Friday, July 18, 2008

"Ich bin ein Berliner, Folks"

The vacillation over a speech site for Barack Obama evokes memories of previous fusses raised by American presidents in post-World War II Germany.

The Obama campaign has been searching for a suitable venue since Chancellor Angela Merkel deemed the Brandenburg Gate unseemly for a speech by a political candidate, and now the Victory Column less than a mile away seems to be the choice.

In 1985, there was a flap over President Reagan's visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to lay a wreath at the graves of German soldiers, including SS troops, over the protests of Elie Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors.

Before that, in 1963, President Kennedy made a stirring speech with the memorable line "Ich bin ein Berliner," followed by a semantic fuss about its translation, indicating that JFK may have unintentionally proclaimed himself, not a citizen of Berlin, but a jelly doughnut.

Whatever Obama decides to say to his German audience, he would be well-advised not to refer to John McCain as a hero, risking the possibility he might be understood to be calling the Republican candidate a big, fat overstuffed sandwich.

In languages as well as politics, it's easy for much to be lost in translation.

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