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Letters Of George Borrow by George Borrow

Report of Mr. George Borrow

To the Members of the Committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

GENTLEMEN, -- It is now about two years since I quitted England for St. Petersburg in consequence of the duty which you have been pleased to confide to my hands, namely, that of editing at the Russian capital the New Testament in the Mandchou language which has been translated by Mr. Lipoftsoff, at present Councillor of State and Chinese Translator at that place, but formerly one of the members of the Russian mission at Pekin. On my arrival, before entering upon this highly important and difficult task, I, in obedience to your command, assisted Mr. Swan, the missionary from Selinginsk, to complete a transcript which he had commenced some time previous of a manuscript translation of the principal part of the Old Testament into Mandchou executed by Puerot, who, originally a Jesuit emissary at Pekin, passed the latter years of his life in the service of the Russian mission in the capacity of physician. The united labours of Mr. Swan and myself speedily brought the task in question to a conclusion, so that the transcript has for a considerable time been in the possession of the Bible Society. I will here take the liberty of offering a few remarks upon this translation; but as the work is not at the present moment before me, it is impossible to enter upon a critical and minute examination of its merits. Nevertheless, having either transcribed or at various times perused it, I have formed a general opinion concerning it which, though very probably a faulty one, I shall lay before you in a few words, which at any future time I hope you will permit me to recall, if fresh lights upon the subject compel me to believe that my original conclusion was an erroneous one; having no doubt that those who are embarked in so noble a cause as the propagation of The Great Truth, will be at all times willing to excuse error when confessed, as by the confession of error the truth becomes more glaringly manifest.

The merits of this translation are, upon the whole, of a very high order; but it would be an untruth and an absurdity to say that it does not exhibit defects and blemishes of a striking and peculiar kind -- peculiar, from the singular fact that those portions of the original which, being narrative are exceedingly simple as to idea and style, have been invariably rendered in a manner the most liable to censure, exhibiting not only a slovenly carelessness in regard to diction, but not unfrequently a disregard of accuracy when the slightest particle of attention was only necessary to render the meaning which the sacred writer endeavours to convey. These are its greatest, and, it may perhaps be said, its only defects; for if a regard for truth compel me to state that the style of the translation frequently sinks far below the original when at its lowest grade, that same regard compels me to say that in yet more instances it rises with the same [to a degree] which I believe it is scarcely possible for any individual with the limited powers of uninspired man to surpass. This soaring tendency is particularly observable in the version of the Book of Job, which is certainly the most beautiful, is believed by many to be the most ancient, and is confessedly one of the most important portions of the Old Testament. I consider myself in some degree entitled to speak particularly of this part of the Mandchou version in question, having frequently at the time I was engaged upon it translated into English several of the chapters which particularly struck me, for the purpose of exhibiting them to Mr. Swan, who invariably sympathised with my admiration. The translation of most of the writings of the prophets, as far as Puerot went, has been executed in the same masterly manner, and it is only to be lamented that, instead of wasting much of his time and talents upon the Apocryphal writings, as is unfortunately the case, the ex-Jesuit left behind him no Mandchou version of Isaiah and the Psalms, the lack of which will be sensibly felt whenever his work shall be put in a printed state into the hands of those for whose benefit it is intended, an event most devoutly to be wished for by all those who would fain see Christ reign triumphant in that most extraordinary country of which the Mandchou constitutes one of the principal languages, being used in diplomacy and at court, and being particularly remarkable for possessing within it translations of all the masterpieces of Chinese, Tibetian, and Brahmanic literature with which it has been enriched since the period of the accession of the present Tartar dynasty to the Chinese throne, the proper language of which dynasty it is well known to be.

To translate literally, or even closely, according to the common acceptation of the term, into the Mandchou language is of all impossibilities the greatest; partly from the grammatical structure of the language, and partly from the abundance of its idioms. The Mandchou is the only one of any of the civilised languages of the world with which the writer of these lines has any acquaintance, whose grammar stands far aloof from the rest in wonderful singularity; the most remarkable feature of which is the want of some of those conjunctions generally considered as indispensable, and which are certainly of the first utility. The result of this peculiarity is that such a combination of other parts of speech must be employed as will express the idea without the aid of the conjunction; but as these combinations are invariably and necessarily lengthy, much more space is required in the translation of a sentence into this language than the original occupies. I am induced to make this remark, which I am afraid will be considered an excursory one, from the apprehensiveness that some, observing the translations of the Scriptures into this language to be bulkier than the originals, might conclude that extraneous and unnecessary matter had crept in, which a knowledge of the above fact will prevent.

The transcript of the Mandchou Old Testament having been brought to a conclusion and permission having been obtained to print the New at St. Petersburg -- the accomplishment of which last point was, as you are well aware, attended with much difficulty -- I set myself seriously to work upon the principal object of my mission. With the recapitulation of my labours I wish not to trouble you, the various particulars having been communicated to you in letters written at various times upon the subject. I will content myself with observing that within ten months from the commencement of printing, the entire work, consisting of eight volumes, had with the blessing of the Almighty passed through the press, and, I believe, with as few typographical errors as would have been the case had a much more considerable portion of time been devoted to the enterprise, which, it is true, I was in haste to accomplish, but in a manner not calculated to render the undertaking futile nor cast discredit upon the Society and myself [being well aware that an edition of the Scriptures exhibiting marks of carelessness must at best be a futile work, and that the speed with which it was executed could be no apology; as few will be tempted to deny that no edition at all of the sacred volume in the languages of the heathen is far preferable to one whose incorrectness would infallibly and with some reason awaken ridicule, which, though one of the most contemptible, is certainly one of the most efficacious weapons in the armoury of the Prince of Darkness and the Enemy of Light, as it is well known that his soldiers here on earth accomplish by its means what they would never be able to effect by the utmost force of eloquence and carnal reasoning, in the use and management of which they are, however, by no means unskilled, as many a follower of Jesus from his own individual experience can testify].

After the termination of my editorial task, having little to employ myself upon whilst the two last volumes were undergoing the process of binding, I determined upon a journey to Moscow, the ancient capital of the Russian Empire, which differs widely from St. Petersburg in appearance, structure, and in the manners, habits, and opinions of its inhabitants. I arrived there after a journey of four days. Moscow is by far the most remarkable city it has ever been my fortune to see; but as it has been frequently described, and with tolerable correctness, there is no necessity for me to enter into a particular account of all that presented itself to my observation. I ascended the celebrated tower of Ivan Velike, situated within the walls of the Kremlin, from the top of which there is a glorious view of Moscow and of the surrounding country, and at the foot of which, in a deep hole in the earth, is the gigantic bell which weighs 27,000 poods, or eight hundred and seventy thousand pounds. I likewise visited the splendid church of the Kremlin, and had much conversation with the priest who is in the habit of showing its curiosities to strangers. He is a most intelligent and seemingly truly pious person, and well acquainted with English spiritual literature, especially with the writings of Bishops Taylor and Tillotson, whom he professed to hold in great admiration; though he asserted that both these divines, great men as they undoubtedly were, were far inferior writers to his own celebrated countryman Archbishop Teekon, and their productions less replete with spiritual manna -- against which assertion I felt little inclined to urge any objection, having myself perused the works of the great Russian divine with much comfort and satisfaction, and with which I can only regret [that] the devout part of the British public are up to the present moment utterly unacquainted.

As one of the principal motives of my visit to Moscow was to hold communication with a particular part of its population, which from the accounts I had received of it had inspired me with the most vivid interest, I did not fail shortly after my arrival to seek an opportunity of accomplishing my work, and believe that what I have now to communicate will be of some interest to the Christian and the philosopher. I allude to the people called Zigani or Gypsies, or, as they style themselves, Rommany, of which there are several thousands in and about Moscow, and who obtain a livelihood by various means. Those who have been accustomed to consider these people as wandering barbarians, incapable of civilisation and unable to appreciate the blessings of a quiet and settled life, will be surprised at learning that many of those in Moscow inhabit large and handsome houses, appear abroad in elegant equipages, and if distinguishable from the genteel class of the Russians [are] only so by superior personal advantages and mental accomplishments. Of this singular phenomenon at Moscow the female Gypsies are the principal cause, having from time immemorial cultivated their vocal powers to such an extent that, although in the heart of a country in which the vocal art has arrived at greater perfection than in any other part of the world, the principal Gypsy choirs in Moscow are allowed by the general voice of the public to be unrivalled and to bear away the palm from all competitors. It is a fact notorious in Russia that the celebrated Catalani was so filled with admiration for the powers of voice displayed by one of the Gypsy songsters, who, after the former had sung before a splendid audience at Moscow, stepped forward and with an astonishing burst of melody ravished every ear, that she tore from her own shoulders a shawl of immense value which had been presented to her by the Pope, and embracing the Gypsy compelled her to accept it, saying that it had been originally intended for the matchless singer which she now discovered was not herself. The sums obtained by these performers are very large, enabling them to live in luxury of every description and to maintain their husbands in a princely way. Many of them are married to Russian gentlemen; and every one who has resided for any length of time in Russia cannot but be aware that the lovely, talented, and domesticated wife of Count Alexander Tolstoi is by birth a Gypsy, and was formerly one of the ornaments of a Rommany choir at Moscow as she is now one of the principal ornaments of the marriage state and of illustrious life. It is not, however, to be supposed that all the female Gypsies in Moscow are of this high, talented, and respectable order; amongst them there are a great number of low, vulgar, and profligate females who sing in taverns, or at the various gardens in the neighbourhood, and whose husbands and male connections subsist by horse-jobbing and such kinds of low traffic. The principal place of resort of this class is Marina Rotche, lying about two verses from Moscow, and thither I drove, attended by a valet-de-place. Upon my arriving there the Gypsies swarmed out from their tents and from the little tracteer or tavern, and surrounded me. Standing on the seat of the caleche, I addressed them in a loud voice in the dialect of the English Gypsies, with which I have some slight acquaintance. A scream of wonder instantly arose, and welcomes and greetings were poured forth in torrents of musical Rommany, amongst which, however, the most pronounced cry was: ah kak mi toute karmuma -- 'Oh, how we love you,' for at first they supposed me to be one of their brothers, who, they said, were wandering about in Turkey, China, and other parts, and that I had come over the great pawnee, or water, to visit them. Their countenances exactly resembled those of their race in England and Spain, brown, and for the most part beautiful, their eyes fiery and wildly intelligent, their hair coal-black and somewhat coarse. I asked them numerous questions, especially as to their religion and original country. They said that they believed in 'Devil,' which, singularly enough, in their language signifies God, and that they were afraid of the evil spirit, or 'Bengel'; that their fathers came from Rommany land, but where that land lay they knew not. They sang many songs both in the Russian and Rommany languages; the former were modern popular pieces which are in vogue on the stage, but the latter were evidently very ancient, being composed in a metre or cadence to which there is nothing analogous in Russian prosody, and exhibiting an internal character which was anything but European or modern. I visited this place several times during my sojourn at Moscow, and spoke to them upon their sinful manner of living, upon the advent and suffering of Christ Jesus, and expressed, upon my taking a final leave of them, a hope that they would be in a short period furnished with the word of eternal life in their own language, which they seemed to value and esteem much higher than the Russian. They invariably listened with much attention; and during the whole time I was amongst them exhibited little in speech or conduct which was objectionable.

I returned to Petersburg, and shortly afterwards, the business which had brought me to Russia being successfully terminated, I quitted that country, and am compelled to acknowledge, with regret. I went thither prejudiced against the country, the government, and the people; the first is much more agreeable than is generally supposed; the second is seemingly the best adapted for so vast an empire; and the third, even the lowest classes, are in general kind, hospitable, and benevolent. True it is that they have many vices, and their minds are overshadowed by the gloomy clouds of Grecian superstition, but the efforts of many excellent and pious persons amongst the English at St. Petersburg are directed to unveiling to them the cheering splendour of the lamp of the Gospel; and it is the sincere prayer of the humble individual who now addresses you that the difficulties which at present much obstruct their efforts may be speedily removed, and that from the boundless champains of Russia may soon resound the Jubilee hymn of millions, who having long groped their way in the darkness of the shadow of death, are at once blessed with light, and with joyful hearts acknowledge the immensity of the blessing.

GEORGE BORROW.

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