Tag Archives: Hungarian language

On language and food

Today I will veer away from politics, to the extent that is ever possible, and write about two unrelated topics: the mode of address in Hungarian and food quality. For a long time I have found the first topic amusing; the second, irritating. The inspiration to write about them came from two opinion pieces, both in Magyar Nemzet.

Let’s start with the amusing one. I have been noticing more and more frequently that in radio and television interviews the interviewer and the interviewee can’t decide whether they are on formal or informal terms. They switch back and forth with abandon. Then there are the interviews that begin with a lengthy explanation about the long-standing friendship between the two individuals that can justify the use of the informal. There is also the accepted practice that journalists always use the informal among themselves. This is observed even if the person in question was once a government minister but for a short time worked as a journalist. The person I’m thinking of in this particular instance is Gábor Kuncze. Huge confusion reigns in Hungarian sociolinguistics.

Obviously, I am not the only one who is bewildered by all this. In a recent Magyar Nemzet opinion piece the author states that “sooner or later the nation must make a deliberate decision whether it maintains the formal mode of address or it introduces a language reform as the Swedes have done.” The fact is that the informal is spreading in Hungarian with incredible speed, but the author is wrong in thinking that it greatly accelerated only after 1990. Already in the 1950s university students, regardless of sex, automatically used the informal. The habit was then expanded to office workers, teachers, doctors, and so on and so forth. By now total strangers use the informal in the most unusual circumstances. I was somewhat taken aback when a young relative of mine during a business call used the informal with a total stranger on the other end of the line. Or, here is a bizarre encounter from a few days ago. Zoltán Szabó, the respected editor of Index, had an unfortunate encounter with a security guard at a KFC. The KFC employee without a second thought called the bespectacled middle-aged Szabó “te.” Szabó also called the security guard “te.” In no time the security guard smashed Szabó in the face, presumably not because of a linguistic faux pas.

My other subject of the day is one that irritates me: the claim that Hungarian agricultural products, without exception, are vastly superior to anything produced elsewhere. To question this categorical statement is considered outright sinful. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by another Magyar Nemzet opinion piece titled “It would be quite enough if it were good.” To understand the title, one ought to know that not long ago there was a large agricultural exhibit, which was accompanied by a tsunami of ads about “the best of Hungarian soil.” The author writes that, for patriotic reasons, he bought only Hungarian products for years, but now he feels cheated because, as anyone can tell, Austrian or German yogurt, butter, cheese, and milk are better than their Hungarian counterparts. The campaign waged by the ministry of agriculture, which cost 1.85 billion forints, will not make Hungarian agricultural products better.

Three weeks later Zsolt Balásy, an analyst at MKB Bank, wrote an article with the startling title “Don’t buy domestic products: Winners and losers of globalization.” What should matter, he argues, is the price-value relationship and not where something was produced. Balásy then moves on to a discussion of watermelon. Anyone who follows the seasons in Hungary knows that there comes a time when the most important topic everywhere is the price and quality of watermelon. At the beginning of the article Balásy relates his conversation with a greengrocer at a market in Budapest who tells him that the watermelon he is selling is “not like the 100 ft. Hungarian one.” It is better because this watermelon comes from Greece. (In Hungarian, watermelon is called Greek melon.) For part of watermelon season the only Hungarian watermelon available is of lower quality because the best watermelons are exported, where they compete successfully. Protectionism necessarily lowers quality everywhere.

Together for Hungarian watermelon and for your health / Index /Photo: Janos Bődey

On the internet, I encountered a website called gyakorikérdések.hu where someone poses a question and waits for answers or comments. One of the questions was: “Why is there the perception that Hungarian products are the best and most delicious?” The answers supported my contention that this belief is simply a popular myth based on inappropriate comparisons. As Balásy said, one should not compare a delicious Hungarian peach to a watery Italian one because then there is no question that the Hungarian peach will be the winner. Some of the commenters attested to the fact that in many cases the foreign products are better than the domestic ones. This is especially true of dairy products. Judging from the comments, food nationalism no longer works, but the Hungarian government hasn’t recognized that fact yet.

October 16, 2017

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.”

Jobbik’s program: A tragic future would await Hungary

The growth of Jobbik, considered by many to be a neo-Nazi party, has been quite successful at attracting disappointed Fidesz voters, a fact that at last frightened the government party to the point that it reconsidered its attitude toward Jobbik. Initially, Jobbik became a political factor for two reasons: its fierce anti-Roma attitude and its anti-Semitism. But the party leaders would now like to shed Jobbik’s well-deserved anti-Semitic label. The success of the party over the last six or seven years has emboldened the party leaders into thinking of a large party appealing to all segments of society. And such an ambition cannot be achieved as long as it spews racist messages against Gypsies and Jews.

Although Jobbik did well at the 2010 national election, receiving 16.67% of the votes, Fidesz didn’t seem to be concerned. The reason for the government party’s benevolent attitude toward the party to its right was that Fidesz and Jobbik shared several key ideological tenets and goals. Jobbik politicians proudly announce to this day that they, unlike the leaders of Fidesz, dare to say out loud what others only whisper. However, as time went by, especially once Jobbik started to shed its radical garb and began attracting former Fidesz voters, party strategists began to think about the most effective weapon to use against their rival on the right.

According to information received by Index, Fidesz is somewhat reluctant to turn against Jobbik with full force because its strategists worry about such a plan backfiring. Let’s say that both the democratic opposition and Fidesz attack Jobbik at the same time. It could easily happen that the party’s followers, especially the younger ones, might feel like soldiers trapped in a besieged fort, resulting in a strengthened Jobbik. Apparently, there is another consideration that makes the government party reluctant to criticize Jobbik with too much fervor. A media blitz against the neo-Nazis could prompt a comparison of the two right-wing parties, and this is something Fidesz wants to avoid. After all, they have many features in common. If the information coming from Fidesz strategists is correct, we will not see a Jobbik-Fidesz struggle anytime soon.

Given the widespread anti-Roma prejudice and anti-Semitism in Hungary, concentrating on these issues, however justified, might not be the most effective weapon against Jobbik. Foreign newspaper articles dealing with Jobbik normally concentrate on the party’s racism but domestically, I believe, another strategy should be employed. Critics should go back to the party’s official program and begin a serious discussion of its possible repercussions if it were implemented. Jobbik’s party program is 82 pages long. So it would deserve a more serious analysis than vs.hu provided a few days ago, but their article was certainly a good beginning.

Jobbik’s program is very detailed, though it omits two key ingredients: “how and more importantly from what” it can be accomplished. Let’s start with the latter. The Költségvetési Felelősség Intézet and Transparency International took a look at all of the 2014 party programs and estimated the cost of their proposals. Jobbik’s “dreams” would cost, just in 2015, 2,432 billion forints more than the current budget figures. By 2017 the projected deficit would be 11-12%. Ranked by cost of party promises Jobbik was followed–in descending order–by MSZP, LMP, Együtt-PM, and DK. Fidesz had no program.

The cost of the different programs presented by the opposition parties in 2014

The cost of the programs presented by the opposition parties in 2014

Let’s assume that Jobbik actually wins the election in 2018. What kind of a country would they create?

By the time a Jobbik government finished with its plans to make the country safer, Hungary would be a “police state.” They would introduce a gendarmerie in addition to the present police force; there would be a separate force of border guards; a guard for the government; a civic patrolling force; and the National Guard, now banned, would be resurrected. Ethnic identification of offenders would be reintroduced, and sex offenders would undergo “chemical castration.”

Social policy and healthcare don’t receive much attention, but as far as state support of families is concerned, there would be a distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” citizens. Under the healthcare heading we read the following strange sentence: “The Hungarian nation is not sick, it was just made sick.” Otherwise, Jobbik demands that a lot more money be spent on healthcare, a desire many people share.

Then comes education. The party would completely rewrite history so “every child would learn the true history of our homeland.” They would expunge the teaching of the Finno-Ugric origins of the Hungarian language, a theory that, according to them, was “forced on the nation by the House of Habsburgs.” Instead, Hungarian children would learn about “the heritage of Hunor and Magor,” i.e. the bogus ethnic relationship between the Huns and the Hungarians. Roma children would attend “special classes” and would be forced into boarding schools where they could learn the meaning of work.

As for foreign policy, Jobbik doesn’t want to leave the European Union right now, but Vona doesn’t rule out the possibility in the long run. When it comes to NATO, however, they would lead Hungary out of the alliance immediately and would seek neutrality. A Jobbik government would take the “Eastern opening” more seriously. They would build especially close relationships with Arab countries, Iran, and Africa and would try to create a Polish-Hungarian-Croatian axis to counterbalance western political influence. These foreign policy plans are not very different from those of Fidesz. Viktor Orbán in 2009 and 2010 also imagined such an axis until it became clear that the countries he counted on were simply not interested. Since then, the formation of such an axis has become even more remote than it was five years ago. Naturally, Jobbik would spend more money on defense, but the party program wisely avoids talking about compulsory military service.

I can’t go into the details of Jobbik’s plans for the economy, which are described in the party program as the “seven fundamental principles.” The seven principles (hét vezérelv) are intended to call to mind the seven chieftains who led the Hungarians into the Carpathian basin. After reading these plans, Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist and head of the Central Statistical Office during the first Orbán government, described their most likely effect as “a tragic future.” Jobbik’s plans include refusing to repay Hungary’s national debt, which according to Mellár would mean that “we would have to lock up the country and Hungarians could visit Vienna only once every three years to buy smart phones and smart watches.”

In addition to making people understand that the Jobbik program leads nowhere except “even further to south and east than we are now,” as  Péter Ákos Bod, another conservative economist who was the head of the Hungarian National Bank under the administration of József Antall, said, those who would like to loosen Jobbik’s grip on certain segments of the population should also emphasize that beneath the new  “moderate” veneer the same racist, neo-Nazi party is alive and well. As one of the most radical Jobbik members of parliament, Előd Novák, said, “the content is still radical but the style is considerably more moderate.”