From Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories: Gimpel the Fool to The Letter Writer
Isaac Bashevis Singer emigrated from Warsaw to New York in 1935 in his early 30s, having already published several stories and one novel, Satan in Goray. After his arrival in America, he continued to write his original texts in Yiddish (publishing many in the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward) and later translated his stories into English, which he called his “second original language.” James Gibbons, in a biographical essay included in Singer: An Album, describes Singer’s unique, collaborative process of “translation”:
Excepting translators such as Joseph Singer, Mirra Ginsburg, and others, the collaborators identified in the translation credits to his stories and novels often did not know Yiddish. “I dictate to them in English, my English,” Singer described the process in 1975. “They polish my English.” . . . As all his bilingual readers and Singer himself conceded, much was lost in translation, but his efforts shaping his English translations gave them the authority of being parallel versions of his Yiddish texts, rather than merely diminished approximations of the originals.The differences between the Yiddish and English versions of Singer’s stories are sometimes so substantial that they may as well be completely different stories. The jokes and wit, the puns and wordplay, scenes, dialogue, characters, and even some of the endings have been changed.
In either language, Singer allowed little to get in the way of his straightforward storytelling. Biographer Ben Siegel has noted that Singer “observes his struggling figures without intruding judgment or sympathy.” Explaining his technique in a 1968 Paris Review interview, Singer remarked, “When a writer tries to explain too much, to psychologize, he’s already out of time when he begins. Imagine Homer explaining the deeds of his heroes according to the old Greek philosophy, or the psychology of his time. Why, nobody would read Homer!” He expanded upon these comments in his acceptance speech for the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature: “The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals.”
While Singer’s later stories often portray the new worlds he encountered in New York City, the Catskills, and Miami, the bulk of his fiction conjures the folktales and parables of his youth and evokes the shtetls (villages) and towns in the Lublin region of Poland. “The Brooch” (from his fourth collection, The Séance and Other Stories), presents Wolf Ber, a caring and loyal father who happens to be a professional thief. Upon returning home to Kozlow for Passover, he has a sudden premonition. “Was Celia ill? Had something happened to the children? Was he, Wolf Ber, destined to end up in prison?” The truth will force him to confront the brittleness of his own complex moral code.
When Wolf Ber returned from the road, he always bought gifts for Celia and the girls. This time Wolf Ber had been in luck. He had broken into a safe and stolen 740 rubles. In addition, traveling on the railroad second-class, he had met a wealthy Russian and had won 150 rubles from him in a card game. Wolf Ber had long ago reached the conclusion that everything depended on fate: sometimes everything goes wrong; sometimes it doesn’t. . . . This story is no longer available. Read other recent selections from Story of the Week.