Isaac Edward Salkinson – Jewish Life among the Danube

While sailing through the Danube, we have met some terribly interesting characters. One of them was Isaac Edward Salkinson, a Jewish intellectual and translator. Salkinson was born in Shklou, which was then in Lithuania, and now is in Belarus for the marvellous tricks of human geography. Trying to escape conscription, he escaped to the countryside, only to be trapped under the roof of his saviour. He finally found a way out of the small village, moving to Vilnius. In the Lithuanian capital, Salkinson came to know intellectuals of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The aim of Haskalah was to promote ideals of liberalism and rationalism in the Jewish community, alongside with a revival of Hebrew in non-religious contexts. Haskalah intellectuals started to translate literary pieces and folk stories from some European languages (mostly German) into Hebrew, but also wrote new poems and literary pieces in Hebrew. This sparkling environment suited the passionate heart of Salkinson, who joined the group of intellectuals becoming friend with their families too. He thus fell in love with the daughter of the Eliashvitz family, and in order to win her love he translated Schiller’s “Kabale und Liebe” into Hebrew. Everyone was amazed by his translating capacities, except for the beloved girl. At this point though, Salinkson’s story gets even more complicated for us to understand: he decided to leave Vilnius and to grope the fate in Germany, but he ended up (we don’t know exactly why or how) in London. There, he joined the Jewish Ashkenazi community in the East End. He soon met missionaries from the London Christian Society and decided to convert. Before long he became a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, studying Greek in order to translate the New Testament into Hebrew. Once more he moved, this time to Vienna and to continue his preaching among fellow Jews. Nevertheless, in Vienna he met Pertez Smoleskin, an intellectual deeply passionate about Shakespeare. Smoleskin understood quickly Salinkson was the right person in the right place: he was a skilled translator and also knew English, a language not usually spoken by central European Jews. So, from the friendship of these two Jewish intellectuals, both Othello and Romeo and Juliet were translated into Hebrew. The most interesting aspect of Salkinson’s translation though is the way he dealt with Christian and mythological references in the plays. He domesticated them, a difficult way to say that he eliminated cultural references to the Christian elements adapting them to the Jewish cultural background of his audience. For example, he changed the name of the characters from the original English ones to Jewish ones, choosing them from the Bible because of their phonetic similarity but also for their personality. Romeo became Ram, a character from the Book of Rut, a very romantic book in the Bible. Juliet, on the other hand, was given the Jewish name of Ya’el, a Biblical heroine who killed Sisera, the Canaanite general.

Salkinson was surely an experienced translator, but also a liminal figure: he brought back and forth elements of his native culture and his new religion, finding his own path throughout the diversity that surrounded him. Different languages, religions, cultures flowed through him as he sailed on the Danube and the Thames.