“Lord, Thou hast led me where two life-ways part
And bound mine eyes,
So that I know not sunset nor sunrise,
Nor which path drew me, blinded at the start,
To walk therein with overshadowed heart.
That never knew the skies.
“If both roads lead to darkness—be it so;
But on the way
Only a little light, Lord, just to say
Before the silence: ‘I have seen, and lo,
The path was good to walk in, and I know
The shining of the day.’”
—Nina Salaman, “Darkness”
Nina Salaman was born Pauline Ruth Davis on July 15, 1877, to Louisa and Arthur Davis. Father Arthur had mastered the Hebrew language, and once the family had settled in the Bayswater area of London, he instructed his daughters, Elise and youngest Nina, in Hebrew and Jewish studies.
The family moved in intellectual Jewish circles that included rabbis, professors, and scholars of Judaism and Hebrew. They regularly attended the local synagogue. These connections, early-made, helped Nina’s passion and career launch early.
Nina became fluent in both English and Hebrew and applied these skills to the translation of Hebrew poetry into English. An article for the Jewish Museum notes, “In nineteenth-century Britain, expertise in Hebrew translation was not common, especially among women.” Her first translated poem, The Song of Chess by Abraham ibn Ezra, was published in the Jewish Chronicle in June of 1894 when she was just 17.
Translating from one language to another is always difficult, but rarely more so than in poetry. “In a poem, the beauty is not only achieved with the choice of words and figurative language like in novels and short stories, but also with the creation of rhythm, rhyme, meter, and specific expressions and structures that may not conform to the ones of the daily language,” writes Sugeng Hariyanto in “Problems in Translating Poetry.” Nina’s translations demonstrated not only a mastery of the vocabulary of both Hebrew and English, but in the translation of feeling from one to the other.
“I will sing a song of battle/Planned in days long past and over,” begins The Song of Chess, as translated by teenage Nina. From there, she consistently published translations of Hebrew poetry, and eventually poetry of her own. In 1900, she began a father-daughter project. Nina and her sister translated the metrics of the Machzor, a prayer book, while their father interpreted the prose.
In July of 1901, Nina met Redcliffe Salaman, one of twelve children of a wealthy ostrich feather merchant, during a Shabbat service at the New West End Synagogue. Ten days later the two were engaged and they married on Oct. 23 of that year. Redcliffe’s work as a pathologist and botanist was halted by a bout of pulmonary tuberculosis. The young couple relocated for his health, first to Switzerland, then finally to a thirty-room country house in the small village of Hertfordshire, near Cambridge.
Here, not only did Redcliffe’s health improve, but they became the center of a scholarly and welcoming Jewish community. While they returned to London to celebrate Jewish festivals, their Cambridge home often welcomed Jewish students for readings and gatherings. Nina met regularly with Israel Abrahams, a local scholar of the Talmud and rabbinic literature.
“At the same time [that] she supervised her children’s education, [she] oversaw nannies, tutors, and servants, and, as the local squire’s wife, entertained the vicar, hosted garden parties, and helped the village poor,” writes Todd M. Endelman for the Jewish Women’s Archive. Her children—Myer, Arthur, Raphael, Ruth, and Esther—could read Hebrew before they could read English. The couple’s sixth child, Arthur’s twin brother Edward, died at age 9.
In 1910, Nina published her own book of poetry, The Voices of the Rivers, and in 1911, a book for children called Apples and Honey featuring poetry by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Israel Zangwill, and Lord Byron, among others. In 1916, she published one of the first English translations of the national anthem of Israel, Ha-Tikvah.
When the First World War began the Salamans were not idle. Redcliffe served as a medical officer and Nina composed a marching song for the Judeans, also called “the Jewish Legion,” a regiment that fought against the Ottoman Empire. Nina believed passionately in the establishment of a Jewish state on Palestinian land.
Nina was also deeply involved in the fight for civil rights, serving as vice-president of the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage. She advocated for women to be able to vote in synagogue elections and for girls to receive full Hebrew educations.
In December 1919, she was the first woman to speak from the bimah at a British Orthodox synagogue when she stood to read the weekly parashah (or section of the Torah) to the Hebrew congregation of Cambridge. The event was controversial. Edelman writes, “When asked whether Jewish law permitted women to speak from the pulpit, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz neatly sidestepped the issue. He ruled that since Salaman did not enter the pulpit until after the concluding prayer, she did not preach during the service and thus she did not preach in the synagogue, since at that moment the building was not being used for religious worship.”
During all this, Nina worked diligently on an important and personal translation, one that took nearly 12 years to complete. In 1924, it was finally ready to be published by the Jewish Publication Society. The Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi was the second of a 25-volume series of Jewish Classics. In addition to the translations, Nina wrote the introduction. “[I]f I may permit myself to sound a further personal note for a moment, I should like to say this: I have loved Jehudah Halevi ever since, at my father’s side, I began to read and understand his verses. If, by this volume, defective though it be in plan and imperfect in execution, I can win for Jehudah Halevi a new band of admirers, my own love for the poet will have borne its most precious fruit.”
Nina died the following year, 1925, on February 22 of colorectal cancer at age 47. She was interred at the Willesden Jewish Cemetery in the London Bourough of Brent. Jewish scholars from both England and the United States wrote tributes in her honor. Her son Myer went on to become a cancer researcher; her other children worked as a general practitioner, an engineer, a painter, a singer. Nina’s granddaughter (son Raphael’s child) served as the chair of Jewish Voice for Labour, an organization founded to advocate for Palestinian rights and confront antisemitism in England’s Labour Party.
“I knew a bird once in a far-off Spring;
It sang and sang as though it would not die
For very love of living; but it died,
And all the trees in the gardens round
Heard it no more. And still within my heart
It sings and sings as though it could not die;
And thus it lives—and so man’s self shall live
Among all things rememb’ring. This is hope.”
--Nina Salaman, “This Is Hope”
Wikipedia: Nina Salaman
“The Voices of the Rivers” by Nina Salaman
Jewish Women’s Archive: Nina Ruth Davis Salaman
The Open Siddur Project: Nina Davis Salaman translations
The Jewish Museum: Nina Salaman, Hebrew Scholar, Poet and Zionist
Songs of Exile by Jewish Poets, translated by Nina Davis