English-only Anthem? Outrage is a little late

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon May 8 14:01:57 UTC 2006

>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer,  Posted on Sun, May. 07, 2006

English-only anthem? Outrage is a little late
U.S. prepared a Spanish translation - in 1919.

By David Goldstein Inquirer Washington Bureau


Psst. Someone ought to tell the president, Congress and any others upset
over the Spanish translation of the national anthem that they are about 90
years too late. The government already gave its blessing when the U.S.
Bureau of Education prepared a Spanish version of "The Star-Spangled
Banner" in 1919. And that translation has been available on the Library of
Congress' Web site for the last two years. Then there is the National
Anthem Project, a group that supports music in schools and boasts Laura
Bush as honorary chair. Several members of Congress are also supporters.
If you need a mariachi or steel drum version of the anthem, the project's
got you covered.

For all the recent outrage, nearly two out of three Americans do not even
know all the words to the national anthem, according to the Harris Poll. A
lot of them don't even know the melody. But if the English-only backers
are really serious, they have their work cut out for them. Besides
Spanish, the library has vintage translations in Polish, French, Italian,
Portuguese and Armenian, among others. A little Googling turns up versions
in Samoan and Yiddish as well. And with 6,800 known languages in the
world, who knows how many more are out there?

"What's sort of surprising for us here who've lived with 'The
Star-Spangled Banner' is that everyone has their shorts in a bun about
it," said Loras Schissel, a musicologist at the library. "It's old news."
Until late last month, that is, when some Latin pop stars released a
Spanish version with somewhat different lyrics ("The time has come to
break the chains.") called "Nuestro Himno" - "Our Anthem." It landed smack
in the middle of a heated debate over immigration. The song's producer and
singers hoped to fire up the immigrant community. To critics, they might
as well have torched a flag on the Capitol steps. Once Spanish-language
radio aired the song, talk radio, blogs and cable, along with members of
Congress, were abuzz with criticism.

In 1919, the government-sponsored Spanish translation evoked a collective
yawn, if anyone was even paying attention. "National airs and anthems were
popular music at that time," Schissel said. "You bought them on 78
[r.p.m.] records, and people sang them around the piano." But today,
"symbols like the flag and the national anthem take on some sacred meaning
on both sides in a controversy over national identity,"  said Ron Eyerman,
a Yale University expert on music and social movements. The anthem has
weathered controversy before. It was psychedelicized by guitarist Jimi
Hendrix in a storm of sonic feedback at Woodstock in 1969, and
screechified by comic Roseanne Barr before a San Diego Padres game in

Composer Igor Stravinsky rearranged the composition in 1944 and got the
version banned in Boston for his trouble. You can find it in Morse code
and binary expression. Somebody somewhere certainly uses it as a cell
phone ring tone. But critics are steamed because the song, they insist,
should be sung in English. Period. "The national anthem is a symbol of
unity of a diverse people united by our common values and Constitution,"
said Sen. Jim Talent (R., Mo.).  "That's why it should be sung in
English." Talent and Sen. Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) are among cosponsors of a
bill from Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) requiring that the anthem never
be recited or sung in a foreign tongue. Rep. Jim Ryun (R., Kan.) has a
similar bill in the House.

Even pro-immigration groups such as the National Council of La Raza, the
largest Hispanic civil-rights group in the country, said translating the
anthem was a mistake. "Anthems are sacred," La Raza spokeswoman Lisa
Navarrete said, "and we have to be respectful of that." Rep. Harold Ford
Jr. (D., Tenn.) has said that the anthem "should not be lost in
translation... . The words, the phrases, the expressions - they all count
for something irreplaceable." But Jaime Contreras, chairman of the
National Capitol Immigration Coalition, said that the song could not be
translated literally, and that the new wording in the latest Spanish
version helps people make a "connection about the movement." It was not
meant to offend anyone, he said, but rather to serve as a tribute to

See the 1919 Spanish version of the anthem at http://go.philly.com/music
and the National Anthem Project site at http://go.philly.com/project

Contact reporter David Goldstein at 202-383-6105 or
dgoldstein at krwashington.com.

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