Debunking the JFK / Berliner mistranslation myth

Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

This German phrase has gone down as one of the most famous mistranslations in history. The common narrative is that, while he tried to declaring his solidarity with the people of Berlin, JFK instead proclaimed “I am a jelly doughnut”.

Fifty years later, we break down the phrase and explain why what Kennedy said was a perfectly sound translation, even if he may have also inadvertently described himself as a jelly doughnut.

“Berliner”

No question, “Berliner” is the accurate demonym for people from Berlin. While it does also refer to a type of jelly doughnut, many German foods derive their name from the demonym of the town they come from, the most commonly used no doubt being “Hamburger”.

“EIN Berliner”

The use of the indefinite article “ein” (meaning “a”) in this phrase is key. Had Kennedy not used and instead said “Ich bin Berliner,” he would have been saying that he is literally either from or living Berlin.

German linguist and professor at the University of Wisconsin Juergen Eichhoff pointed out in an essay in 1993 that the “ein” was necessary to make it clear that he was speaking in a figurative, metaphorical sense, emphasising that Kennedy was a Berliner in spirit, rather than that he lived in the Kreuzberg area.

Put into context:

Yes, what Kennedy said can be interpreted as “I am a Jelly Doughnut,” and media agencies, including the highly-respected New York Times, have no doubt played a role in ensuring that that is how the meaning will be remembered.

However, when put into context, this seems ridiculous. As David Ernery from About.com points out: “If I were to tell a group of Americans that my editor is a New Yorker, would any of them really think I’d confused him with the weekly magazine of the same name?”

The Christian Science Monitor gives another good example: “Two days after the 9/11 attacks, Le Monde ran an editorial headlined “Nous sommes tous Américains,” and nobody took the headline to read “We are all steak tartare.” Because that would have been really dumb.”

Accurate Translation:

Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” phrase wasn’t lost in translation among the German crowd, but it did include a humourless, though slightly embarrassing double meaning. A professional translation company would not usually let this slide.
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