George Borrow Road: A Map of The Gypsies (Via The Basques) in Song and Translation | The New Engagement

George Borrow Road: A Map of The Gypsies (Via The Basques) in Song and Translation

By Amaia Gabantxo
George Borrow Road art

In November 2009 I was living in Norwich, in the East of England. A fine city they call it, and it’s true. Magnificent cathedral, lots of trees, canals, medieval streets. My house was within the old city walls and I could see the cathedral spire from my window, in fact, every time I lifted my eyes from the computer screen where whatever literary translation I was working on pulsated imperceptibly.  My house was one street up from Julian of Norwich’s cell – she was the mystic anchoress who wrote Revelations of Divine Love, the first book to be written in English by a woman. I felt strengthened by the proximity. At that time, I was translating an academic tome: Basque Literary History. New chapters kept being added, monthly it seemed. I had been translating the book for a year. I worried the job would never end and I would never be able to return to my PhD.

Two thirds of the way in, in the chapter entitled “Translated Basque Literature,” by Lopez Gaseni, the author elaborated on the literature of the enlightenment, and the works that were translated at that time – fables mostly, into different dialects of Basque – and how religious texts continued of course to be translated along the more profane ones. He explained that the Gipuzkoan doctor Juan Jose Oteiza (an ancestor perhaps of the grumpy Basque genius philosopher sculptor[1]?) was the author of the first Protestant translation of St Luke’s gospel (San Lucasen ebanjelioa), and that this Basque translation had been commissioned by George Borrow, an agent of the Bible Society in England.

The name leaped at me.

George Borrow, I thought. George Borrow. I had a visual memory of cycling past a sign on an empty building: George Borrow Road. It was a very long road, inhabited mostly by rows of boarded houses – asbestos roofing, I had guessed as I cycled. And another memory, of walking noisily and self-consciously on flamenco shoes on that very name engraved on green stone right outside St Gregory’s Church, in Norwich’s city center, on my way to a gig. Who was George Borrow, this English man who had commissioned the translation of St Luke’s gospel into Basque, and why was his name all over Norwich?

Wikipedia replied shortly after.

He was a Norfolk man, and indeed had been a pupil at the Norwich Grammar School.

I looked at the cathedral spire, thinking you were one of them. This exclusive school, one hundred and fifty years after George Borrow attended, still nests within the Cathedral grounds. Shortly after moving to Norwich in 1999 to do the MA in Literary Translation, on my first visit to the cathedral, I had caught sight of the Grammar School boys in their starched choristers’ splendor fluttering down the cathedral cloister in hushed silence, drawing a nervous, uneven line behind a stern sacristan on their way to a sung mass. It was a beautiful sight. I fell in love with the cloister that autumn evening as I thought it must have hosted hundreds of these choirboys over the centuries (the cathedral dates back to the 11th century). I kept returning in hopes of catching that sight once more, but it never happened again in the eleven years I lived there, though I always saw them in my mind’s eye.

At that moment I had no doubt George Borrow must have been a choirboy, and a pretty good one at that, because as Wikipedia explained he had an enormous gift for languages, and this tends to come together with a musical ear. The Wikipedia entry didn’t mention his role in translating the Bible into Basque or his musical ability, but I suddenly had a complete sense of the man. I knew I knew him, despite his being long dead, inexplicable as this might sound. I knew I would know more of him, and he was somehow, already, very important to me.



Notes on how not to be a literary translator


Perhaps, first of all, don’t translate out of your mother tongue into your third language.

Then, ensure that your mother tongue has a literary tradition rich enough for you to draw from, so you can be gainfully employed for the foreseeable future.

Finally, and having irredeemably ignored both of the above points to the determent of your pecuniary status, consider that Flamenco singing is not a wise career choice to supplement the meager earnings provided by translating Basque literature into English. While not mutually exclusive, the combination of this unlikely union embodies a conceptual anachronism that makes for a hard life.

And yet, we can only be who we are called to be.



Notes on flamenco


Flamenco is the most beautiful music in the world.

Nothing does what flamenco does.

Flamenco is the strongest life force.

Flamenco is wisdom, philosophy, meditation, a means to find a place in the world.

Flamenco beats map every emotion and each beat unfurls that emotion with precision and resolution, to pin it, to resolve it.

Flamenco has considered everything, has an answer to every question, and a question to every answer.

Flamenco lyrics exist in a universe of galaxies, and each galaxy is a couplet, a verse, a line, with a star at its core – a truth – and flamenco singers wave chains of galaxies that they throw back into that universe of lyrics. They may even throw some of their own lyrics into that universe for other singers to sing down the ages. Because, as an old flamenco said, el flamenco es de todos. Flamenco belongs to everyone.

Flamenco chooses you and, if it does, all you can do is surrender.




As I read George Borrow’s Wikipedia entry – heart beating fast – I saw he travelled the world as an agent of the Bible Society. Must be a bit like a spy I thought, an agent for the Bible Society. He went from country to country, learning languages as if they were trinket souvenirs he could purchase for a penny, getting the gospels translated into German, Russian, Manchu, Portuguese, Gaelic, Romany, Spanish, Basque… as he roamed. I had a sense of a man (the restless choirboy) who had found a means of doing what he was called to do. Travel, learn languages, write about other cultures. His wasn’t the life of someone who was particularly religiously inclined, I thought. He was nomadic, hungry for the other, for everything he hadn’t inside of him. In Basque mythology the Goddess Mayi feeds off what isn’t, and it’s like this that she grows ever more powerful, through everything that isn’t: the inexplicable, the things people deny, the void, the things she doesn’t know, lies, secrets. Modern religions prescribe a God that fills us – with light, with love, with fear – and yet, considering he was an agent of the Bible Society, Borrow seemed to be someone who was still searching for something. A double-agent, if you will. Uncertain of his alliances. I was hosting these thoughts, heart still beating fast, knowing that something else was coming. And then I saw it. In 1841, he published The Zincali: an account of the Gypsies of Spain. With an Original Collection of their Songs and Poetry.

Flamenco lyrics.


It’s not possible to conjure into words the explosion in my brain and my heart at that moment. We all thread upon the same loop I thought. I am Borrow. He was me. Basque. Flamenco.




Wikipedia dixit: Borrow was said to be a man of striking appearance and deeply original character. Although he failed to find critical acclaim in his lifetime, modern reviewers often praise his eccentric and cheerful style; [he was] "one of the most unusual people to have written in English in the last two hundred years" according to the critic Anthony Campbell (2002)




“After crossing the Pyrenees,” Borrow writes in The Zincali, “a very short time elapsed before the Gypsy hordes had bivouacked in the principal provinces of Spain. There can, indeed, be little doubt that, shortly after their arrival, they made themselves perfectly acquainted with all the secrets of the land, and there was scarcely a nook or retired corner within Spain from which the smoke of their fires had not risen, or where their cattle had not grazed. People, however, so acute as they have always proverbially been would scarcely be slow in distinguishing the provinces most adapted to their manner of life, and most calculated to afford them opportunities of practicing those arts to which they were mainly indebted for their subsistence: the savage hills of Biscay [that’d be where I’m from], of Galicia, or of the Asturias, whose inhabitants were almost as poor as themselves, which possessed no super breed of horses or mules from which they might pick and purloin many a gallant beast, and having transformed by their dexterous scissors, impose him again upon his rightful master for a high price, --such provinces, where, moreover, provisions were hard to be obtained, even by pilfering hands, could scarcely be supposed to offer strong temptations to these roving visitors to settle down in, or to vex and harass by a long sojourn.

            There runs a swine down yonder hill,

            As fast as e’er he can,

            And as he runs he crieth still,

            Come, steal me, Gypsy man


Valencia and Murcia found far more favour in their eyes; a far more fertile soil […]; but far, far more [suitable was], Andalusia, with its three kingdoms, Jaen, Granada, and Seville, one of which was still possessed by the swarthy Moor, --Andalusia, land of the proud steed and the stubborn mule, the land of the savage sierra and the fruitful and cultivated plain: to Andalusia they hied, in bands of thirties and sixties; the hoofs of their asses might be heard clattering in the passes of the stony hills: the girls might be seen bounding in lascivious dance in the streets of many a town, and the beldames standing beneath the caves telling the ‘buena ventura’ to many a credulous female dupe; the men the while chaffered in the fair and market-place with the labourers and chalanes, casting significant glances on each other, or exchanging a word or two in Romany, whilst they placed some uncouth animal in a particular posture which served to conceal its ugliness from the eyes of the chapman. Yes, of all the provinces of Spain, Andalucia was the most frequented by the Gitano race, and in Andalusia they most abound to the present day, though no longer as restless, independent wanderers of the fields and hills, but as residents in villages and towns, especially in Seville.”

            O, I am not of gentle clan,

            I’m sprung from Gypsy tree,

            And I will be no gentleman,

            But an Egyptian free.


In his 1841 book George Borrow uses great many words to explain that he spends all that time with the gypsies because he wants to teach them the gospel, although he knows well it is a hopeless task and he is not going to get anywhere. Instead, he collects their verses, their song, their conversations, the internal logic of their culture, their magical beliefs, their marriage rituals. He is fascinated by them. Utterly taken, smitten. But, he reminds us, he is hoping to teach them the gospel. Oh but they are so interesting. Five years pass like this. He learns to speak Caló so well, he translates the Gospel of St Luke into the gypsy language himself. Over one hundred and seventy years have passed since Borrow wrote his book, but the gypsies haven’t changed that much in that time. They rarely open to people outside the tribe. And they certainly don’t teach their language to others, unless they accept them. George Borrow, a six foot six almost albino giant of an English man, was accepted by the gypsies of Spain.

Was it his roaming nature that aligned him to them? The fact of his childhood friendship with a gypsy boy? What marks a person’s fate? As I read I came away with the sense of someone who’d set out to convert but had been converted instead.

            …from which they might pick and purloin many a gallant beast, and having transformed by their dexterous scissors, impose him again upon his rightful master for a high price…




Notes on being an anachronism


One thing flamenco has taught me is the value of contradiction. It is valid to hold opposite thoughts in one’s mind at the same time. It is right to embrace contradiction. My life is a contradiction. I teach Basque literature and creative writing in a prestigious university. I sing flamenco, sometimes in dives, for next to nothing. The flamencos distrust my academic nature, think I am not flamenca enough. The academics can’t quite understand why I sing flamenco – clearly I am not academic enough.

George Borrow wrote an entire book about the gypsies – and later two more, fictional ones – while he was supposed to be banging on about the gospels. Through him, I discovered my affliction is not that uncommon, and can in fact be put to good use.

We live in unfortunate times, when everything is made to be so separate. As if any of us were just the one thing. Specialization should terrify us. Who wants blinkers? The world around us asks us to define ourselves so narrowly. I am the Basque literary translator of the universe, I used to say, only half jokingly (there aren’t that many of us – three or four). A super hero of a minority culture. I am, and I want to be. It is my birthright, I am duty-bound, by my ancestors, by the landscape that surrounded me as I grew up, by that strange language I first spoke.

And then flamenco chose me. An art form sung in my second language, Spanish. I am a Basque flamenco singer literary translator who writes in English.

I wouldn’t know how to be anything else.




Notes on Euskara, the Basque language


Euskara is the most beautiful language in the world; it is no wonder the Basques have been so stubborn about preserving it.

Nothing sounds like it, expresses like it.

I don’t know of a language with a neater internal logic. It’s great for poetry making.

Basque is so old it was spoken before Latin and Greek, and it is still here. English might well be king these days, but… Basque is a long distance runner. It survived even though it was purely orally transmitted until medieval times (the first book was written in 1545 – and followed by not much else until the 20th century).

Sitting on a natural frontier, straddling two dominant countries and cultures (Spanish and French) and coming at the world from a language that is radically different to all others in existence, this small community at the heart of Europe has had to deal with all sorts attempts at colonization throughout the ages. Although it’s unfashionable, I don’t completely dismiss the idea of linguistic determinism and believe that Euskara has affected the Basques’ way of thinking and approaching the world, and this is inscribed in the culture, even though it mostly manifests in Spanish and French nowadays. In Basque, reality pans from the general to the concrete. You pan in. First you see the mountain, then the tree, then the branch, finally the bird on the branch. In English you pan out; you see the bird on the branch on the tree in the mountain. And just like the Basque language can take multiple variants of word order and maintain meaning, the Basque people are adept at rearranging themselves and keep alive a strong flame of self. We are practical people because we think of the greater picture first. We are wanderers and explorers because our language demands that we look at the grand design.

Taking all of the above into account, the survival of Basque might be related to the fact that the Basques like to sing, and have made a competitive sport of improvised verse singing: bertsolaritza. Word-boxing matches similar to poetry slams, always played one-on-one, but with more restrictions.

Bertsolaritza competitions are the only poetry events that I know of that are attended by 15,000 people, and watched live on TV by another 250,000.




The richness of Euskara, however, passed George Borrow by. In chapter 37 of The Bible in Spain: or, the Journeys, Adventures and Imprisonments of an Englishman in an Attempt to Circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula, George Borrow wrote that 1838 had been a very eventful year, the year in which he published the gospel of St Luke translated into the gypsy language (his pet project, which he translated himself) and into Basque. “Concerning the Luke in Euscarra, […] it will be as well to […] avail myself of the present opportunity to say a few words concerning the language in which it was written, and the people for whom it was intended.”

“The Euscarra, then, is the proper term for a certain speech, or language, supposed to have been at one time prevalent throughout Spain, but which is at present confined to certain districts, both on the French and Spanish side of the Pyrenees, which are laved by the waters of the Cantabrian Gulf or Bay of Biscay. This language is commonly known as the Basque or Biscayan, which words are mere modifications of the word Euscarra, the consonant B having been prefixed for the sake of euphony. Much that is vague, erroneous and hypothetical has been said and written concerning this tongue. The Basques assert that it was not only the original language of Spain, but also of the world, and that from it all other languages are derived; but the Basques are a very ignorant people, and know nothing of the philosophy of language. Very little importance, therefore, need be attached to any opinion of theirs on such a subject. A few amongst them, however, who affect some degree of learning, contend that it is neither more nor less than a dialect of the Phenician, and that the Basques are the descendants of a Phenician colony, established at the foot of the Pyrenees at a very remote period. Of this theory, or rather conjecture, as is unsubstantiated by the slightest proof, it is needless to take further notice than to observe that, provided the Phenician language, as many of the truly learned have supposed and almost proved, was a dialect of the Hebrew, or closely allied to it, it were as unreasonable to suppose that the Basque is derived from it, as that the Kamschatdale and Cherokee are dialects of the Greek and Latin. […][At this point Borrow proposes associations with a list of languages that he then discards]. But what is the Basque, and to what family does it properly pertain? […]”

“Having closely examined the subject in all its various bearings, and having weighed what is to be said on one side against what is to be advanced on the other, I am inclined to rank the Basque rather amongst the Tartar than the Sanscrit dialects. Whoever should have an opportunity of comparing the enunciation of the Basques and Tartars would, from that alone, even if he understood them not, come to the conclusion that their respective languages were formed on the same principle. In both occur periods seemingly interminable, during which the voice gradually ascends to a climax and then gradually sinks down. [Here he juxtaposes Basque and Sanscrit to prove that Basque contains a lot of Sanscrit words, but they’ve just dropped the initial consonant ‘owing to which it is a language to the highest degree soft and melodious, far excelling in this respect any other language Europe, not even excepting Italian’].”

“Such is the tongue in which I brought out St Luke’s Gospel at Madrid. The translation I procured originally from a Basque physician of the name of Oteiza. Previous to being sent to the press, the version had lain nearly two years in my possession, during which time, and particularly during my travels, I lost no opportunity of submitting it to the inspection of those who were considered competent scholars in the Euscarra. It did not entirely please me, but it was in vain to seek a better translation […]. So great are the difficulties attending to Euscarra, and so strange its peculiarities, that it is very rare to find a foreigner possessed of any considerable skill in the oral language, and the Spaniards consider the obstacles so formidable that they have a proverb to the effect that Satan once lived seven years in Biscay, and then departed, finding himself unable either to understand or to make himself understood.”

“There are few inducements to the study of this language. […]. [It isn’t] in possession of any peculiar literature capable of repaying the toil of the student. […] It will, perhaps here be asked whether the Basques do not possess popular poetry like most other nations, however small and inconsiderable. They have certainly no lack of songs, ballads and stanzas, but of a character by no means entitled to the appellation of poetry. […] The Basques are a singing rather than a poetical people. Notwithstanding the facility with which their tongue lends itself to the composition of verse, they have never produced among them a poet with the slightest pretensions to reputation; but their voices are singularly sweet, and they are known to excel in musical composition. […] They possess much music of their own, some of which is said to be exceedingly ancient. […] While listening to them it is easy to suppose oneself in the close vicinity of some desperate encounter. […]”

“No people on earth are prouder than the Basques, but theirs is a kind of republican pride. They have no nobility amongst them, and no one will acknowledge a superior. The poorest carman is as proud as the governor of Tolosa. ‘He is more powerful than I,’ he will say, ‘but I am of as good blood; perhaps hereafter I might become a governor myself.’ They abhor servitude, at least out of their own country; and though circumstances frequently oblige them to seek masters, it is very rare to find them filling the places of common domestics; they are stewards, secretaries, accountants, etc. True it is, that was my own fortune to obtain a Basque domestic; but then he always treated me more as an equal than as a master, would sit down in my presence, give me his advice unasked, and enter in to conversation with me at all times and occasions. Did I check him? Certainly not! For in that case he would have left me, and a more faithful creature I never knew. […] The Basque females differ widely in character from the men; they are quick and vivacious, and have in general much more talent. They are famous for their skill as cooks, and in most respectable houses of Madrid a Biscayan female may be found in the kitchen, queen supreme of the culinary department.”




Life has a way of following the paths of fiction, and the Christmas after writing what you reader have just read, shortly after I landed in Bilbao after my Chicago flight, while I was still jet-lagged, my mother handed me what looked like a book wrapped in cloth. I asked her what it was as I unwrapped this home made parcel. She said she had found it in the boxes of things she had collected from her mother’s house when it got sold around 15 years ago. She’d come across it again recently in one of her organizational sprees and realized it might be of interest to me, because it was an old book in Basque and she knows how rare these are, and that they interest me. It had belonged to my grandmother’s father: it was the Basque translation of the gospel of St Luke, a 1898 edition. There was a little holy card of the angel St Gabriel inside. It was so strange to hold this book in my hands and realize that my great-grandfather had been able to read Basque at a time most people wouldn’t have, that something at that moment was being passed down the line. To hold precisely that book in my hands just then, as I set out to write this book, when it had been sitting in a box under my nose for years. And to find Gabriel’s holy card inside… as a child I was told he’s my very own guardian angel, because I was born on the day of the Annunciation. I am a very lapsed Catholic these days, but still, these things can stir you up.

I have to confess that it also amused me to hold this volume in my hands, George Borrow’s pet project from 1838, and to imagine him dumbfounded and frustrated – but what is the Basque? – staring at this manuscript he kept in his pocket for two years, undecided about its publishable nature, showing it to every strange scholar versed in this devil’s tongue to check if it really was an all right translation. He couldn’t really trust those very ignorant Basques who know nothing about the philosophy of language after all. What with that, and their ignoble lack of deference to the Englishman’s superiority.

And here we are, George, one hundred and seventy years of words and history later, here we are, still showing little deference and stealing your text like a gypsy to show you up, and having transformed it by my dexterous scissors, impose it again for a high price… And because Basque isn’t in possession of any particular literature and we are a singing rather than poetical people, here is my repost across the centuries, from translator to translator, a poem by Harkaitz Cano, because as you well said this tongue lends itself to the composition of verse.


Memories of a Basque Ice Skater


We shall die soon but,

how we love to learn foreign tongues and then return to our own,

for a rest.

How we love to overhear people speaking Basque when we’re abroad – we’re so silly!

How we love stumbling across Basque toponyms when we’re in foreign lands,

to take note of how far our ancestors’ sneezes reached.

How we love reading the words on the wall of Miami Vice’s pelota court: Jai-alai.

Even though Borges said that we were only good for minding the cows,

(and isn’t minding the cows a noble endeavour, anyway? We love it!)

How we love to think that during WW II the CIA (the cee-i-a!)

used Basque as an encryption system, even though it’s a lie.

We shall die soon but,

how we love the orgiastic shiver we feel every time we hear the word akelarre,

it must be because it evokes all those naked witches writhing in a cave.

How we love to shout in Basque while in foreign lands:

so they’ll hear us, so they’ll wonder “where are these guys from?”

(as if they knew where they were from).

We shall die soon but,

how we love to excite their ears and provoke them

into asking what language it is we are speaking,

how we love to explain that it’s a pre-Indo-European language

(ah, oh, cee-i-a!)

to watch their jaws drop, how silly we are, how we love it.

Because even Dracula needed a suitcase full of earth to feel at home:

our suitcase is full of words.

How we love to defy clichés like when, having softly read a Basque poem abroad,

someone says: “that’s so beautiful, I thought Basque sounded more violent.”

How we love the whole “it’s amongst the oldest languages” paraphernalia, etc.

How we love the whole “language of the tribes” and so on.

Yes: we are proud to export our product abroad in tiny doses; it’s a sign of its value.

Even when we hear the word zulo, despite it being such a dark word,

meaning a terrorists’ den,

we feel a bit ashamed and, secretly, a bit proud.

Maybe we would prefer to suggest other words, but what can we do?

The same when we hear kale borroka, street fight, in the Spanish news.

Is this how we conquer, by regaling words?

Even Nabokov took one once: who knows where he hid it.

We shall die soon but,

how we love the words gaupasa (all-nighter) and izkiriatu (to write).

How we love our untranslatable, immeasurable words:

kantuz and laztana and zatoz,

words that have little to do with “singing” or “darling” or “come,” really.

How we love the variants of fuck, larrua yo and larrua jo,

and to use them to love sometimes, sometimes to hate;

sometimes one must jolt the jay, or whip the wye… or zap the zed.

It’s important to choose the right moment and word, always.

And, above all, how we love to ice-skate from zed to zed.


But, ah, what is language but a tool: technique, sounds, noise.


We shall die soon but,

Zatoz kantuz, laztana. Zatoz kantuz. Zatoz.


Come you. Come now. Come with song. And with the song.

You my one. That I love to hold.


Come with song. And with the song. Come now. Come you.


[1] Jorge Oteiza was a Basque sculptor, painter, designer and philosopher, renowned for being one of the main theorists on Basque modern art and the Basque soul.

Amaia Gabantxo is a writer, a flamenco singer and literary translator specialized in Basque literature. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago, and performs regularly in venues all over the city. She is the most prolific translator of Basque literature to date, as well as a pioneer in the field, and has received multiple awards for her work; most recently, the OMI Writers Translation Lab award, a Mellon Fellowship for Arts and Scholarship, and a year long artist-in-residence award at the Cervantes Institute in Chicago. She has published and performed on both sides of the Atlantic: in Ireland and Great Britain, the countries in which she carried out her university education, and in the US, where she has lived for the last five years.

She is currently involved in three hybrid literary/musical/performance art projects. Soniché, where she performs with classical musicians in ensembles that hybridize flamenco and classical traditions; the Lorca Project, which thanks to the Mellon Fellowship, will bring together flamenco artists and a multidisciplinary group of academics in a project that will aim to come up with new English translations of Lorca’s poetry, and to ‘translate’ Lorca’s poetry into a variety of media; and Almas, a collaboration with Iranian-American poet Sholeh Wolpé and ‘tar player Sahba Motallebi that brings together Iranian and flamenco music, Lorca’s songs, and new interpretations of Lorca and Attar’s poetry.

Her latest literary translations, due to be published in late 2016 and in 2017, include Twist by Harkaitz Cano for Archipelago Books in NY, A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe for Parthian Books in the UK, and two seminal collections by the father of modern Basque poetry, Gabriel Aresti, Soul & Soil and Downhill, for the University of Nevada Press.

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