Abraham Lincoln and the Importance of a Good Source Text

Growing up in central Illinois, I was surrounded by Lincoln landmarks – the historical village of New Salem where he worked as a young man, the home he lived at in Springfield with his wife and children, the tomb that reminds us of his assassination, and the presidential museum that stands in his honor.

To me, nothing could feel more “local” than Lincoln.

However, Lincoln’s legacy isn’t isolated to just the places where he had a physical presence. His influence reaches far and wide, across the globe. A poem by Edward William Thomson and published in 1909 reflects this:

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night
Ten fur-coat men on North Saskatchewan’s plain
Pure zero cold, and all the prairie white
Englishman, Scotchman, Scandinavian, Dane
Two Irish, four Canadians.

How else can we judge the extent to which Lincoln affected the rest of the world? It helps to look at the number of languages in which his biographies have been published.

As Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton point out in The Global Lincoln, “By 1900, Lincoln’s life had been published in (sequentially) German, French, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Latin, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Russian, Norwegian, Finnish, Turkish, Swedish and Japanese; and over the next thirty years or so the list had extended to include Ukrainian, Yiddish, Polish, Chinese, Tamil, Czech, Icelandic, Arabic, Hungarian, Persian, Slovak, Armenian, Scottish Gaelic, Korean, Kannada, Burmese and Vietnamese.” Many of these were translations of texts originally written in English.

Long before the days of the Internet, Lincoln’s words traveled far and wide, leaping across borders of nations and barriers of language. Why so?

Lincoln’s ideas were extremely important. Without a doubt, this was the number one most important reason why his words were worthy of translation. But, the way he expressed those ideas was also of great importance. In all of his writing and speaking, Lincoln was known for communicating his ideas clearly, plainly, and in the language of the people. His words lacked ambiguity and thus were, in many ways, easier to translate.

Every year, remembering Lincoln on his birthday, I cannot help but think about the role his communication skills played in the legacy that he would leave behind in all types of places, ranging from the place that he and I both once called home, and perhaps more amazingly, in the countless foreign lands he never set foot in.

For an example of this global and local legacy, and to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday, visit this link to see the Gettysburg Address translated into 29 languages.

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).