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Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Ich bin ein Berliner"

There is a persistent rumor in English-speaking countries that President Kennedy made a terrible gaffe in a speech he delivered in 1963 in what was then West-Berlin when he said (in German) "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). According to the rumor, he said, in fact, "I am a jelly donut" b/c "Berliner" is short for "Berliner Pfannkuchen" (Berlin pancake). The claim is that he should have said "Ich bin Berliner" (i.e. leave out the indef. article "ein").

Well, this is utter nonsense, and the first time I heard the story, my reaction was: How silly! "Ich bin Berliner" means "I was born/grew up/live in Berlin" (i.e. it's the same as "I am from Berlin"), which is certainly not what Kennedy wanted to say. What he did say was grammatically and idiomatically correct--the association with jelly donuts is far-fetched, especially since Berliners do not call the things "Berliner", they simply call them "Pfannkuchen". I am sure that no one in the crowd of tens of thousands who listened misunderstood the sentence.

A friend of mine was there and told me that people were standing on each others' feet b/c it was so crowded, but that excitement was so great that he noticed only when he got home that his feet were bleeding. My own association with the event is much less direct: My (American) wife and I got married in the same city hall (Rathaus Schöneberg) from where Kennedy delivered the speech.

4 comments:

PhillySolver said...

You may have caught this earlier reference to JFK at Jim H's blog. I wrote in response to the rumor then.

http://www.xwordblog.com/2008/03/pangram-and-scr.html

Ulrich said...

@phillysolver: No, I haven't seen this, but am pleased that it confirms almost word-for-word what I said. In fact, some museum in Berlin (I forget which) exhibits the index card JFK wrote for himself before the speech to get the pronunciation right.

Jim in NYC said...

Thanks for the thread on the Kennedy speech, Ulrich. I love stories about translation errors, so I've been repeating this Urban Legend for years. Now I'll stop.

Ulrich said...

@jim in nyc: I have been thinking about true and interesting translation errors involving English and German--with no success so far. I'll post when something comes to my mind.