The Story of JFK’s Mistranslation.
Sometimes giving speeches in a foreign language can be a tricky thing.
On June 26th 1963, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin in the wake of the creation of the Berlin Wall which was built by East Germany (back then a state under the Soviet Union) to keep it’s citizens from escaping into West Berlin. In West Berlin, he gave a speech meant to show the United States’ support for West Germany and it’s continuing fight against communism. In one part of the speech he said,
“Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!” [“I am a Berliner”]… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
As inspiring as this is, there was a debate about whether the president misspoke. In German, if you were to say that you are from a particular place, you would not use the word “ein” after “Ich bin.”
“Ich bin Berliner” would be how you say, “I am from Berlin.”
“Ich bin ein Berliner would be how you say, “I am a jelly donut.”
Of course, this was received positively at the time.
Of course, the argument in the President’s defense is that the “ein” in Ich bin ein Berliner was still needed because Kennedy was speaking figuratively and ultimately saying that he was aligned with the people of Berlin. The media has had fun with this story even up until the present but ultimately, they were making something out of nothing. A professional translator was hired and it turned out, JFK spoke flawlessly.