The Tale of the Lost King's Daughter

By Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Translated by Shahar Fineberg

In this translation, I have sought above all to convey the pressing, headlong rhythm of the original Yiddish. It is well known that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, like Socrates, tended not to write anything down. It was his disciples, and above all his chief disciple Nathan, who, like Plato, took it upon himself to commit the Rebbe’s words to writing. Nathan seems to have gone to great lengths to preserve the idiosyncrasies of what he might have heard: tense leaping, grammatical person switching, word repetition, redundant pronouns, a total abhorrence of the “elegant variation” that the grammarian Henry Watson Fowler felt the need to warn “literary” English writers about a century later. Nathan only allows himself to insert parentheses (which I have kept) when he feels that he is about to lose the reader. The existence of such a hi-fi recording of his master’s voice may well have played a key role in the development of the toyte khsidim tradition, or the “dead hassids”: Nachman’s followers accepted no living leader after his death, relying solely on his vibrant, rampant texts for guidance.

Following Nathan’s efforts, I have also respected the original punctuation to the extent that I could. It chops up sentences, sometimes into mere subordinates dismembered from any main verb. At times questions will be followed by a question mark, elsewhere they might fuse into their answer. The Yiddish punctuation is so bizarre sometimes that even the canonical Hebrew version, which otherwise remains extremely faithful to the original [1], will smooth out the roughest patches (for example, when the king’s daughter disembarks from the chariot). I have done my best to maintain the Yiddish punctuation, which plays an important role in creating the excited, spoken rhythm of the tale. It is also for these reasons that, in my opinion, these texts are not only better savored but also better understood when read aloud.

Not only syntax and punctuation, but narrative structure also finds itself stretched to the point of redefinition. The reader will notice that the story begins with a massive spoiler: the missing king’s daughter will be found. And funnily enough, the story ends without telling us how. Just as we expect the hero to find the princess, break her out, and triumphantly return her to her father and thereby complete his quest, we are deprived of the classic denouement and resolution that we expect while reading a classic fairytale. Instead, in a ‘red herring’ maneuver worthy of Hitchcock, our attention is diverted once the hero reaches his goal. Except that no new object of desire appears. All that remains is the energy and the drive that builds up throughout Nachman’s headlong rush against traditional narrative logic, fueled by his powers of association.

“But the concentric with its endless intersection of planes is necessary for insight. In fact, it is the technique of insight,”[2] said Marshall McLuhan, whose “medium is the message” has never rung truer than when applied to these stories. Nachman leads us, his dead followers, through the barren desert and the torment of our failing desire, winding us up like a dynamo. In lieu of The End for his tale, Nachman delivers us through the gates of a “beautiful city,” leaving us there to farzamen zikh, ‘to tarry, to stay too long.’ Just as the title page of a book, its shar-blat, literally ‘gate page,’ opens onto a “textual place,”[3] so does this mayse, the first of Nachman’s canonical thirteen, which might be understood as a sort of preface for the collection as a whole. In the blind pursuit of lack, we have now stepped through the gates into Nachman’s city, ready to follow the demonic pace of his booming visions.

Shahar Fineberg
November 2020, Istanbul

On the way I told a tale. Whoever heard it had a thought of repentance and this is the tale.

There once was a king, the king had six sons and one daughter. The daughter was very important to him, and he cherished her very much (that is, loved) and he delighted in her very much.  

He was with her on one day, and became upset with her. He let slip a word: May the no-good take you away. At night she went to her room. In the morning no one knew where she was.  

The father (that is, the king) was very worried and went looking for her here and there. 

The king’s minister appeared. For he had seen. The king was deeply sad. And he asked to be given an attendant and a horse. And money for expenses. And he went in search for her. He searched for her very much. For a very long while, until he found her.  

(Now he describes how he searched for her until he found her.) He walked for a long a time. And in deserts and in fields and in woods and he searched for her for a very long time. He was walking in the desert and saw a road off to the side. He decided: Since I have been walking for so long in the desert and cannot find her. Let me take this road. I might reach some place of dwelling.  

He was walking for a long time, when he saw a castle and many troops standing around it. And the castle was very beautiful, and the troops were standing around in very fine order. He was afraid of the troops. What if they do not let him in. He decided: I will try. And he left the horse, and walked up to the castle. They let him in. And no one tried to hinder him at all.  

And he went from one room to the next and no one forbade him. He then came to a palace. He saw the king sitting there in a crown. And many troops standing around him. And many playing instruments for him and it was very beautiful and fine. And neither the king nor any of them asked him anything. 

And he saw good foods. He went and ate. And he went and lay in a nook to see what might take place, when he saw that the king had ordered that the queen be fetched. So she was fetched. Suddenly there was much noise and much merriment, and the musicians played and sang very much. Because the queen had been fetched. And they set up a chair for her, and they sat her next to him. And it was the king’s daughter. And he saw her and recognized her.  

Meanwhile the queen glanced over and saw someone lying in a nook and she recognized him, so she stood up from the chair and went to him and touched him, and asked him, do you know me? He answered yes. I know you, you are the king’s daughter who have disappeared. He asked her how did you come here. She answered because my father let slip that word (that is, that the no-good may take you) and this is the place that is no good. He told her that her father was very sorry. And he has been looking for her for years upon years.  

And he asked her. How can I get you out. She answered him. You cannot get me out. Unless you choose one place and sit there for one year. And for a whole year you should yearn for me that you should get me out, and whenever you have time you should only yearn and wish and hope to get me out. And you should fast. And on the year’s lowest day you should fast and not sleep all day and all night.  

He left and did so. At the end of the year, on the lowest day. He fasted. And he did not sleep. And he rose. And he set out (that is, toward the king’s daughter to get her out) when he saw a tree. On the tree beautiful apples were growing. He desired them very much and he went over. And he ate of them. As soon as he had eaten the apple. He collapsed and was overcome with sleep. And he slept for a very long time.  

The attendant tried to wake him, but could not wake him, but later he awoke on his own. He asks his attendant. Where am I in the world. He told him the whole story. You have been sleeping for a very long time. It has been several years already. That you have slept. And I have been living off the fruit. He was very worried. And he went there and found her there (that is, the king’s daughter).  

She reproached him very much and worried very much. For the sake of one day you were undone (that is because you could not restrain yourself that one day. And you ate the apple, for which you were undone). Had you have come on that day you would have gotten me out. Truly, not eating is a very hard thing. Especially on the lowest day. That is when evil desire prevails greatly. Therefore you should once more choose a place. And you should sit there for one year. And on the lowest day you may eat. But you should not sleep. And you should not drink any wine so that you do not fall asleep, since sleep is most important. So he went and did so. On the lowest day he set off. He saw a spring of running water. And the spring’s color was red. And its smell was the smell of wine. He asked his attendant. Did you see. This is a spring (which is supposed to have water in it) and its color is red. And the smell is that of wine. And he went and tasted from the spring. And straightaway he collapsed and slept for some seventy years.  

Many troops came through followed by their wagons. And the attendant hid from the troops. Then a chariot came through and there sat the king’s daughter. And she stood by him. And got off. And sat by him. And recognized him. And tried very much to wake him. But when he could not awaken, she began lamenting over him. For so many pains and so many woes. For so many years you have drudged and toiled so long to get me out, and for the sake of one day when you could have taken me out. You have been completely undone. And she cried very much. She said: What a great pity for you and for me. For so long have I been here. And I cannot get out, etc. Thereupon she removed a kerchief from her head. And she inscribed it with her tears and laid it beside him and rose and sat back in the chariot, and rode away. 

Thereupon he awoke and asked his attendant. Where am I in this world, and he told him the whole story. How so many troops had passed through. And that there was a chariot. And that she had cried over him. And she screamed what a great pity for you and for me. And so on. Meanwhile he glanced over and saw the kerchief lying beside him, and he asked, where is this from. He answered him. She left this and inscribed it with her tears. He took the kerchief and held it up against the sun. Once he started seeing the letters, he made out what was written there, her cries and her screams, etc. And (it was written on there) that she was now no longer in the castle (which stood above them) but he should search for a golden mountain with a pearl castle, there you will find me. 

He left his attendant behind and went on his own to search for her. And he went and searched for her for several years. He decided. Inhabited places surely have no golden mountain or a pearl castle. Since he was experienced with maps, therefore I will go to deserts searching for her there. He went searching for her in deserts for years upon years. Then he finally saw a very tall man of inhuman size. And he was carrying a large tree. Which where men live is not to be found, such a large tree, and the man asked him: Who are you? He answered I am a man. The tall man was surprised, and said: I have been in this desert for a long time and never have I seen a man. He told him the whole story as aforementioned. And that he was looking for a golden mountain and a pearl castle. He answered that it surely is not to be found, and he rebuffed him and told him someone tricked you with nonsense, since surely it is not to be found. He began to cry (that is, the king’s minister cried very much and said), it surely is, it must be somewhere. And he rebuffed him (that is, the wild man dismissed him and said) someone has tricked you with nonsense and he said (the king’s minister) it surely must be somewhere. 

He said (the wild man to the king’s minister), in my opinion it is nonsense, but since you insist, well, I am in charge of all beasts and for you I will call together all the beasts since they run through the entire world, maybe one of them will know of this mountain with the aforementioned castle. He called together all beasts from smallest to biggest and asked them. They all answered that they had not seen it. He told him you see, someone tricked you with nonsense, if you want my advice turn back, since you will surely not find it, since it is not in this world, and the king’s minister insisted very much and said it must surely be. He told him (the wild man to the king’s minister), I have a brother in this desert and he is in charge of all birds, maybe they know for they fly high in the air. Maybe they have seen the mountain with the castle. You should go to him and say that I sent you to him.  

He walked for years upon years searching for him and he found once more a very tall man as aforementioned. And he too was carrying a large tree and asked him just as the first man had. And he answered with the whole story. And that the brother had sent him to him. And he also rebuffed him as it surely is not to be found. And the king’s minister greatly urged him, it surely must be. He told him I am in charge of all birds I will call them maybe they know. He called together all birds and asked them all from smallest to biggest. They answered that they did not know of the mountain with the castle. He told him you see it surely is not in this world. If you want my advice turn back, since it surely is not to be found. And he (the king’s minister) insisted very much and said it surely does exist in this world. He told him: Further in the desert you will find my brother, he is in charge of all winds and they run through the entire world maybe they know.  

He walked for years upon years searching, and once again found a tall man as aforementioned. And he too was carrying a large tree and he asked him too as aforementioned. He told him the whole story as aforementioned. This man too rebuffed him. And the king’s minister greatly beseeched him. He told him that for him and for his sake he would call together all the winds and ask them. He called them. All the winds came and he asked them all. None of them knew of the mountain with the castle. He told him (the man to the king’s minister), you see someone tricked you with nonsense. The king’s minister began crying and said I know it surely is there. 

Meanwhile he saw one more wind arriving, and the custodian of the winds scolded him, why have you been so late in coming, I decreed that all winds should come, why did you not come with them? He answered him: I was delayed, for I had to carry a king’s daughter back to a golden mountain with a pearl castle, and he rejoiced very much (that is, the king’s minister rejoiced since he had the honor of hearing what he had wished for). 

The custodian of the winds asked the wind: What there is expensive? He said to him: There all things are expensive. The custodian of the winds said to the king’s minister: As you have been searching for so long a time and have had so many pains, maybe now you will be lacking in money so I will give you a vessel into which you can reach your hand and take out money. And he ordered that the wind carry him there, and the stormwind came and carried him there. And brought him to the gate. Troops were standing there and did not allow him into the city. He reached his hand into the vessel and took out money, and he bribed them. And he entered the city. It was a beautiful city. 

And he went to a wealthy man and paid for room and board. For one must tarry there. For one must see with wisdom and intelligence how one may get her out (and how he got her out he did not say). In the end he got her out amen selah. 


[1] Whether the “original” text was first written in Yiddish or Hebrew remains a subject of debate (for an extended discussion cf. Eliezer Treitl’s master’s thesis From Tongue to Tongue: The Stories of Nachman of Breslov, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015, unpublished, available online [Hebrew]). As regards the present story, Treitl follows Mendel Piekarz (Ḥasidut Braslav, 2nd ed., Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1995 [Hebrew]) in claiming that this was one of only four stories that Nathan heard directly, in Yiddish, from Nachman (the other threes stories being stories 11, 12, 13). 

[2] McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964, p. 29. 

[3] Idea developed by Tal Hever-Chybowski in his discussion of Diasporic Hebrew, cf. his "Foreword" in Mikan Ve'eylakh (ed. Tal Hever-Chybowski), vol. 2, Bibliothèque Medem, Berlin & Paris: 2017, pp. 11-22 [Hebrew]. 

Shahar Fineberg resides in Paris and works as a translator, writer, and radio host. He hosts Yiddish haynt, the Paris Yiddish Center biweekly radio program, where he has experimented with recitations of similar, French-language translations of Rebbe Nachman. He has authored the comic The Travels of Reb Schneur Zalman Mendelovitch with co-creator David Duvshani. As a 2020 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow, he is translating A. Lutzky’s Gresere improvizatsyes, dazzling recitative poems elaborated by Lutzky in the 1920s, which Avrom Reyzen called “a new genre in Yiddish—and possibly world—poetry.” A radiophonic version of the English translation is currently in production.

Image: "The Story of the Princess of the Blue Pavillion: The Youth of Rum Is Entertained in a Garden by a Fairy and her Maidens," Folio from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi