George Henry Borrow (1803–81) Lavengro, Philologist, Translator

By Karin Montin

My interpretation teacher used to joke that someone who knows two languages can be a translator, three an interpreter, six a taxi driver.

By that standard, George Borrow could have spent his life at the reins of a London hackney cab. But he knew he was a philologist from a young age, although he saw it at first as a dead-end profession.

Like all educated English boys at the time, George was well versed in Latin and Greek. Additionally, by age 16, he spoke Scots and Irish and, most unusually, was starting to learn Romany. At 18 he had a total of 12 languages under his belt: Italian, French, Spanish, German, Welsh, Danish and Portuguese, not to mention ancient Armenian. Incredible.

His father was an army recruiting officer so the family moved around frequently. George learned Scots on the streets of Edinburgh and in Ireland traded a deck of cards to a classmate for conversational Irish lessons.

He acquired the basics of French and Italian from a “tesseraglot grammar” and then took daily lessons after school from a Norman priest, who also taught him Spanish. Eventually he found a German tutor, too.

He was always fearless and a tireless walker, so when not studying, he wandered all over the countryside, talking to all kinds of people. He cultivated a special relationship with a friendly Romany family. They were initially impressed by his snake-handling abilities and called him sap-engro, meaning viper catcher, but that’s another story.

Being an eager learner with almost total recall, he picked up new words every time he met them and gained extensive knowledge of their stories and traditions over the years. He was always asking how to say certain things and sharing terms he’d acquired from other people. His genuine interest and egalitarianism worked in his favour, as the Romany generally faced prejudice. As he got to know other travelling families, his reputation as a Romany rye, or Gypsy gentleman, began to precede him. And being six foot four with prematurely grey hair, he wasn’t hard to spot. They gave him the new title of lavengro, or word master.

After finishing school, he had to earn a living and became a law clerk. While doing an endlessly boring apprenticeship, to “keep up [his] character,” he decided to learn a new language, Welsh. That wasn’t too hard, since he already spoke Irish. In his spare time, he translated the great Welsh poet Dafydd Ab Gwilym.

Then he was given an old, wooden-bound book of Danish poems. Finding the language extremely difficult, and unable to procure a grammar or dictionary, he came up with the idea of learning the language by reading a more easily procured Danish Bible along with the St. James version he knew inside out.

Quitting his apprenticeship, he headed off to London with a few pounds and his two translations. He made the rounds of the publishers, but—surprise!—they didn’t think there was much of a market for them.

He found work with a publisher, however, producing a compilation of “Newgate lives and trials” (all research materials to be purchased at his own expense), reviewing books and translating the publisher’s book of philosophy (the world is shaped like a pear, not an apple) into German. He had to do it to keep the other work coming. But eventually he gave up. He could manage the German, but not the philosophy.

Just as he was down to his last few pence, he saw an ad to write a tale or a novel. He churned it out within a week, hardly eating or sleeping.

That’s the tale told in his masterpiece, Lavengro. In the continuation, Romany Rye, he hits the road in a caravan and sets himself up as a petulengro, or blacksmith/tinker for a few months. The two books provide a fictionalized account of his life and adventures travelling around England and Wales.

As George learned different languages, he was constantly comparing and contrasting them, wondering how they related to one another. And he was frequently interested to find words he learned from his Romany acquaintances popping up in Armenian, Welsh and other unexpected places. At the time, the Roma were generally thought to have come originally from Egypt (hence the name Gypsy), but some scholars were starting to realize they had actually originated in India. Philologists were seeking and finding linguistic evidence of their trajectory. George was one of those putting the pieces together, relating Sanskrit, Hindi and Romany.

Eventually he began working for a Bible society and spent two years in Russia (yes, he’d somehow picked up a working knowledge of Russian), overseeing the translation of the Bible into Manchu (language of northern China). Are you skeptical yet? While there, he published Targum; or Metrical Translations from Thirty Languages and Dialects. He went on to spend five years in Spain “circulating the Scriptures.”

He’d already published his translation of Klinger’s “Faustus,” and the Danish poetry (The Romantic Ballads), but now he gained instant fame with two very successful books based on his time in Spain: The Zincali: An Account of the Gypsies in Spain and The Bible in Spain. Lavengro and Romany Rye came a dozen years after his return to England. He also put together the first Romany-English dictionary, Lavo-Lil, rushing to finish it as soon as he learned he had competition. When he died, he apparently left a number of completed treatises on poetry and translations from the Norse, Russian and Turkish.

But George Borrow, although an original writer, was perhaps not quite the scholar he thought he was. John Sampson says, rather, “A great but careless linguist, Borrow was assuredly no philologist.” He goes on to give numerous examples of the “curious Borrovian variety” of his Romany, saying that “while he has been the means of attracting others to the study of that interesting tongue, his own command of it was of the slightest.”

And you have to wonder about his accent in all those languages learned mostly from books or tutors who were not native speakers.

All right then, maybe he wasn’t the world’s most thorough scholar or perfectly fluent in all the languages he had dabbled in. He nonetheless led a very interesting life and wrote some fascinating books. Many of them are available free from the University of Adelaide or Project Gutenberg. And he was a translator.

Warning: Some long disquisitions are well worth skipping and e-books aren’t great for flipping ahead to see where a passage ends.


“Borrow, George Henry.” Micropedia (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1992) 2:396.

Borrow, George. Lavengro; The Scholar, The Gypsy, The Priest (London: John Murray, 1852).

Borrow, George. Romany Rye. With Notes and an Introduction by John Sampson. Derived from by the 1903 Methuen & Co. edition. Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s