John F. Kennedy delivered his greatest Cold War speech to the people of West Berlin, where he declared, “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ I appreciate my interpreter translating my German!”
Well, mistranslations happen, even to presidents. On a late night show, Jimmy Carter once lamented that his translator relayed his statement that the Polish people had a great “love of freedom” as “lust for freedom,” which Carter explained meant something like we’d say “free love.” (So much for no accidents in politics.) But did President John F. Kennedy commit a similar error, omitting a key word that resulted in the bold declaration, twice in his Berlin speech, of “I am a jelly doughnut”?
In an April 1988 column in the New York Times headlined “I am a Jelly-Filled Doughnut” claimed that Kennedy had done just that. William J. Miller wrote the piece and started off saying, “Putting words in a president’s mouth, or attributing fabricated quotes … may on occasion be preferable to having a president utter clever words dreamed up by his speechwriters.” We can’t disagree there, but what about Kennedy?
Miller wrote that Kennedy’s speechwriters “did not know, but could easily have found out, was that such citizens never refer to themselves as ‘Berliners.’ They reserve that term for a favorite confection often munched at breakfast. So, while they understood and appreciated the sentiments behind the President’s impassioned declaration, the residents tittered among themselves when he exclaimed, literally, ‘I am a jelly-filled doughnut.’”
This quote has been repeated by CNN, MSNBC, BBC and a ton of other media in the years since that column. But let’s watch the video. Since the crowd burst into hysterical applause both times Kennedy used the phrase, and not hysterical laughter as is often claimed, we can bet they accepted what JFK meant. And unlike Carter, JFK had a man fluent in the language, Robert Lochner, on hand. Lochner was from Berlin and certainly wouldn’t have made such a glaring error. (Carter’s translator was apparently more familiar with Russian than Polish when he made his mistake.)
Andreas W. Daum’s “Kennedy in Berlin,” records the origin of the phrase. Lochner told Daum that Kennedy had asked for the translation of the exact phrase and they’d practiced it together. Daum’s footnote reads, “On the way to the City Hall platform, Kennedy also asked Karl Franke,” one of West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt’s advisors, “to help him once again practice saying, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ in German.” He’d also run it by the mayor himself.
“Berliners and most people living in the eastern regions of Germany,” Daum wrote, “do not call jelly doughnuts Berliner but rather pfannkuchen (literally, ‘pancakes’). Berliner is the name used in much of western Germany. In sum, it is safe to say that the jelly doughnut jokes can be relegated to the realm of legend.”