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The billionaire native Esperanto speaker? Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Interview, Native speakers

As many of you are already aware, George Soros is the wealthiest native Esperanto speaker with a net worth of $14.5 billion. I have Humphrey Tonkin with me today, who among many other accomplishments, is also the translator of a book by George Soros’s father called Masquerade: The Incredible True Story of How George Soros’ Father Outsmarted the Gestapo (original Esperanto title: Maskerado ĉirkaŭ la morto).

First of all, I think we’re all wondering, how was he born in Hungary and eventually became a billionaire in America? How did he accumulate his wealth?

He was born in 1930 in Budapest, of Hungarian Jewish parents. The family survived the German occupation of Hungary by living under assumed Christian identities, thereby avoiding deportation by the Nazis and likely murder. The story is told in the book Masquerade, which was recently reissued in English translation in the United States. I translated and edited Masquerade from its original in Esperanto. Today, translations also exist in German, Russian, Hungarian, and Turkish, and shortly translations will appear in Chinese and Italian.

After the war, George went with his father, Tivadar Soros, to an Esperanto congress in Switzerland. From there, he made the journey to Britain, where he attended an Esperanto youth congress. Following the congress, with the help of Esperantists, he obtained a student visa and was able to stay in the country and eventually study at the London School of Economics, where he was much influenced by the theories of the economist Karl Popper. Later he moved to the United States, where he established an investment business.

According to Wikipedia, Soros is a native Esperanto speaker. How did he learn Esperanto? Did Esperanto give him any advantages in life?

George Soros is not a native Esperanto speaker. Esperantists have made that claim on numerous occasions (it’s all over the Internet), but it’s simply not true. Soros learned Esperanto from his father when he was growing up, but his native language (his only native language) was Hungarian. Clearly Esperanto afforded him advantages. It helped him get out of post-war Hungary, for example, and establish himself in Britain.

I’ve heard that his last name Soros came from the Esperanto word sori meaning “to soar”. Do you know if this is true?

I don’t think anybody is certain. Was the word even in circulation at the time that Schwarz changed his name to Soros (in the 1930s)? Auld uses it in Kvaropo in 1952, but I don’t know of earlier occurrences (possibly Kalocsay?). My guess: Someone remarks on the fact that “soros” means “will soar” in Esperanto (come to think of it, I believe I did!), and, before you know it, people are claiming that Tivadar chose the name for that reason.

What is his current opinion of Esperanto? How does he see the future of Esperanto?

Soros fully recognizes the advantages that Esperanto gave him. He said as much at a recent event at the United Nations, organized by the Universal Esperanto Association to, among other things, launch my translation of his father’s other book, Crusoes in Siberia (called Modernaj Robinzonoj in the original). In a speech (in English!) on that occasion, he acknowledged the huge influence that his father had on him (the book deals with his father’s adventures in World War I) and also talked about how Esperanto helped him get established. His view on Esperanto is pretty clear: it was a good idea, but the moment when it might have been adopted as an international lingua franca has, sadly, passed. One can disagree with such a view (I guess there are plenty of Esperantists who would do so), but you can’t call it totally unreasonable.

Both Crusoes in Siberia and Masquerade, by the way, are in print and readily available. Crusoes was also recently translated into Italian.

Thank you very much for the interesting interview and for your great work for the Esperanto movement!

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About the Author:Chuck Smith

I was born in the US, but Esperanto has led me all over the world. I started teaching myself Esperanto on a whim in 2001, not knowing how it would change my life. The timing couldn’t have been better; around that same time I discovered Wikipedia in it’s very early stages and launched the Esperanto version. When I decided to backpack through Europe, I found Esperanto speakers to host me. These connections led me to the Esperanto Youth Organization in Rotterdam, where I worked for a year, using Esperanto as my primary language. Though in recent years I’ve moved on to other endeavors like iOS development, I remain deeply engrained in the Esperanto community, and love keeping you informed of the latest news. The best thing that came from learning Esperanto has been the opportunity to connect with fellow speakers around the globe, so feel free to join in the conversation with a comment! I am now the founder and CTO of the social app Amikumu.


Comments:

  1. Lennart:

    It’s a pity he’s not fluent in Esperanto anymore. Although he can remember a lot of things. At the “Esperanto symposium in New York” (2010) a journalist asked if he could speak something and he said: “Ecx guto malgranda, konstante frapante, traboras la monton granitan”.

  2. Tommy McDonald:

    Hey Chuck,
    Really nice interview! Do you know where the book Masquerade can be found in the original Esperanto?
    By the way, as a native South Carolinian, it was great to meet yall over the weekend in Budapest!

  3. Jindrich:

    Hi Chuck,
    tre interesa artikolo pri Soros. Mia komento venas iom malfrue, sed tio ne gravas.
    Mi renkontis Humphrey Tonkin antaŭ kelkaj tagoj en Praha (Prago, Prague)dum solena bapto de traduko la libro Maskerado en la ĉeĥa . Li havis prelegon pri la aŭtoro, pri lia filo kaj pri la tradukado el Eo en la angla. Vere interesa prelego. Kaj tute senperforte – gravaj informoj pri Eo por neesperantistoj (la prelego estis destinata al tradukistoj neesperantistoj).
    Tute hazarde mi aĉetis tiuokaze la esperantan originalon de la libro kaj nun mi ĝuas la legadon.

  4. paolo:

    Ma con tutti i soldi che ha perché non l investe per far si che l esperanto diventi lingua internazionale?

    • Chuck Smith:

      @paolo I doubt it, because he doesn’t believe that Esperanto has a future, so he doesn’t invest his money into helping the Esperanto movement, unfortunately.