

Cet astéroïde n' a pas été aperçu plus qu' une fois.

(The correct way to say this would be "plus d'une fois" instead of "plus qu'une fois" but if you don't already know that I would stick with the slightly incorrect one for this topic, which most French people wouldn't even notice)

Here, negative form makes sense because we are saying that it wasn't seen more than once. Maybe an English phrase offering a good one-to-one word correspondence with your sentence would be "This asteroid was not seen but once through a telescope..." However I wouldn't assume "que" and "but" to have similar meanings in general. Actually as Simon Déchamps suggested in a comment, a better French translation of this "but" would be e.g. "sauf", so I might also say that "que" has a "sauf" meaning. This explains the structure pretty well I must say. In this interpretation, your phrase is actually a negative phrase, implicitly.

Sometimes you have to twist things a little to spot the similarities, especially since French and English have very different grammar.

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    As you said, "Cet astéroïde a été aperçu une fois" doesn't necessarily mean that it wasn't spotted again later, so I would better write: "Cet astéroïde a été aperçu une seule fois" or "Cet astéroïde a été aperçu seulement une fois.", because this is the rule: ne... que = seulement. – Destal Nov 2 '16 at 10:50
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    And the comparison with "This asteroid was not seen but once" doesn't seem relevant to me, because this structure exists in French: "Cet astéroïde n'a pas été aperçu, sauf/à part/excepté une fois". – Destal Nov 2 '16 at 10:57
  • @Simon DéchampsYes of course, which means – James Well Nov 2 '16 at 11:38
  • Fail... yes of course, which means that the "ne que" structure could maybe even be explained in French, the "que" could believably be related to "sauf". Hence if one understands the "ne... sauf" structure, they can be willing to accept the "ne... que" one – James Well Nov 2 '16 at 11:41
  • I'll add that to my answer, I find it's a relevant comment – James Well Nov 2 '16 at 11:42
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The "ne" here is simply one part of the "ne... que" construction which can usually be translated by English "only" (listed in the Wordreference English-French entry for "only"). E.g. "Cet astéroïde n'a été aperçu qu'une fois" means "This asteroid was only seen once/this asteroid was seen only once." It's easier to memorize the meaning of this construction as a whole rather than trying to analyze the meaning of each constituent word.

  • Indeed if you're comfortable with memorising the structure then go ahead, because it is common. I don't like to memorise too much and I like to decompose - so far as I can - and memorise only if I can't make sense of analysing. – James Well Nov 5 '16 at 10:09

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