The eminently serene Maya Angelou, former U.S. Poet Laureate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Horatio Alger Award, says the decision to paraphrase one of the quotes that appears on the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. makes him look “like an arrogant twit.”
The actual quote, delivered by Dr. King in remarks to Atlanta’s Ebeneezer Baptist Church — just two months before his assassination — reads:
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
The version carved in stone on the north face of the MLK memorial — paraphrased to fit the available space after site planners changed their minds on the memorial’s layout — instead reads:
I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
Um. There’s quite a lot missing there… for example, the clause that creates the context for the quote. The whole, “If you want to say…” part that responds to King’s detractors, those trying to marginalize his work, and the civil rights movement, itself.
Let us consider how a similar sort of paraphrasing might affect the words of other prominent figures. Click the tweaked versions below to see the original, more familiar quotations. Let’s examine a rather famous quote from Abraham Lincoln, which — while every bit as true to the *words* that Lincoln used (or at least as true to those words as the phrasing of Dr. King’s quote) — might be considered a bit of a departure from his actual intent in any number of ways:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Similarly, the words of Confucious – while no less wise — lose a certain something when paraphrased:
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
Curiously, by applying the very same paraphrasing principles, some quotes read a bit more clearly than the originals. Consider this paraphrased version of Sarah Palin’s word salad on the historic, midnight ride of Paul Revere (and don’t forget to click for the original!):
“He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”
It’s surely possible to paraphrase a quote in such a way that it’s not stripped of its original meaning and intent… but it’s so improbable the result will be an improvement that there’s little to recommend it, and no reason at all when the very point is to memorialize the content of an individual’s character.