April 28, 2006

Nationalism in all its star-spangled glory

Today on NPR's Day to Day, and later on All Things Considered, there were short segments about a new Spanish-language version of the national anthem, called Nuestro Himno ("Our Anthem"), which "is getting huge airplay on Spanish-language radio stations across the nation ahead of pro-immigration rallies slated for Monday, May 1." You can hear these NPR segments, and a full version of Nuestro Himno, by following these links. The Spanish lyrics also appear there, followed by English re-translations, but this Wikipedia article appears to be more accurate.

I was struck by something toward the end of the Day to Day segment (italicized emphasis reflects speaker emphasis on that word):

At a news conference this morning at the White House, the president was asked whether the anthem should be sung in Spanish; the president responded, "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English."

In the original broadcast I heard, there was audio of President Bush saying these words; I'm curious as to why the audio was replaced in the online version by a quotation spoken by Day to Day co-host Madeleine Brand. The audio of President Bush saying these words begins at the one-minute mark in the online All Things Considered segment, followed by what he said immediately afterward: "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English. And they ought to learn to sing the anthem in English."

This latter bit is also quoted directly in this NYT story (emphasis added):

President Bush said today that he thought the national anthem should be sung in English, not the Spanish language version released by a recording company recently. [...] After saying he did not consider the anthem sung in Spanish to have the same value as the anthem sung in English, Mr. Bush said: "I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English. And they ought to learn to sing the anthem in English."

I was curious about what "the same value" refers to here, so I went to www.whitehouse.gov and found this release (emphasis added):

Q [from "Kelly"] Mr. President, a cultural question for you. There is a version of the National Anthem in Spanish now. Do you believe it will hold the same value if sung in Spanish as in English?

THE PRESIDENT: No I don't, because I think the National Anthem ought to be sung in English. And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the National Anthem in English.

[ Side note: recall what Madeleine Brand said on Day to Day: the president was asked whether the anthem should be sung in Spanish. Ask yourself: is that what "Kelly" asked? But I digress. ]

So the reason Bush believes the anthem won't "hold the same value if sung in Spanish as in English" is because he thinks it "ought to be sung in English"? I've been unimpressed by Bush's reasoning skills before, but ...

Luckily, there are folks out there who are more forthcoming about their reasons for believing that the anthem should (only) be sung in English. Take George Key from Southern California, who was interviewed for the Day to Day segment (Note the color code below: as above, co-host Madeleine Brand is in green, and guest George Key is in red.)

I think that's a terrible thing, that is awful. My thoughts are they should go someplace else and sing it.

George Key, great-great-grandson of (yes, you guessed it) Francis Scott Key, the man who wrote the original poem that eventually became the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner. George Key is half-Panamanian, but he cannot believe anyone singing the national anthem in Spanish could possibly understand the true meaning behind the song.

There was a man standing out on a ship watching the city of Baltimore being bombarded by the British at the time. [...] Had we lost that part of the war, we would be British subjects today. It was the second revolutionary war. And so for somebody to come in here now, who doesn't understand the concept of why that was written and the hardships that were endured by these people -- they just don't understand what they're doing.

You can read more about the story behind the national anthem here. Many of us with an American education may recall having learned (some of) this history, but would any of us have figured much of it out just from the lyrics -- especially given the fact that most if not all of us only learn and sing the first of the full four stanzas? (And if so, why would any of us English speakers need to learn the history in addition to the lyrics?)

Furthermore, on what basis does George Key believe that the Spanish lyrics don't tell the same story that the English lyrics tell? The translation (of the first stanza) is not perfect, of course; important factors such as fitting the lyrics to the same music, for example, accounts for some key differences. But here is the translation of the Spanish version back into English alongside the original English version. Can anyone honestly say that one version says more about the British bombing of Baltimore than the other?

Re-translation of Spanish version Original English version

Do you see arising, by the light of the dawn,
That which we hailed so much when the night fell?
Its stars, its stripes yesterday streamed
In the fierce combat, as a sign of victory,
The glory of battle, in step with freedom,
Throughout the night they proclaimed: "It is defending itself!"
Oh say you! Is it still waving, beautiful, star-covered,
Over the land of the free, the sacred flag?
Its stars, its stripes, liberty, we are the same.
We are brothers in our anthem.
In the fierce combat, as a sign of victory,
In the fierce combat... (My people, keep fighting!)
...in step with freedom, (Now is the time to break the chains!)
Throughout the night they proclaimed: "It is defending itself!"
Oh say you! Is it still waving, beautiful, star-covered,
Over the land of the free, the sacred flag?

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming!
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

[ Admittedly, the translation back into English has some significant problems, a taste of which is noted in the text above the re-translation here; I'd like to add that "¡Se va defendiendo!" would be better translated as "It is being defended!" rather than "It is defending itself!", but again, I needlessly digress. ]

I can only conclude from all this that learning and singing the Spanish version of the anthem, in and of itself, will not make anyone more ignorant of the history behind the anthem than those who learn the English lyrics. In fact, I daresay that encouraging folks to learn the Spanish version is likely to make many more of them curious about the history of the anthem (and of the country). How in the world can that be a bad thing?

[ I can also conclude that George Key appears to have some major issues with immigrants, or maybe with his own half-Panamanian-ness. But enough with the digressions. ]

Instead of making this sort of point, though, Day to Day co-host Alex Chadwick turns the tables on "Americans":

A recent Harris survey did show that two out of three Americans don't know the words to The Star-Spangled Banner [...]

The bold italics on Americans above reflects Chadwick's emphasis on this word -- but was it meant to suggest that these were English-speaking Americans who were surveyed, or (gulp) legal Americans, or what? I don't think the survey said anything about this issue; see this ABC News piece on the Harris survey, from almost two years ago, which leads us to The National Anthem Project website (of which "First lady Laura Bush has now become honorary chairwoman"), which has more information about the survey and a very abbreviated version of the history behind the anthem (including links to the anthem code and sheet music for the service version, the mariachi version, and the steel drum ensemble version -- how cool is that?)

In any event, if you just juxtapose this "result" from the Harris survey with George Key's pronouncement, all you get is that we all really just need to learn the English version of the anthem better. But this is wrong, wrong, wrong, as I pointed out above: the (original) English version is not particularly more informative about American history (or anything else of national/patriotic significance) than the Spanish version. The only problem seems to be that it's in Spanish, and that bugs some people -- and I'll never understand why.

With typical timeliness, the Wikipedia article on The Star-Spangled Banner that I have linked to several times above also includes the Spanish version of the first stanza (click here and scroll down) plus a little note under "Other" that says:

A Spanish language translation called "Nuestro Himno" ("Our Anthem") was created in 2006 as a show of support to Latino immigrants in the United States. Similar to the English version of the Canadian national anthem, which was set to the tune of the French version but is not related to the text thereof, this song or himno is merely inspired by and is only an approximate not a word by word translation of the stanzas selected from Key's poem. The lyrics are written above. As such no claim is made that it is the Spanish language version of the United States' national anthem which itself technically is only a part of Key's full poem.

(This is where I found the link to the Nuestro Himno Wikipedia article, also linked a few times above.)

Most interesting and relevant, though, is that there's a Spanish-language Wikipedia article on The Star-Spangled Banner, which has a briefer version of the history behind it (still, more comprehensive than the one at The National Anthem Project), with two full translations (La bandera estrellada and La bandera de estrellas), the latter dated 1919 by Francis Haffkine Snow -- see this Library of Congress entry, where it says that "[t]his version of the song was prepared by the U.S. Bureau of Education". The lyrics of Nuestro Himno appears to be derived from this 1919 translation; it's generally similar, though some lyrics appear to have been "altered to soften war references".

That last quote is from this ABC News article, with the offensive title "Spanish 'Star Spangled Banner' -- Touting the American Dream or Offensive Rewrite?" (This USA Today article title is better: "Spanish 'Banner' draws protest".) The author of the ABC News article (Jim Avila) seems to be unaware of the 1919 translation, and uses an even worse re-translation than I've found of Nuestro Himno into English to compare with the "classic English version" (which, oddly enough, also has errors here):

The current version will likely spark debate, because it is not an exact translation. Some of the classic lyrics have been changed for rhyming reasons while other phrases were altered to soften war references. For example:

  • English version: And the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

  • Spanish version: In the fierce combat, the sign of victory, the flame of battle in step with liberty through the night it was said it was being defended.

There are several other small errors in Avila's article, two of which are worth noting here. One is the name "Jimi Hendrix" being spelled "Jimmy Hendrix"; Jimi's infamous solo Stratocaster rendition of the national anthem at Woodstock was also brought up in both NPR segments, by way of making the point (somewhat weakly, in my view) that there is at least some artistic merit to so-called "corruptions" of the anthem. The other is that "George Key" is identified as "Charles Key", who is quoted as saying:

"I think its a despicable thing that someone is going into our society from another country and ... changing our national anthem," Key said.

That sure sounds like George to me. But just to be sure, I googled -- and found that indeed there is another descendant of Francis Scott Key named Charles. But I doubt that Charles was quoted above, because the key search result, a January 30, 2005 Seattle Post Intelligencer article, says:

Charles Key, a 56-year-old Vietnam veteran from Bellingham, whose ancestor Francis Scott Key wrote the words of the U.S. national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," says he's leaving because his country is no longer tolerant. "The land of the free and the home of the brave always meant to me that America was supposed to stand for freedom and diversity and tolerance. I don't think it does that any more," he told a reporter.

By contrast, George's next most recent news-worthy activity appears to have been, in 1995 at the age of 71, a push to save the Pledge of Allegiance in Orange County schools. (Speaking of which: more from George Key, and yet another poor re-translation of Nuestro Himno, can be found at the OC Register.)

Final note: in the sidebar of the ABC News article, there's a link saying: "VOTE Spanish-Language National Anthem: O.K.?" As of this writing, here's what it says. (Note in particular the form of the answers.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at April 28, 2006 11:55 PM