Willy the Sparrow in China
We spoke to Ádám Dániel Breuer-Zehevi, Director of the Institute, Counsellor for Education and Culture at the Embassy of Hungary in Beijing.
Willy the Sparrow in China
Culture and Innovation

Willy the Sparrow in China

Ádám Dániel Breuer-Zehevi, Director of the Liszt Institute in Beijing (Photo: Beijing International Studies University)
Boglárka Barta 30/06/2024 05:00

He is a simultaneous interpreter versed in six languages. He has lived in Israel, Hungary, France and now, for several years, in China, where he was recently appointed head of the Liszt Institute in Beijing. We spoke to Ádám Dániel Breuer-Zehevi, Director of the Institute, Counsellor for Education and Culture at the Embassy of Hungary in Beijing, about the Institute, Hungarian-Chinese friendship, the Chinese language, the mysteries of the interpreting profession and the rise of Hungarian animation in China.

– Having been born in Israel and living there until the age of 16, Hebrew seems to be the obvious language to speak alongside Hungarian. But where did four other languages, including Chinese, come into the picture?

– When my parents, who are originally from Pest, decided to move back to Hungary when I was 16, I already spoke four languages, Hebrew, English and French, in addition to Hungarian. But this was only natural, as I spoke Hungarian with my mother and Hebrew with my father, while our circle of friends was made up of English, French and Hungarian immigrants. As you see, I grew up in a very multilingual environment and, in the meantime, I also realised that I had a more than a passing interest in languages, so I decided to become a translator and interpreter. I studied first in Hungary and then in France, where I obtained a European Union simultaneous interpreter diploma. However, it turns out that although the four languages seem many, they are too Mediterranean and Europe-centric. In the Parliament of the European Union, I was flat out told that if I wanted to be successful in the profession, I had to supplement my knowledge with something more exotic, preferably an Asian language. So, I graduated first from ELTE's Chinese Department, then from the Beijing Foreign Studies University and the Communication University of China. I lived abroad for a long time and then in 2014, I moved back to Hungary, where it dawned on me that I didn't speak Spanish yet. This year, I have already passed the Spanish interpreter exam. In 2019, at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I returned to China, where I became Deputy Director of the Hungarian Cultural Institute, the predecessor of the Liszt Institute. When Dr Szonja Andrea Buslig's mandate ended a month ago, I took over management of the Institute.

– Of all the Asian languages, why did you choose Chinese?

– Since the Bologna system has also been introduced in Hungary, I didn't have to apply for admission, which seemed unbelievable, so I applied for Chinese, Arabic and Russian courses as a joke. I was accepted for all three, but because I accidentally entered Chinese as my first choice, I started my studies in Chinese.

– I suppose you don't regret it.

– But I do, a great deal. I could have learned four or five European languages with the same amount of effort as it takes to learn Chinese at an advanced level, at interpreter level. But, once I started, I didn't stop.

– What is particularly difficult about learning Chinese? As a layman, I would probably guess Chinese characters...

– That's the least of it. The biggest problem is that the cultural differences between East Asia and Europe are incredibly vast. The challenge is not just the sounds they make, but also what they focus on in their speech: how they form a sentence, or what Chinese grammar looks like, if you can call it that. Because although the language has a system, there are no verb tenses, no moods, no conjugation. Moreover, knowing the meaning of a word does not necessarily mean understanding what is being said unless we know the cultural context. In other words, to order a glass of water in a restaurant, you need to be familiar with their history, their literature, their stories, their traditions and even their jokes.

– How long did it take you to reach the level of Chinese interpreter?

– After fifteen years, I am now at the point where I dare to sit in an interpreter's booth. Just to give you an idea, for Spanish this was a four-year process.

– Although for many people, there is no sharp distinction between the profession of interpreter and that of simultaneous interpreter, I don’t think all interpreters are necessarily up to the task of simultaneous interpreting. Is my assumption correct?

There’s a saying in the trade that it's easier for a simultaneous interpreter because you don't have to think. And indeed, you don't have the time. What you hear, you must say immediately, no more than three or four words behind the speaker. Since comprehension is near impossible in such a short time, at the end of the conference you have no idea what you have actually been talking about. I've interpreted at quite a few medical conferences, and I can say that I didn't understand 99% of what was said. The task of an on-stage interpreter is much more difficult in this respect, because they have to process and understand what is being said, because only then can they convey it authentically. Most simultaneous interpreters, however, are bored with regular interpreting because it is much slower, while most interpreters are not willing to do simultaneous interpretation. This is because most of them are perfectionists. The interpreter who usually has time to think about the best possible wording finds it very difficult when, in the middle of simultaneous interpreting, they have to add an adjective or noun. It turns the whole sentence structure on its head. This is why interpreters are not very fond of this genre, but I have always wanted to be a simultaneous interpreter.

The Paul Street Boys is a bestseller

– Are there any points of connection that provide some assistance in learning Chinese?

– Of course, there are cultural similarities, especially as the Hungarian people are not originally European. There are many more cultural similarities between Hungarians and the peoples of Asia than one might think. There are overlaps, for example, in our traditions, in our stories and even in our food. Even if geographically, we are not from the same place as the Chinese, we have probably been impacted by many similar things throughout our history.

– I understand that in China, Sándor Petőfi is part of the curriculum, and almost everyone can recite his poem “Liberty and Love” by heart. Who are the Hungarians who, apart from Petőfi, are certainly known by the Chinese people?

– Ernő Rubik and Ferenc Puskás. But I have to add that the popularity of Petőfi in China has nothing to do with Hungary. During the Chinese language reform of the 20th century, foreign-trained translators began to translate literary works into modern Chinese. It was by chance that Sándor Petőfi's poems were among these, whose verses about the war of independence touched the Chinese. He became a popular poet, especially for his revolutionary poems. The Hungarian embassy, the consulates and the Institute are doing their best to deepen this awareness. For example, Petőfi Season is about to start, as part of which we are organising virtual exhibitions, drawing competitions and film screenings with various artists and galleries. But we are also striving to introduce other Hungarian literary greats and artists to the Chinese using Petőfi as a household name. Thanks to Petőfi, Ferenc Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys also became a bestseller, and is being published in Chinese for the fourth time this year.

– The Liszt Institute in Beijing recently launched two books by Ma Yuqi, a former cultural adviser, on Hungarian kings and the modern history of Hungary. Is there interest in China in the culture and history of our country?

– China has a rather closed culture, because of their traditions. At the same time, the younger generation is demanding contact with other cultures. As Hungary is China's closest European friend, Hungarian content can be accessed in the Asian country without any particular restrictions. Hungarian books are much easier to publish than French or German books. Hungarian culture sells well, simply because of the close relationship between the two peoples. Let’s not forget that there is a network of Confucius Institutes in Hungary, while in China, there are thirteen universities with Hungarian departments. Therefore, there are quite a few people in both countries who speak the language, know the culture, and travel back and forth spreading Hungarian culture.

The Kodály method adapted to China

– The Balassi Institute in Beijing – predecessor of the Liszt Institute – and later the Beijing Hungarian Cultural Institute, opened its doors in 2013 in one of Beijing's emblematic buildings, the Zaha Hadid-designed Galaxy SOHO. What are the benefits of the Institute’s location?

– It was a very smart decision to move the Institute to the Galaxy SOHO. First of all, it is one of the most impressive buildings in Beijing which, by the way, is located directly opposite the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We could not be in a more prominent location. Moreover, the Institute has glass walls, which means we can share exhibitions, digital content and videos with the street 24 hours a day. The aim of the Institute has always been to be open and to be a place where families can come together with children. We have a book reading corner, a play area, we can offer lessons, primarily music lessons.
Ádám Dániel Breuer-Zehevi, Director of the Liszt Institute in Beijing (Photo: Beijing International Studies University)

– Although Kodály has not been mentioned thus far, it is well known that the composer is traditionally held in high esteem in Japan, in particular for the music pedagogy he developed. Is the Kodály method similarly popular in China?

– If a Chinese parent wants their child to take music seriously, they will without a doubt go for the Kodály method. While, of course, the basics of the method are still in place, it still had to be adapted slightly given how different Chinese culture is. Its essence, however, remains the same: understanding how music works. We have different children's groups, we have established choirs, and we work with many not-for-profit, charitable organisations to bring music education to poorer areas of China. We Hungarians know that music education is not merely artistic fulfilment, but also has a community-building effect.

– What is the biggest challenge facing the Liszt Institute today?

– As we don’t yet know when the COVID closures in China will end, we are trying to gain more awareness on social media, so we are mainly producing content to publish there.

– How many people can you reach through this channel?

– This varies greatly. Last year, we launched a children's drawing competition, whose entries were viewed online by tens of millions of Chinese people. This may seem a lot at first glance, but for a population of this size, there are no limits.

Hungarian animations are wholly unique

– What are Chinese people most interested in when it comes to Hungarians?

– Gastronomy has always been the most popular. We held a lot of gastronomy festivals before the closures, where we invited Hungarian chefs to give cooking demonstrations and master classes, while also giving Hungarian products a presence. We now train Chinese chefs online, through whom we promote our food culture. But our wine culture and Hungarian music from Kodály to Liszt are also very popular. Every Chinese person knows who they are, and they can be used to recruit an audience. Hungarian films, especially short films, are also very successful, so much so that even during COVID we held regular short film festivals, up to six a year. We have now reached a point where our animation works have been discovered. I'm trying to get Vuk, Ludas Matyi (Mattie the Goose-boy) and Vili, a veréb (Willy the Sparrow) to be screened for the third time this month. Hungarian animations have broken into the Chinese market, and they love them because they’re wholly unique.

– So what you’re saying is that Chinese people are open to Hungarian culture?

– I feel at home in China and my experience is that they are very welcoming and hospitable. As there is a harmonious relationship between our countries, the mere fact that I am Hungarian means that I am accepted almost without effort. With this accomplished, the cultural product I am offering can only be good.

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022.

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