It is easy to make embarrassing mistakes when speaking another language. Take embarrass itself. Many a Spanish learner has assumed that embarazada is the correct translation, since the words resemble each other. Actually, “Estoy embarazada” is not “I’m embarrassed” but “I’m pregnant.”
There are many apocryphal stories that turn on mistranslations. The most famous may be that of President John F. Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Wanting to express his solidarity with the city’s beleaguered residents, he declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Rather than announcing “I am a citizen of Berlin” as planned, he had actually told the assembled crowd, “I am a jelly doughnut!”
People who insist that he made a mistake argue that Berliner refers to both a male resident of Berlin and to a kind of jelly-filled doughnut. Because the German language tends not to use indefinite articles when talking about professions or demonyms, it’s “Ich bin Berliner” if you want to say “I am a man who lives in Berlin.” If you want to call yourself a pastry, it’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
This anecdote injects some humor into what was a dark period for West Berliners, but unfortunately it is not true. In Berlin, they call jelly doughnuts Pfannkuchen, not Berliner, so the citizens were unlikely to think “doughnut!” when they heard his line. And in fact German speakers sometimes employ the indefinite article with professions or demonyms. “Er ist Schauspieler” means “He is a professional actor,” while “Er ist ein Schauspieler” is metaphorical: “He behaves like an actor.” “Ich bin ein Berliner,” then, was actually what Kennedy meant, according to Professor Jürgen Eichhoff at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Kennedy was self-identifying as a Berliner, not a native-born son.
There are many versions of an apocryphal tale that explains how the Yucatán Peninsula got its name. One holds that when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived there in 1519, he asked the Mayan-speaking Indigenous people what the land was called. He got the reply “ma c’ubah than,” which sounded like “Yucatán” to Cortés. Linguists supposedly later discovered that this Mayan phrase actually means “I don’t understand you.”
This is a good story too, but it probably isn’t true. Scholars have proposed many other etymologies. Given that no one knows where Yucatán comes from, we latch on to the mistranslation story, because it is funny, but also because it reveals something about the dynamics of imperialism. As talk-show host Rachel Maddow explained: “[The Spanish] named the place ‘I don’t understand.’ If ever there was a more perfect summary of colonialism, I do not know of it.”