Miklós Haraszti: The intricacies of translation

Yesterday Miklós Haraszti commented on my post about Viktor Orbán’s “unwanted immigrants.” I considered his contribution so valuable that, with his permission, I am republishing it as a full-fledged post. 

First, a few words about Miklós Haraszti, who has played an important role in Hungarian politics. In 1976 he co-founded the Hungarian Democratic Opposition Movement and in 1980 became editor of the samizdat periodical “Beszélő.” In 1989 he participated in the “roundtable discussions” among all the political parties, which eventually led to free elections. Between 1990 and 1994 he was a member of parliament, and between 2004 and 2010 he served as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Currently he is UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.

In yesterday’s post I translated the twelve questions the Hungarian government will pose to voters about their attitudes toward “economic immigrants,” which in the original is “megélhetési bevándorlók.” The Hungarian adjective “megélhetési” is practically untranslatable for reasons that Haraszti’s explanation of the word and its history makes evident. “Economic” is at best a sanitized translation of “megélhetési.”  Without understanding the real meaning of the Hungarian word, we cannot grasp the baseness of Viktor Orbán’s world.

Here I am combining two separate comments by Mr. Haraszti, the second of which was prompted by my remark that to the best of my knowledge it was fairly recently that a Hungarian politician coined the phrase “megélhetési politikusok.” In this second comment we learn about the origin of the phrase.

* * *

Miklós Haraszti being interviewed by Benjamin Novak of The Budapest Beacon

Miklós Haraszti being interviewed by Benjamin Novak of The Budapest Beacon

“Megélhetési bevándorlók”

Let me add a little linguistics of meanness. Orbán, throughout his anti-immigration PR campaign, and in his 12-point “National Consultation” questionnaire, identifies the refugees as “megélhetési bevándorlók,” which is then translated for international consumption as “economic immigrants.” This is what we find in Eva’s translation. But it is no match for the cruelty of the original adjective, “megélhetési.” Orbán never uses the adjective “economic,” that is “gazdasági,” when he speaks in Hungarian. What his consultation uses, “megélhetési,” is in fact a ready-made hate word in Hungarian political language.

Of course, the questionnaire’s hateful, xenophobic content speaks for itself even with “economic immigrant,” but the reader should know that what the Hungarians get, the original “megélhetési,” means “parasitic, opportunistic, profiteering, sharking” — and means all this in a super-despising way — it simply means a swindler.

Examples: “megélhetési gyermekvállaló” (parents who ‘produce’ children solely for the sake of child welfare benefits) — it means a Roma parent and nothing else.

Or: “megélhetési bűnöző” (a criminal out of poverty) — invariably just means a gypsy.

Or: “megélhetési politikus”  — means a corrupt politician. Etc, etc.

The history of the phrase “megélhetési politikusok”

The first political usage of the adjective was in the expression “megélhetési politikusok” (politicians who are ready to serve whoever is ready to pay them). The inventor was Miklós Csapody, ex-MDF, who coined it sometime between 1996 and 1998, the day after the defection of MPs Ervin Demeter and Csaba Hende from MDF. These two decided to move over to the Fidesz benches, weakening the small liberal-conservative wing of the remaining MDF. (The Sándor Lezsák/István Balsai national-conservative wing of MDF had defected earlier.) Csapody severely criticized Demeter and Hende. Ervin Demeter was later rewarded by being appointed minister of civilian intelligence services in the first government of Orbán. After the fall of that government, he was involved (together with László Kövér) in the UD Zrt. private eye wiretapping scandal which was intended to ruin — whom else — his former boss, Ibolya Dávid. The other, Csaba  Hende (today minister of defense), became the central Fidesz keeper/financer of the “polgári körök” (civic circles) in 2002, a movement which was Orbán’s Red Guard/Tea Party within his own party in 2002 when he lost the elections and mutineers challenged his continuing leadership.

Csapody’s word, the adjective “megélhetési” as used for politicians, became proverbial, simply meaning “corrupt,” or worse, “fake and greedy.” Typically for Orbán, he now utilizes a term that was famously intended to provoke him and his party.

The word “megélhetési” had existed earlier. It has a liberal origin, it was an invention of political correctness, and I cannot exclude the possibility that Csapody, when he used it against Fideszniks, picked it in a tongue-in-cheek manner to make it even more humiliating. Namely, sociologists and lawyers had long used it to describe a kind of petty criminality where the perpetrators (thieves, typically) steal only in order to have something to eat that day. It had been used as an equivalent of “poverty criminality” and, unquestionably, it had an explanatory, attenuating, almost acquitting flavor. Therefore MIÉP, Jobbik, and their Fidesz copy-pasters started to use it sarcastically, ridiculing liberal political correctness, agitating against “those who have kind words for criminals and thereby encourage them.” They started to use it for “Gypsy” as a “politically correct” racist slur. (That is, instead of using Roma, they would say: “there comes a suntanned “megélhetési bűnöző.”) The adjective started to stand on its own as a noun, a biting euphemism for Roma: “egy megélhetési” or “a megélhetésiek,” hitting both the Roma and the liberals.

The story of the word is thus full of surprises. Csapody, when he turned it against right-wing politicians, of course knew about the racist usage of the originally  PC adjective. In fact, it was his own PC, modern way of saying “cigánykodás,” which means largely the same. (See: http://www.nyest.hu/hirek/ciganykodas-zsidoskodas-skotsag-bevezetes-az-etnosztereotipiak-vilagaba).

And now Orbán puts his hands on the term and openly uses it in a “National Consultation” to describe any refugees of the East and the South who dare to enter Hungary. Using the adjective “megélhetési” instead of “gazdasági” also means: “Do you want to have more Gypsies, sent along by the EU in order to ruin our nation?”

Addendum: the noun “megélhetés”

I forgot to say what “megélhetés,” the noun, means. Its most basic meaning is “livelihood.” Thus “megélhetési,” the adjective made from it,  means pursuing or rather imitating a vocation or a victimhood solely for the material gains of that status. Both mean profiteering, cheating.

One of the beauties of the Hungarian language is that it is easy to create adjectives from nouns and vice versa. So, an English translation that would carry the oddness of Orbán’s vocabulary could have been: livelihood-immigrants or refugees, or even better “occupational immigrants” and not “economic immigrants.”

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The Mafia, fascist Government of the Fidesz/KDNP/Jobbik consists only criminals, the ultimate “megélhetési” corrupt, thieving, lying, cheating politicians, who are led by the viktor for now. Perhaps Lázár will take over soon, who will be even more base and cruel. The Fidesz/KDNP/Jobbik supporters are also bastards ands some of them are on par in ideology with the ISIS, when it comes to treating foreign refugees, gypsies, jews. Yet they grovel, when they meet citizens of Western Civilizations, who have strong backbone and moral fiber, who don’t buy their chauvinistic talk of nonsense. They grovel to the Russians, because they fear their whip. I keep on anticipating for five years now, that the pogroms will also start soon. I think the four policemen in Örkény already started the first one. Where will be the next one? ======================= Please consider the moral ineptitude of the Hungarian prime MINIster and his lackey, Szijjártó, who in August of 2012, freed, (unlawfully) a racist axe murderer for their own monetary gain. They are very proud of the homes, properties, businesses they bought from the moneys received. So they even delivered the axe murderer to his homeland, where the murderer was made a national hero and… Read more »

In itself, the word seems to be moneygrubbing in English – a pejorative adjective at the best of times, and used in the context of politicians as corrupt and of immigrants almost as thieves


English is no less easy to work with than Hungarian. Actually, English is often easier. English words, without changing form, can be verbs, nouns, whatever part of speech one wants. That’s why English is the best language in which to do poetry. (I’m talking about good poetry !!!)

As with any other language, certain words expand into culture, moving beyond the bounds of denotation. In this case ‘megélhetési’ codes a new (insider) connotation: gypsies [Roma].

As a wordfreak I enjoyed Miklós Haraszti’s ‘megélhetési’ exegesis.



Let me suggest subsistence as an adjective: subsistence entrepreneur, subsistence researcher. in the basic sense, not neccessarily pejorative…


The word in English which seems to fit “megélhetési”, in British English at least, is “scrounging”.

As in, do you want these “scrounging immigrants” coming here and taking your hard-earned cash? Why should we spend billions of our taxes on “scrounging foreigners”?

In the UK, this would be the kind of phrase Nigel Farage’s supporters would use to talk about economic migrants (Romanians and Bulgarians in particular) but it’s unlikely Farage himself would use it (especially at the moment), because he’d be too aware of the public backlash.


Re: “The Hungarian society had been destroyed by the Fidesz/KDNP/Jobbik, soon it will be dismantled completely. It would take decades for an honest Government to restore the minimal level of western civilization in Hungary, if it is possible altogether”

Well on that I’d suggest that when you hear something from Mr. Orban along the lines of needing to ‘spend time with the family’ that may indicate that all the dishonesty and rampant corruption occurring within the country will have caught up with the politician. For with that word construction it is assumed its enunciation indicates a time of disgrace and a time to simply leave the scene and slink away.

And on words in the nature of ‘megelhetesi’ it would be nice to know more. Good to be on the up and up in how a ‘tongue’ orders thinking in minds…;-)..

Karl Pfeifer

Are the 500000 Hungarians who left Hungary during the last years
“megélhetési” migrants?

I suggest we all start using the word “megélhetési” in everyday speech. If you are a taxi driver, when asked you can say “megélhetési taxisofőr vagyok,” if you are a journalist, you can say “megélhetési újságíró vagyok.” Some can say “megélhetési egyetemi oktató,” others “megélhetési üzletember.” I’ve already tried it, and it made people smile. I guess the place where the word “megélhetési” took on its pejorative meaning was “megélhetési anya,” or something of the sort, to denote a person who allegedly has kids just to enjoy welfare benefits. The phrase for that in America would be “welfare mother.” These are disgusting phrases in both languages for several reasons, including: 1. People on the right who use it are often the same folks who would criminalize abortion, who claim every child should be celebrated, and who wrap themselves in “family values.” They are hypocrites. 2. In the Hungarian context, even maximum welfare “benefits” aren’t enough for a mother to survive on, much less a mother with children. People who suggest they are are either liars, or they are so out of touch that they have no idea how little those benefits actually are. 3. In the Hungarian context, the birth… Read more »

Speaking of the Hungarian language, I just now learned that among the fields of study the government wants to get rid of is qualified teachers of Hungarian as a foreign language.

Somebody please explain to me how this move will help Hungary be more understood by the rest of the world.

It will be quite odd when the only place you can become a qualified teacher of Hungarian as a foreign language is anywhere outside of Hungary.


Alex Kuli

Miklos! Nice to hear from you after all these years.

I first encountered the word “megelhetesi” in an interview with MIEP spokesman Bela Gyori, who told me one of his Jewish friends had confided to him, “Zsido vagyok, de nem megelhetesi zsido.” For those who need a loose translation: “I am Jewish, but I don’t live from it.”

If I may offer a small correction to your piece: Lezsak and friends did not part ways with the MDF until late 2004, and they did not defect, they were kicked out. Hende had already left the party a few months earlier. Demeter did not make it into Parliament in 1998, but Orban named him minister for secret services in 2000. He formally joined Fidesz in 2003.

I enjoyed your comments.

Miklós Haraszti

Hi Alex — and I am your reader and like your output… Regarding the chronology of MDF defections: can you recall who the other MDF defector was next to Ervin Demeter? I am certain that Mr Csapody made his famous “megélhetési” comment on two persons, one of which positively was Demeter.


For me, “megélhetési” evokes the word and meaning of a “parasite.” As it is defined by Merriam-Webster:
‘: a person or thing that takes something from someone or something else and does not do anything to earn it or deserve it.’
A highly prejudiced and vicious way of thinking.


I just got home, which is on the Buda side of Budapest.

You won’t find out what elderly ladies talked about sitting next to me.

About the népvándorlás (mass migration, exodus). Well, it’s understandable that they want leave their homes but why do they come to Hungary? And with many poor children and ‘legitimate’ migrants there come the criminals too, and that’s a huge concern. Well, yes, they are poor but, I don’t know, do we want them here in Europe?

I guess some politician is spot on about the concerns of the pensioners of Buda. It’s not about corruption or mismanagement, it’s about the black/brown people.


“… it’s about the black/brown people.”
Unless you clarify, Racz, this is racist.



Let google image search decide:


a surprising number of well known Hungarian politicans show up.

Of the many changes Orbán has made to society, not many seem to have generated as much anger in the average Hungarian as the Sunday closings. Maybe it was just one more straw on the camel’s back. How many more until it breaks? Anybody’s guess. However, his position on sudden, large-scale, illegal immigration very much mirrors Hungarian attitudes. Anyone who has spent time in Hungary knows their generosity and welcoming nature. But there is a limit to anyone’s patience. The patience of Germany and Austria – both much larger, economically and geographically – has also run out with this massive influx of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants. Visit the Keleti Station around departure times of trains bound for Vienna and Munich, and you’ll see German police patrolling alongside their Hungarian counterparts. Hungary is legally bound to accept, process and house those border crossers who are taken into custody. Most of course want to travel farther west, but if they are captured there, they are returned to their “point of entry,” Hungary. The country is being squeezed from both ends. No matter what language is used to label the migrants, they will not be welcomed with open arms by the general… Read more »

Re: ‘It’s just a sad fact of life’

Agreed and perhaps game-changing for Europe as I look at the troubled continent from afar and Hungary my ancestral country.

Recently, I came upon an interesting poem from a late Polish Nobel Prize Winner, Wislawa Szymborska,

‘The buzzard never says it is to blame
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands clean
On this third planet of the sun
Among the signs of bestiality
A clear conscience is number one’

I’d say it looks to be that language always seems to develop words like ‘megelhetesi’ that reflect an inner world that people at times just desperately need to interpret troubling realities.


Why didn’t the governement use a professional pollster to measure the public opinion on immigration/terrorism? Possibly because the professional codex excludes leading questions. Orban and his friends do not care about the reliability of answers. The questionaire they have mailed to millions is not really a questionaire but a message. It is a list of far right articles of faith presented as rhetorical questions. The stronger the words for that purose the better.


There’s another part of Fidesz’s “national consultations” that may interest you and others – to date, these questionnaires, which are all supposed to be anonymous, have had the recipient’s name and address printed on them. So, Fidesz can know and might record where you stand on whatever issue if you answer one of their little questionnaires.

Yes, this is data collection. In rural regions and especially among retired older folks who still know what an obligation is (as opposed to the young and you know how who only seem to have rights these days) hundreds of thousands of people will answer. Go to the post office and send the mail. If the government asks them to do it, they will do so. Not everybody is a cynic you know. Moreover these folks used to be owned by Fidesz and are now moving towards Jobbik, better get some up to date info on them. So Fidesz will dutifully collect and analyze the data. The left-wing could have done that or at least taken a shot at it since 2010 but they haven’t. I guess it’s too late, they are toast. Well, guess who’s also doing it besides Fidesz? Last week on Friday I went home and saw Jobbik’s district 1 (Castle district) office humming with activists. I see Fidesz’ district office every day and during the last few years I have never seen it being open. Jobbik is working. You know this is the era of Big Data, targeted advertizing etc. Ask Obama’s campaign managers. Plus there… Read more »

“Not everybody is a cynic you know.”
Not everybody lies about what this government will do with the data, you know.
As I recall, Fidesz initially lied to the populace about the “consultation” being anonymous.

Miklós Haraszti
The Fidesz government not just can know and may record where you personally stand on the Consultation issues. It is fully “legally” entitled to do so since 2011 — this was the issue over which Orban then fired the data ombudsman and appointed his own, who then immediately approved the individualized questionnaires. Moreover, they also register if you don’t reply at all. Whatever you do with the questionnaire, you will be registered into one of three categories: “With us”, “Against us”, and “Uninterested or possibly against us”. Plus all this data will be never published, not even anonymously; stored indefinitely; united with many other registered data; mined along any dimensions; and applied, secretly, in legislative strategy or electoral tactics. Most people suppose it is applied in personnel and procurement decisions. This is one of the most ominous anti-rule of law sagas of the Orban era. The independent data ombudsman, Mr András Jóri, protested when Orban in 2010 or 2011 started to put individual barcodes on the prepaid reply sheets of his “National Consultation” questionnaires. Jóri even went to court against the government’s coup. Orban’s immediate response was using his 2/3 in 2011 to abolish the very position of the independent… Read more »

Re: ‘National consultations’

Wow. Noting that potentially links the information collected to a ‘big data’ program is really quite ominous. With the ability then to parse and dissect a population’s ‘answers’ it opens up many avenues of approaching them in future communications. Especially since their answers would give valuable insights on their thoughts and how to ‘program’ against that population. Orban knows knowledge is power. And power under those circumstances will be edging to the nefarious.

The other idea is the fact that with the data setup it enables perhaps predictive analyses to be done to perhaps ‘test political waters’ on an issue or issues. Nothing like being in super control of things. It’s more and more the ill-liberal way.


Sorry, the barcodes. Yes, they are absolutely necessary. These make the analysis of the hundreds of thousands of sheets of paper practically possible. If you look at the Kubatov lists (the lists of “with us” voters used in Fidesz’s get out the vote campaign) or any US GOTV action they are there too.

Point is Orban’s obsessively working on those data bases. The left-wing has nothing.

Prior to Obama the Democrats had nothing either that’s why Kerry’s GOTV campaign in Ohio actually brought a lot of Republicans to the booths too, thereby probably tilting the majority to W. The Dems had just no clue whom to target, whereas the Republicans were surgically accurate. Since then the Democrats improved.

I don’t thing any Republican politician ever lost a good night’s sleep on this issue (though of course there’s no data protection in the US).

The Hungarian left-wing is inhibited, overly procedural and clueless, so no surprise it is losing elections.

Benő – Either you are a Hungarian American, or you are… well, best not to say it, I’ll assume you’re not living in Hungary. The context is entirely different. In the US, if you are fired for holding some political opinion – I mean not pushing it on other people, just having it – or for saying you’ll vote for this party or other, you can sue. You will win in court. You’ll win so easily that you can get a nice out-of-court settlement, to save your employment lawyers’ fees. In court, you’ll win a fairly large sum of money. You’ll also get your job back. That’s not the case in Hungary. Nobody has ever won a lawsuit in Hungary for discrimination of that sort – or of much any sort, for that matter. The point is that the data, in Hungary, can be and is used for some really nasty things, such as firing people from their jobs. Everyone in Hungary, especially in rural places, knows this is going on. Nobody can prove it. If they could prove it, they couldn’t do anything about it. The system is stacked. Recently there was an interview with the owner of the… Read more »
I’m a Hungarian living in Hungary. What Orban is doing is more than hateful, it’s vérlázító. Having said that my point is that as long as the opposition remains completely clueless about modern campaign methods it will continue to fail, not just on account of the totally rigged nature of the election system, but for the additional reason of failing to do its homework. I think it’s important to fail for the right reasons. Look, Orban lost in 2010 and from that moment on he hasn’t stopped for a moment. He set up his campaign HQ using Republican (then state of the art) know how, refined the machinery during various military exercises (national referenda), protested, organized polgári körök, used every gimmick in the playbook. He had time to double cross the Americans, force businesses to plead allegiance to him (while he was still in opposition). The data base was one extremely important and absolutely indispensable part of his efforts. What’s the Hungarian Left been doing since 2010? The leftists fell into slumber right after 2010 and MSZP didn’t even do negative campaign in 2014 — up against Finkelstein. As long as the left-wing lacks an up to date national data… Read more »

HOW can the opposition use those methods???
If the opposition were to even try to use those methods (national consultation with data they can collect), the opposition would immediately be taken to court, and would lose in court- because all that is actually illegal in Hungary.
As Miklos pointed out, above, in this as in so many other things, Fidesz’s people will not prosecute Fidesz for violating laws and regulations. They never do. From the state prosecutor through the ombsbudsmen, they are all Fidesz people. They will, however, certainly prosecute the opposition for violating the law, even if it is the same law Fidesz has violated. The prosecutor, the tax authority, and the ombsbudsman will go after the opposition for affairs that the court has repeatedly rejected (look what’s happened and is happening to Dopeman – for kicking the head of an effigy of Orban: the court finds no law has been violated, and the prosecutor just charges Dopeman again).
For the opposition every nuance of the law counts, even nuances that aren’t in the law.
The cards are stacked, as I said.


Just to register my admiration for @Webber’s always incisive, intelligent, well-informed comments — and above all for their ethics and decency.

Webber, first one has to realize who the adversary is. Orban is a most thoroughly corrupt, vicious tyrant. How do you oppose such a tyrant, dictator, authoritarian figure? The fact that many people still adore him and would happily vote for Orban doesn’t negate the fact that he is a tyrant, in fact every good dictator wins elections with huge margins to cheering crowds (most recently in Sudan). So how do you oppose Kádár, Milosevic or a Latin-American caudillo? I’m no leftist politician or an expert on such matters but just by having read newspapers, of the top of my head I would say perhaps they would have to simply ignore the law — because it’s being applied and enforced only against them. Such law loses its legitimacy, it’s no law any more. It’s a formal rule like under Kadar freedom of speech was, which was enshrined in the constitution too. Secondly they would have to take the risk of being arrested and subjected to legal procedures, many of them, not just a few of them — just as Orban and fideszniks did it when they cut the cordon. Let’s commit these ‘crimes’ (like using the data base) by 100… Read more »

@Beg To beat Fidesz, you are asking the democratic opposition to become Fidesz. Lose, Lose.


“…completely clueless…”?

I’ll say.

Everything that is being done by Orban/Fidesz is pure KGB. Hiring some Reputlican is just a deflection of interest so people don’t really see who is running the country and why.


I love this attitude of waiting for the opposition to do something (and criticizing what they do and don’t do). I think the situation is that if you don’t like Orban, practically you ARE the opposition. So what are you going to do?

This Wall Street Journal article on data collection on potential voters by the Republican Party in the USA is really very good and supports many of the points Benő has made about the collection process to a degree being politically neutral to the extent that laws allow for the collection of this information see http://www.wsj.com/articles/gop-works-to-improve-targeting-of-voters-1413936019 . But if you read the article it is critical to understand how expensive it is. FLS Connect, which is a US telemarketing and direct-mail firm, and Targeted Victory, a firm specializing in digital outreach earned a combined $86 million for services to the Republican Party and the Mitt Romney presidential campaign in 2012. Freedom Partners and Data Trust two other Republican political data groups have a budget of more than $50 million. The MSZP and all other Hungarian political parties to the left of Fidesz do not have those type of resources. But really this type of predictive polling and data analysis simply goes out the window in a crisis situation like Greece where the very foundations of the State crack. Then these digital campaign strategies break down and messaging becomes unpredictable. If Fidesz’s Corporatist or gangster capitalist State is economically breaking down and… Read more »

On the language angle: Orbán and his minions think nobody knows Hungarian in the EU (men from Mars) and therefore its easy to speak with a forked tongue: one version for the locals and the harmless translation for the the dolts in rest of the EU and elsewhere.

Totally off topic: a look inside brain of average Joe in Hungary: http://www.legalja.hu