A Gallegan Source for The Bible in Spain

By Peter Missler

[This article was first published in the George Borrow Bulletin n°25 (2003), p. 64-71.]
Today’s Galicians, the inhabitants of Spain’s most north-western province, are of two minds about George Borrow. On the one hand, they are overjoyed that an important foreign author would dedicate six considerable chapters of his best-selling travelogue The Bible in Spain to their beloved province (1)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 1).
The Bible in Spain, chapters 25 to 31.
. On the other, Borrow annoys them a little by his jocular remarks upon their character, by uncomplimentary phrases about “Galician filth”, “foul feeding”, and “inattention to cleanliness”, and most of all: by his disrespectful attitude towards their language, Gallego, that “strange-sounding dialect” with its “peculiar accent and uncouth enunciation” which he considered nothing more than a primitive mixture of Spanish and Portuguese.

Remarks like these are anathema in Galicia today. The province, an integral part of Europe’s Celtic fringe, has recently undergone a revival of its national pride and dignity, not unlike the similar movements in Scotland, Wales and Brittany. This translated, first and foremost, into a renewed appreciation of the local tongue and a heightened sensitivity to all belittling attitudes towards it. The worst of those, a near unforgivable sin, is to call it a dialect. In this context, it does not matter that “language” and “dialect” are purely political concepts, impossible to define or distinguish on linguistic grounds. Nor does it matter that Galician intellectuals of Borrow’s own age themselves qualified Gallego as a dialect and saw its wide-spread use among the populace as an impediment to a much-desired modernisation. (2)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 2).
See for instance Antonio Balbin de Unquera, “Juicio de un missionero protestante”, in: La Ilustración gallega y asturiana (1879), p. 274, probably the first Spanish review ever of The Bible in Spain; also Missler, P., A Partial Judgement, on this website.
Jibes of this kind simply hurt and irritate; and an author who makes them can count on a trashing, even if he has been dead more than a hundred years.

George Borrow has received his share of censure, not only from commentators like Xesus Torres, who wrote an otherwise excellent article on Borrow’s journey through the province (3)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 3).
Xesus Torres Requeiro, “George Borrow, un viaxeiro na Galicia da desamortización”, in: Cadernos A Nossa Terra, n° 12 (May 1992), 4-14.
, but even from those who gladly use him to their own benefit. One of those, for instance, is Salvador García Bodaño, editor of the translation of the Galician chapters of The Bible in Spain into Gallego.(4)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 4).
Salvador Garcia Bodaño, Viaxe por Galicia / George Borrow, limiar, cronoloxía etc., Vigo, 1993; especially footnotes 8 and 13.
Bodaño’s case is mildly ironic. By the looks of it, he himself is not enough of a linguist to translate the chosen excerpts from the original English (for all one can tell it is based on Azaña’s Spanish version), yet he feels free to add some fault-finding footnotes to his translation, cracking down on the linguistic ideas of a man who by this time already knew three dozen languages, including such impossible ones as Caló, Manchu Tartar and Basque.(5)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 5). For all its shortcomings, Garcia Bodaño’s translation does deserve honourable mention among Borrovian editions, because of the exemplary use that was made of left-over stock. Instead of callously running the remainders through the paper-shredder, as happens so often, the publisher struck a deal with a bus company called Trapsa. Under this arrangement Trapsa gave a free copy of the book to every passenger who boarded one of its Santiago busses on 17 May 2004, the so-called “Day of Galician Letters”, with the splendid result that some 8,000 copies of Borrow’s Galician chapters found their way to the public; which is a rare promotion of a nearly forgotten author.
If Borrow was a little light-hearted in his depreciation of Gallego (as he most certainly was (6)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 6).
Borrow’s derisive attitude shows clearest in the episode of the Portuguese theatre group in Vigo (Bible in Spain, chapter 28), which will perform a play, not in Spanish, but – we may assume – in Portuguese. A local citizen tells him that everyone in town is eager to go see the play “which would not be the case if it were in a language which they could understand.” Either Borrow was trying to be funny here or he misunderstood his spokesman. The point is that at the time, a Galician whose first language was Gallego would probably have fewer problems following a dialogue in Portuguese than one in standard Castilian. I have often wondered if Murray’s typesetter, or Mary Borrow, George’s “country amanuensis” who made the fair copy of the text, didn’t delete a “not” between “could” and “understand”. The phrase is found like this, in any case, in the first edition of The Bible in Spain.
), his modern Galician critics are perhaps no less so. But then again: all is fair in love, war and literary criticism!

Admittedly Borrow did not like Gallego much. He vituperates against it with truly exaggerated spite and seems to have considered it a tongue with no rights to exist (7)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 7).
See chapters 25 and 28 of The Bible in Spain. In his letter to his Danish friend Hasfeld of 20 November 1837 (George Borrow: Letters to John Hasfeld 1835-1839, ed. Angus M. Fraser, The Tragara Press, Edinburgh 1982, p. 28), he observes that ‘Gallegan (...) notwithstanding that it seems half Spanish and half Portuguese is of all the languages and dialects in the world most difficult to a foreigner to speak or understand’; which is quite a compliment of sorts coming from a linguistic genius like Borrow!
. Yet he still was a keen language student, always curious about linguistic matters, and there can be no doubt that he was, to some extent, intrigued by Gallego. Quite possibly, he felt a desire to make some study of it, but if so, where to turn? As he himself admits: talking to the “natives” offered no prospects. He understood “very little of it” when he heard Gallego spoken (8)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 8).
Bible in Spain, chapter 28, in his conversation with the Pontevedra lawyer.
, and time was too short to accustom himself to its confusing pronunciation. What he needed was a printed text in Gallego; a text like the ones he had used to learn foreign languages ever since his boyhood. And where else could he have found such a text but in the bookshop of his close friend Rey Romero, that “very splendid and commodious establishment” in the heart of Santiago? Borrow often visited the bookseller and his family while he was in Compostela, and may well have broached the subject during one of those visits. We can almost hear the conversation taking place. One afternoon in the bookshop, browsing through some government publication or one of those foolish popular storybooks of Spain, Borrow says:

Front page of the Tertulia de Picaños
‘I was wondering last night, Don Francisco. You would not know of a book printed in the peasant dialect, would you? In Gallego?’
Rey Romero, busy wrapping up a treatise on Mariology for one of the cathedral’s canons, looks up with a pensive expression. ‘A book in Gallego, Don Jorge?’ he wonders. ‘No -... Not a book, I don’t think. But last year somebody did publish some dialogues in it. Quite a novelty, that was. It hasn’t been done very often. Let me see, where did I put those again? Ah, yes,’ he says as he opens a cupboard in the back of the shop. ‘Here I have one: La Tertulia de Picaños. “The Picaños Coterie”. Picaños is a village just outside the city. This,’ he explains as he sweeps the dust off the leaflet, ‘is about peasants who discuss the removal of our local government to Coruña. And it is in Gallego. Would you like to read it?’
‘Very much so. How much do I owe you?’
‘Oh, just keep it, Don Jorge. You need not buy it. Read it in your posada tonight and return it to me tomorrow. Then if you still want to buy it, you can pay me. Here, that’s done,’ he says as he pats the bulgy package on the counter. ‘Now, shall we go for a walk? I will show you our leper-house. Let me just call down Ramona to mind the shop. Don Fermin said he would drop in this afternoon to pick this up...’

This Tertulia de Picaños is one of a series of four dialogues in Gallego, written by an anonymous author, and published in Compostela in the last few months of 1836 (9)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 9).
The four are: Dialogo en la Alameda de Santiago, Imprenta de J. Nuñez Castaño, Santiago, September 1836; La Tertulia de Picaños, Imprenta de D.J.F. Campaña y Aguayo, Santiago, 31 October 1836; Dialogo 2° en la Alameda de Santiago, same printshop, 15 November 1836; and Sigue la Tertulia de Picaños, same print-shop, 15 December 1836. These were not the first texts ever to be written in Gallego (the famous Father Sarmiento and the flamboyant poet Antonio Fandiño had been at it before), but nearly so. In any case, they were the only ones which could possibly have been available in a contemporary bookshop in the summer of 1837.
. Although the dialogues pretend to reproduce a conversation between simple village folk about local events and the politics of the day, they were definitely not written by a farmer, but by an intellectual, in all probability an ultra-liberal employee of city hall (10)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 10).
For the writing of the “Dialogo 2° en la Alameda de Santiago”, concerned with the occupation of Compostela by General Miguel Gomez y Damas and his Carlist army the previous July, the author copied classified documents from the municipal archive which were extremely embarrassing to the local politicians and to many prominent Santiaguese.
. Their content is highly critical of the moderate city authorities of Santiago, continually extols every radical officer and official, and although the author goes out of his way to emphasize his devotion to the catholic faith, he does make his “village folk” voice some very offensive opinions against monasteries, nuns, clerics and canons, which certainly do not reflect the attitude of the Santiago peasantry of the time.

What makes me think that Borrow saw this text, and used it as a source? Because in chapter 27 of The Bible in Spain, when he describes the “spirit of localism” alive in Santiago, his derisive remarks about the inhabitants of Coruña, and the arguments he uses concerning the best city in which to establish the seat of the provincial government, are almost carbon copies of some paragraphs in the Tertulia. Borrow writes:

Indeed, I have never seen the spirit of localism, which is so prevalent throughout Spain, more strong than at St. James. If their town did but flourish, the Santiagians seemed to care but little if all others in Galicia perished. Their antipathy to the town of Coruña was unbounded, and this feeling had of late been not a little increased from the circumstance that the seat of the provincial government had been removed from St. James to Coruña. Whether this change was advisable or not, it is not for me, who am a foreigner, to say; my private opinion, however, is by no means favourable to the alteration. St. James is one of the most central towns in Galicia, with large and populous communities on every side of it, whereas Coruña stands in a corner, at a considerable distance from the rest

The “peasants” of the Tertulia de Picaños are excellent examples of such local chauvinism and the profound dislike of Coruña, Santiago’s great rival city on the north coast. When, in the middle of their long chat, they reach the subject of the recent removal of the government institutions, one of them complains that:

La Cruña lo tiene todo, y nos nada. La Cruña tiene la Audencia, el Güefe politico, la Capitanía gueneral, La Intendensia, la Diputasion provincial y moitas más cosas; y nosotros los de Santiago, nada. Y asi suplicamos (...) que la Audencia volva para Santiago, donde estuvo y debe estar (...) pois que Santiago está no medio de la Provincia, y la Cruña en un estremo ou rincon

La Coruña has got everything and we nothing. La Coruña has the Audiencia, and the Civil Governor, the Captain-Generalcy, the Fiscal Ministry, the Provincial Deputation and many other things; and we from Santiago, nothing. And therefore we plead that the Audiencia be returned to Santiago, where it was and where it should be, because Santiago is in the middle of the province, and Coruña on the far edge, in a corner.

The present looks of the establishments where Rey Romero's Bookshop was in the calle de Azabacharia 16 and 17 (now 17 and 19) in Santiago de Compostela
Borrow’s wording comes so close to this last phrase that one wonders if he himself was not perhaps a little infected by Santiago chauvinism. And the resemblance is so much more remarkable, because Borrow really ought to have known better than to use this argument. Euclid’s maxim may be valid in mathematics, but in human practice a straight line is not always the shortest route between two points. In reality, Coruña lay closer to Madrid than Santiago did, because the only decent Galician highway, the Camino Real, first ran from Leon to Coruña and only then bent its course southward again to reach Compostela. Borrow himself meekly followed this natural route, voting with his feet - so to say - against the validity of his own argument. Also, having a major harbour, Coruña enjoyed rapid communications with the outside world; an advantage which the Bible salesman likewise acknowledged when he shipped a large stock of Testaments there to sell in Galicia (11)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 11).
Letter to Brandram of 20 July 1837 from Coruña (T.H. Darlow, ed. Letters of George Borrow to the British & Foreign Bible Society, London 1911, p. 225.)

Yet none of that was the essence of the matter. The true reason for the removal of the government was political, and it is a little astonishing that Borrow should disregard that dimension. Coruña got the provincial institutions because it was Galicia’s great liberal city, more than merely loyal to the new liberal regime. Santiago, on the other hand, was an undiluted den of Carlists and a bulwark of Roman Catholic supremacy. It had, in fact, only been graced with the seat of government in 1825, when the ultra-conservative Captain General Nazario Eguia wanted to punish Coruña for its liberal stand during the short-lived left-wing regime of 1820-1823, known as the Trienio Constitucional. In 1833, when the liberals regained power, the new Captain General Pablo Morillo immediately returned the institutions to Coruña, because he felt that Santiago was too hostile and Carlist a town, where he would not be secure. The choice of city was, therefore, an eloquent political statement (12)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 12).
On the history of the struggle between both cities over this issue see Carlos Fernandez, La Capitania General de Galicia, Coruña 1984.
. Had Borrow really looked closely into the matter - i.e. beyond the reading of a chauvinistic pamphlet like the Tertulia - would he still have taken the side of a Papist town against a Liberal one? While the Freedom of the Press, so dear to him, could only come from a liberal régime? It is difficult to believe.

But let us continue the comparison. On page 4 of the Tertulia, the following exchange occurs:
Pepe: Para ó que nos deixâron, que no-lo leven todo...
Catuxâ: Xâ eles puderan, que non quedaba Catredal, Espital, Seminario, nin outras boas pezas que hay na Vila; é hasta Picaños corria peligro.
Andruco: Esa he-vos senrreyra, que xâ ven datrás: nunca os da Cruña puderon ver os de Santiago; fai como os de Vigo que tamen lle teñen tírria os de Pontevedra. Uns é outros, quero decir, os da Cruña é os de Vigo, fan como os cregos é frades, que todo ó queren para si, é os mais que coman broa escarolada: é lojo chámanse liberales: ¡che bo liberalismo!

Pepe: Seeing what they’ve left us, they might as well carry it all off!
Catuxa: If only they could, the Cathedral would not remain, nor the Hospital, nor the Seminary, nor any other good thing that exists in this city. Why, even Picaños itself would be at risk!
Andruco: That’s an old mania, going back a long time. The people from Coruña never could stand those of Santiago, just as those from Vigo hold a grudge against those from Pontevedra. Both of them, I mean, those of Coruña and those of Vigo, behave just like clerics and friars, who want everything for themselves, while the rest get to eat broa mixed with grated bark. (13)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 13).
I.e. the typical Galician maize-bread of the time. That bark, grass or straw might be mixed in with the corn-flour before baking is no political hyperbole, but a known 19th century practice. Up to the 1970s, harvests were usually insufficient to bridge the whole winter, and villagers often had to have recourse to this sort of filling to make stocks last longer.
And then they call themselves liberals! Some liberals!

Borrow, in the continuation of the above paragraph, describes local popular opinion thus:

“It is a pity that the vecinos of Coruña cannot contrive to steal away from us our cathedral, even as they have done our government,” said a Santiagian; “then, indeed, they would be able to cut some figure. As it is, they have not a church fit to say mass in.” “A great pity, too, that they cannot remove our hospital,” would another exclaim; “as it is, they are obliged to send us their sick, poor wretches. I always think that the sick of Coruña have more ill-favoured countenances than those from other places; but what good can come from Coruña?”

1838 Bookmark of the Rey Romero Bookshop (author's collection)
The theft of the cathedral; the theft of the Hospital. Borrow echoes the fears of the Picaños peasants for both these impressive monuments. Unsurprisingly, he does not repeat their apprehension about the Seminary, which did not possess a building of itself and as an institution was not something he was likely to weep over, or present to his readers as a great loss for the city. As we all know, our author was not beyond the selective use of a source, picking the cherries from the cake when it was convenient for his writings.

Borrow stayed ten days in Santiago in August 1837 and an unknown number of days in September (14)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 14).
In his letter to his Danish friend Hasfeld of 20 November 1837 (George Borrow: Letters to John Hasfeld 1835-1839, ed. Angus M. Fraser, The Tragara Press, Edinburgh 1982, p. 27) he mentions that ‘I resided a month [in Santiago] busied in distributing the Scripture’.
. On the whole he had little do to except peddle some New Testaments to random people whom he met; and this gave him ample time to speak to its inhabitants and to learn from their own mouths of their traditional feud with Coruña (a feud which went back to 1480 and is still quite alive today!). If that is how these remarks ended up in The Bible in Spain, then there is nothing more to it than that he drank from the same chauvinistic source as the author of the Tertulia; and the two authors merely bear each other out as to popular opinions current in the city in the 1830s. But the closeness of the wording, the identical arguments, and the fact that Borrow presents the remarks in an extremely impersonal manner - not really habitual with him - makes me suspect that the Tertulia is where he got his notions from. Let us hope that we may one day prove it (15)
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(Peter Missler, A Gallegan Source of The Bible in Spain footnote 15).
Two lexical arguments, although not decisive in themselves, may perhaps be noted here in support of the argument. All through The Bible in Spain (chapters 27, 29, 31 and 33) Borrow prefers to spell the word for Galician maize-bread as Broa rather than the more common Boroa, just as is done in the text of the Tertulia quoted above. The other, still more convincing example, is his repeated use of the form “Calros” when he makes the inhabitants of Finisterre speak of the Carlist pretender Don Carlos Isidro de Borbón (some twelve times in chapter 30 of Bible in Spain). This pronunciation, otherwise unknown from contemporary sources, is also found - spelled as Calrros - in Sigue la Tertulia de Picaños, and Dialogo en la Alameda de Santiago.
. For it would perhaps teach some modesty to today’s overly severe critics to learn that even an author as insensitive to the beauties of their language as George Borrow, had done his home-work well, and used a genuine Gallego text as a source for his own brilliant writings.

Estrar, Brion, January 2003.

I would like to express my gratitude to Luis Soto for indispensable help with the more intricate parts of the translation from Gallego; and to Ann Ridler for her remarks and research on the episode of the Portuguese theatre group.