Lost in translation?

Good public speakers know the importance of connecting with their audience. That’s more challenging when you have to connect across differences in culture and language. There have been times, for example, when I’ve needed to speak or preach through interpreters, and have wondered whether the message was getting across — particularly when people laughed in places where I hadn’t intentionally made a joke, or failed to laugh when I had. But the point remains: if you want people to hear what you have to say, it pays to see the world from their perspective first.

June 26th, 1963. Less than five months later, U. S. president John F. Kennedy would be dead, the victim of assassination. That day, however, Kennedy was speaking in West Berlin, and the general atmosphere was tense.

After World War II, Germany had been divided between the Allied forces for the purposes of reconstruction. The city of Berlin lay within the territory controlled by the Soviet Union, and the city itself was further split into separate sectors controlled by the Soviets on the one hand (East Berlin), and the western Allies on the other (West Berlin). This set the stage for a growing divide between Communist and capitalist ideals, most strikingly embodied in the Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961 to keep those on the eastern side from fleeing to the more prosperous western side of the city.

Kennedy came to West Berlin during the height of the Cold War to speak against Communism and in support of West Germany and democracy. The citizens of West Berlin felt surrounded by an advancing menace; Kennedy reframed their anxiety by casting them as heroes in the fight for human liberty, living on an “island of freedom.”

Wanting to reach out across the language barrier, he peppered the speech with German phrases. The most notorious of these, uttered twice and with great emphasis, was “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or, “I am a Berliner.” I stand with you, he was trying to say. Everyone, everywhere, who fights for freedom is a West Berliner in spirit.

So why do I say “notorious”? An urban legend has grown up around that famous phrase. Many have suggested that Kennedy misspoke; he should have said, “Ich bin Berliner,” leaving out the indefinite article ein. In failing to do so, he made an embarrassing faux pas. Instead of conveying his unity with the citizens of Berlin, he was cluelessly declaring himself to be a “Berliner” — the name of a popular jelly doughnut.

So goes the popular argument, which others have dismissed for a variety of reasons, including a more proper understanding of German grammar. More tellingly, though, if you listen to a recording of the speech, you can hear the audience cheering, not laughing. Kennedy himself was quick to make light of the fact that he needed an interpreter. He succeeded in joining with his hearers, and the speech became one of his most famous.

Similar things might be said about one of the apostle Paul’s most famous speeches. Some have called it the Mars Hill Sermon — but that title may be misleading. As we’ve seen in previous posts, his speech was delivered before the Athenian council known as the Areopagus, whose name was shared with the rocky hill that loomed over the marketplace. It’s not clear, therefore, that the meeting actually took place on Mars Hill itself; there’s evidence that the council met in or near the marketplace instead.

As a missionary journeying the breadth of the Roman Empire, Paul was constantly confronted by cultural impediments to the gospel. Thankfully, unlike Kennedy, he was multilingual, so could preach in Greek as needed. It’s hard to imagine that he ever accidentally declared himself to be the first-century equivalent of a doughnut.

But that’s not to say that there weren’t terrible misunderstandings, as when he and Barnabas were worshiped as Hermes and Zeus in the city of Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), a misunderstanding that eventually turned violent. Later, when trouble dogged him throughout his time in the province of Macedonia — beaten and jailed in Philippi, threatened in Thessalonica and Beroea — he ended up alone in Athens, aghast at the rampant idolatry of the city and wondering how best to proclaim the gospel there.

He knew he had to connect with the Athenians in some way, bridging the gap between cultures. Some have seen his speech (or more likely, Luke’s summary of its essentials) as a case study in strategically adapting to the demands of his audience. There is some truth in this: as we’ll see, instead of quoting Scripture as he would have with his fellow Jews, he cited secular sources familiar to the Athenians.

Unlike Kennedy in West Berlin, however, Paul was speaking in a hostile environment. He had been dragged before the council to answer to the informal but serious accusation of proclaiming foreign gods. And while he necessarily shaped his message to fit the audience, he did not, indeed could not declare, “I am an Athenian.” The message, rather, was something like, Your theology is all wrong, and you’re going to face judgment by the real God — so you’d better repent.

As we’ll see shortly, no one cheered.