Local Opinion: Budapest's Mayor Vs Hungary's PM - Whose English Is Worse? And Why Does It Matter?

  • 13 May 2021 11:32 AM
  • Hungarian Spectrum
Local Opinion: Budapest's Mayor Vs Hungary's PM - Whose English Is Worse? And Why Does It Matter?
In the last few days, a relatively trivial affair has become the subject of a huge fracas in the overheated political atmosphere of Hungarian politics.

By Eva S. Balogh who formerly taught East European history at Yale University: Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, who will likely be one of the opposition forces’ candidates in the running to face Viktor Orbán at the next election, gave an interview to The Economist in which the conversation turned to the political differences between him and the leader of Fidesz.

After itemizing some of the obvious ones, Karácsony jokingly added that “he is short and fat, and I am tall and slim.”

Karácsony later apologized for the remark, but it nonetheless started an avalanche of ugly exchanges which simply doesn’t want to subside. Interestingly enough, Fidesz politicians and journalists quickly shifted the focus from the physical attributes of the two men to the superior linguistic skills of the prime minister and Karácsony’s unfitness for the post of prime minister due to his poor command of the English language.

It all started with a Facebook comment by Balázs Fürjes, a relatively young Fidesz politician who is currently undersecretary attached to the Office of the Prime Minister in charge of the economic development of Budapest and environs.

Fürjes, known for his surprisingly mellow style in comparison to the usual Fidesz boorishness, gives, in my opinion, a false impression of being the embodiment of a less strident Fidesz politician.

Post-October 2019, when Karácsony was elected mayor of Budapest, he and Fürjes had several face-to-face, sometimes quite unpleasant, exchanges. In addition, Fürjes, an admirer of the prime minister who was offended by Karácsony’s unfortunate remark, counterattacked on Facebook.

As he put it, “the mayor’s comment can be seen as a slip of the tongue … but there is a much bigger problem,” that one speaks English and the other doesn’t.

He ventured to say that Karácsony’s lack of command of a foreign language is actually responsible for this faux pas because “the knowledge of a foreign language gives a person self-assurance.”

Fürjes praised “the prime minister of our national government” for his knowledge of English, which allows him to hold his own in the European Union.

Karácsony retorted that “I never found it difficult to admit that someone is better than me at something …. I readily admit that the prime minister’s English is probably better than mine, and that there is at least as much difference between our language skills as there is between a Soros scholarship in England and an intermediate language exam at a Hungarian university.”

Karácsony added that he is working on his English but has no intention of improving his Russian or of learning Chinese.

In the last two or three days several articles appeared on the subject. Index looked into the foreign language skills of the probable opposition candidates for the post of prime minister at the national election next spring.

Three candidates — Klára Dobrev, Péter Márki-Zay, and András Fekete-Győr — are fluent in several languages, but Gergely Karácsony and Péter Jakab, who are currently considered to be the most popular candidates, are not fully conversant in English or any other western language.

Azonnali published two opinion pieces on the topic today. One dealt with the importance of a prime minister knowing a foreign language.

The paper approached Ibolya Görög, the doyen of diplomatic protocol in Hungary, who argued that a knowledge of English, German, or French is necessary, although, even with a perfect knowledge of a foreign language, the use of interpreters is still necessary because “only the interpreter can give back the nuances of what has been said, and it is important that nothing is lost in communication.”

I disagree with Ibolya Görög for at least two reasons. First, I’m familiar with Linguee, an online source of simultaneous translations of political texts, and I’m afraid that many of the quickly translated passages are far from perfect.

Second, by now there are several politicians who are practically bi- or tri-lingual and who are capable of expressing themselves equally well in those languages. Good examples are Ursula von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans, or, for that matter, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Péter Balázs, who spent years as a European commissioner for regional policy and subsequently served as foreign minister in the Bajnai administration, speaks excellent English.

He rightly pointed out that the knowledge of a foreign language doesn’t guarantee acceptance by the international community and the lack of knowledge isn’t necessarily a major hindrance.

For instance,  Gyula Horn, who didn’t know a word of German, nonetheless “had the most confidential conversations possible with Chancellor Helmut Kohl.” On the other hand, Balázs has a decidedly low opinion of Orbán’s English language skills.

As he wrote, “Orbán speaks such atrocious English that, at times, interpreters struggle with it and say that he should speak Hungarian instead.”

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Hungarian Spectrum

Hungarian Spectrum features analyses in English about Hungarian political, economic, and cultural news. Its editor and primary pundit is Eva S. Balogh, who formerly taught East European history at Yale University. Guest contributors include Hungarian and international professors, experts and researchers of sociology, international affairs, and political science. The site, which is archived at the Library of Congress, is recognized by diplomats, journalists, scholars, and representatives of non-governmental organizations as a source of thoughtful analysis and high-level discussion of contemporary Hungarian affairs.

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