What Abraham Lincoln Can Teach Us About Translation


Abraham Lincoln was my favorite US President in elementary school. Unlike George Washington whose portrait and unfriendly frown hung next to Lincoln’s in class, Lincoln actually smiled as he gazed down at us from above the chalkboard. And he did so in a way that seemed to imply he was on to something huge. As I later learned in school, George Washington wasn’t actually frowning, he just had really bad teeth. But given a choice between the two forefathers, I liked Lincoln the best. I remember staring at his portrait and thinking if I could just talk to him for a minute, the mysteries of the overwhelmingly confusing world I lived in would unravel right before my eyes. A bit too much to expect from a president, I know. But who can blame me? I was just a kid under the influence of a fascinating portrait of an admirable man whose smile didn’t just make him seem wise, but also made him appear approachable. In my childish imagination, he was the kind of president you could eat a hot dog with at a baseball game as he imparted his infinite wisdom onto you.

Many people don’t know this, but Lincoln was a Republican. I never held that against him though, back then the Republican Party was far more progressive than it is today. Another thing many people don’t know about Lincoln is that he was somewhat of a self-educated man. He only attended school for less than a year and he became a lawyer under an Illinois law enacted in 1833 which stated that to become a lawyer, you had to “obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant’s good moral character.” The multi-million dollar business of law school hadn’t been discovered yet, obviously.

Everybody knows Lincoln the president, but few people know Lincoln the lawyer. It is said that his greatest skill as a lawyer was that he could simplify even the most complicated cases to a few key points. He handled over 5000 cases in his lifetime and made only one appearance before the United States Supreme Court in a case he lost, but in which Justice John McLean wrote a very long opinion where he held in accordance with Lincoln’s contentions.

At some point in 1850, Lincoln wrote “Notes for a Law Lecture”. Nobody’s really sure where or even if he ever gave that lecture, but I find it inspiring and wanted to share a few bits and pieces along with things I think we can learn from it. Of course, he’s talking to lawyers, but it all easily applies to translators as well.

1. Be Humble

I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful.

Said the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation initiating the long-hard process that would ultimately result in ending the abhorrent and immoral practice of slavery… and who preserved the nation as one during the Civil War while he was at it. If Lincoln was “moderately successful,” what does that make the rest of us? But the point here is learning as much from our failures as from our achievements.

2. Be Diligent

The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow which can be done to-day.

I thought my mom had coined that one to get me to put my toys away, but I guess I was wrong. Diligence is a virtue in every profession, but in translation diligence results in timely high-quality deliveries; and that translates into happy and returning clients.

3. Watch your Fees

The matter of fees is important, far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved. […] Settle the amount of fee and take a note in advance. Then you will feel that you are working for something, and you are sure to do your work faithfully and well.

See? Even Lincoln was against “the poverty cult.” Your fees should not just allow you to make ends meet or satisfy the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. We all crave and deserve the items at the top of the pyramid as well. We deserve recognition for a job well done and the esteem (self and otherwise) associated with it. But, more importantly, life is too short to waste; and investing in our self-actualization is one of the few truly meaningful things we can do with our money. Our fees should reflect that and they should be high enough to serve as a means to the end of achieving whatever fulfills us on a personal level: painting, traveling, chilling out with our friends, finding shapes in the clouds, whatever else makes you happy. You should earn enough to live a fulfilling life, not just get by to the end of the month.

4. Be Honest

[…] resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.

As someone who has yet to win at a game of poker, this one’s my favorite. Honesty in translation means introspection, knowing our limitations, properly assessing our clients, admitting when we can or cannot deliver, asking for help… alas, as I understand it, it means being as honest with ourselves as we are with others. How much easier would translation transactions be if honesty were a top value?

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