This week I acquired the first two Hebrew translations of Shakespeare, published in 1874 and 1878, respectively, in Vienna.
The translations were of Othello and Romeo and Juliet and were published at the height of the Haskalah (the “Jewish Enlightenment”) by Isaac Salkinson, a colorful figure with a checkered past.
Salkinson was born in 1820 in Shkloŭ, Lithuania (present day Belarus), received a thorough yeshiva education, and eventually made his way to Vilna where he was exposed to the Haskalah. By 1849 we find him in London. There, he met Christian missionaries, who converted him to Christianity. By 1856 he was appointed a Presbyterian pastor and was working as a missionary in 1864.
He was sent to missionize in Vienna, where he met Peretz Smolentskin, editor of the Hebrew periodical Hashachar. Smolenskin, learning of Salkinson’s knowledge of English and talents as a translator, convinced him to translate English classics to Hebrew.
Salkinson translated John Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1871, but he is most remembered for his translations of Shakespeare. Interestingly, despite his conversion to Christianity, he identified as a Jew and his translations of Shakespeare to Hebrew were Judaized and scrubbed of Christian elements.
Some examples of Salkinson’s changes: Romeo and Juliet became Ram and Yael. Ram is the namesake of the ancestor of King David mentioned in the book of Ruth, and Yael is a hero in the Book of Judges who saves the Israelites by killing Sisera. Salkinson also translated “Pentecost” as “Shavuos”; the Christian holiday Lammastide was translated as “such and such holiday,” “baptized” was substituted with “brit,” “evening mass” with “afternoon”; “churchyard” with “graveyard” and “Holy Franciscan Friar” with “kohen tzedek.”
Christian motifs were removed throughout the book, thus making the translation more appealing to a Jewish audience. As per the Yiddish joke, Salkinson both translated and “improved” the original.