The current uproar over singing the American national anthem in Spanish instead of English is another cudgel against whipping the immigrant experience in the United States.

Star-Spangled


An anthem is a song.
Is a song its words or its melody?
Do the same people who object to the Star-Spangled Banner being sung in
Spanish also complain when the same song is played instrumentally? Does
it matter if the band playing the instrumental version speaks English
or Spanish?

Or is the intent of the music and the quality of the
performance the only things that matter?
If a song is more its melody and lesser its lyric — and you know
melody matters most because the Star-Spangled Banner is often performed
in public without words and I have yet to hear it performed in front of
an audience by only speaking its lyric — then a song is a song and if
the lyric is translated into languages other than English, isn’t that a
good thing?

Isn’t that an appropriate blending of cultures to form a
prismal national identity? Isn’t that truly a way of thinking and
behaving on a multi-national level?
Burning an American Flag
has more gravitas and grounding as an issue for national consideration
in the American consciousness than this faux argument over the language
used to perform a great song that needs no words to be understood and
recognized and respected as the anthem for a tender nation.

34 Comments

  1. It might be a good thing to have a different translation of the National Anthem because it exposes new arrivals to our national traditions and might inspire them to listen to the original version.
    People seem to be hung up on the idea of different languages being spoken in America.
    While the new arrival might speak limited or no English, his or her children will soon become completely Americanized and will probably only speak English.
    By the time the third generation arrives, they will be completely assimilated into the American society.
    English will never go away since it is the key to unlocking economic power and is a common business language throughout the world. New immigrants will eventually learn English, as many already have, so that they can participate in the American dream.
    We should have no fear that people will isolate themselves in language enclaves because the economic consequences are too great. The U.S. won’t have a Quebec within its nation, and if we did, it would evenutally fade away as a place of importance if it couldn’t compete economically. “According to the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ), Quebec’s population growth could be negative from 2025 onward. Even a large increase in immigration levels would not reverse the trend,” according to Developpement Economique Canada pour les regions du Quebec.
    People will embrace English because that’s where the money is.
    There will always be people who will chose to reject English, just as there are people who don’t know how to read, but they will be a very small percentage of society and will suffer as a result.
    We have nothing to fear from immigration.
    In fact, most immigrants are hard working and are good assets to the nation. Most immigrants are family oriented and socially conservative. Anyone who is hardy enough to take a risk and come to a new country to seek the American dream has what it takes to make our country a better place. Take a look at many new businesses in the urban core and see who is running them — new immigrants who are willing to take a risk where others won’t.

  2. Hi Chris —
    Yes, it’s interesting how not speaking Spanish is seen as an assault on the American sensibility, culture and values. We are nothing but a nation of immigrants! If we wanted to “stay native” with our language we would all be speaking Cherokee or Iroquois and not English.
    English is one of the most always-changing languages in the world! We’re always added and deleting words and phrases and many have “foreign” origins.
    The protectionists do not want change or outsiders so to blunt the immigration issue away from the core — accepting those who come here are desperate to work — they instead invent indignation against those who might wish to sing our anthem in their own language. How wild is that?
    Has the US Constitution ever been translated into a language other than English so it could be read and enjoyed and celebrated by those who don’t speak English? Was there the same indignation?

  3. This is so fascinating!
    In India, we have 21 different official languages (I am not talking about dialect; I am talking about different languages with completely different script). Our national anthem was originally written in Bengali and later adopted in Hindi (our national language). Our national song is written in Sanskrit.
    What if one fine morning I start protesting about not singing the national anthem because its not written in my mother language?
    Why seeing a “demon” when it is not there?
    [David, why this page is looking so deserted today? or there is something wrong with my computer?]

  4. I want to see the star spangled banner translated into every language ever, including klingon. Not even kidding.
    The one thing that bothers me about spanish in this country is that it seems like the only language to get any sort of attention. When you call most help lines, there’s always a button to push to get someone to speak with in spanish – but what if you only speak french, or you are best in russian?
    furthermore, and in a much easier realm, there are atms and other such service machines. they offer english and spanish but nothing else. they should offer french at the very least, and several other languages. if important mta signs can have translations in 10 or so languages, atms should have at least that many.

  5. There’s an interesting post about the company that is behind Neustro Himno, Urban Box Office, in Reveries Magazine.

    The label “relies on low prices, direct contact with potential customers and an ad-hoc distribution network reaching thousands of neighborhood stores — including bodegas, gas stations and hair salons — that many music companies either ignore or cede to middlemen. … The group travels with “three female UBO employees called Freedom Girls,” who try to sell the band’s CDs to customers waiting in line.
    They’re usually pretty successful, especially with men: “The company estimates that for every 100 men its team of Freedom Girls approach, 30 will make a purchase.”

    More proof that money makes the world go ’round and that immigrants and their offspring are often innovators.
    We have nothing to fear from immigrants who have and will wholeheartedly adopt our way of life.

  6. Going back to Gordon’s post, I’ve seen Chase ATMs in Northwest Indiana that offer multiple language selections, including Greek, Chinese and Russian as well as a bunch of other options.
    There’s even braile on the drive-up ATM for drivers with vision difficulties!

  7. More interesting ATM language options.
    Writes Language Log:

    On Wells Fargo Bank ATMs around where I live, the first question up on the screen is about which language you would like to transact business in, and I noticed recently after an upgrade that one of the choices now says “Hmoob”. Now that’s a language name that doesn’t appear in the reference books.

    Brandon Fuller has a picture of an ATM screen offering service in Hmoob.
    I wonder if there will be an outcry when the Star Spangle Banner is translated into Hmoob?

  8. You make a wonderful point about the necessity of a converging language, Katha.
    Now you make me wonder if the Star-Spangled banner be voiced with the Queen’s English, Native American English or a Southern Accent or a Midwestern one?
    Subtle pronunciation changes word meanings but that doesn’t mean the national anthem loses any of its power in the process of accent translation!
    [Can you be more specific about what you are seeing or not seeing here? I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me.]

  9. Gordon —
    You make excellent sense on this ridiculous issue! Why is Spanish the default second language?
    If someone wanted to be REALLY daring they’d translate the Star-Spangled Banner into Chinese. Now wouldn’t that be a scary outrage for many, eh?
    You are also right about the phones and ATMs and your question is important — what the heck is going on with someone deciding we are an English/Spanish nation and that’s it? Wacky, I say!

  10. Chris —
    People fear immigrants because they work hard and their willing to work for minimum wage. Those who are here and settled want the easy life. They want things and opportunities handed to them. The threat of the immigrant is the threat of having to earn your keep by working hard so people would rather be lazy and keep down innovation in hard work in favor of entitlement programs and now-show union jobs.
    Thanks for the ATM update, Chris! In Nebraska I’ve only seen English and Braille offered (the Braille is required by the ADA so I’m not as impressed with that as I am with your Greek example) and in the NYC area it is always English/Spanish/Braille. Have you ever heard of more than English/Spanish options when you place a call to a help center?
    Ah! The “Hmoob” is interesting and our Katha will certainly take an interested look into that little fact! Ha! That screenshot is pretty wild, Chris! Thanks for the update on the Hmong!

  11. I almost forgot about a famous interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” that people probably hear and think little of now, but which probably enraged people at the time it was performed: Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
    From Wikipedia:

    The controversial nature of Hendrix’s style is epitomized in the sentiments expressed about his renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner”, a tune he played loudly and sharply accompanied by simulated sounds of war (machine guns, bombs and screams) from his guitar. His impressionistic renditions have been described by some as anti-American mockery and by others as a generation’s statement on the unrest in U.S. society, oddly symbolic of the beauty, spontaneity, and tragedy that was endemic to Hendrix’s life.
    Hendrix however did not intend for his performance of the national anthem to be a political statement. His comments show that he simply intended it as a different interpretation of the anthem.

    Is there any difference between Jimi’s performance and a Latino version of the anthem?

  12. Chris —
    There are many who still think Jimi’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is disrespectful and cruel. I think it gives the song and its intention a whole new angle on appreciating and understanding the forces at play that created the song in the first place.
    I am most disappointed in Ted Kennedy who said over the weekend the Star-Spangled Banner should be sung in English. You know he doesn’t believe it — he’s just going along with the mainstream to avoid the biting hatred that comes with going against the grain.
    In a quiet private moment if you asked him if he really believes the anthem should be English-only you know he’d say “of course not” and that makes him a tremendous and disappointing hypocrite because he will not stand up publicly for what he knows is right and righteous and when good men cower in the face of hatred we are all made lesser in the fearing.

  13. Dave —
    I think you’re being a little harsh on the means of translation. In Spanish “Star-Spangled Banner” may very well translate into the idea “Our Anthem” when you translate back into English from the pidgin Spanish translation of the original English.
    Does “Our Anthem” represent the same idea or not? Making that decision goes to the heart of a translator’s job by taking one idea and turning it into a similar, hopefully parallel, and matched-meaning concept for a person from an entirely different culture with different values and vocabulary.
    Translation is tricksy and not to be taken lightly. My philosophy is if you serve the spirit and intention of the original expression in your translation then you’ve done an outstanding job.

  14. Dave —
    What is, exactly, an “exact translation?” Do you have an example? It’s easier to try being exact for text than a song because of rhythm and rhyming issues.
    I am offended when a singer sings the exact lyric and then does multiple melody runs – running the song part of the song. That, to me, is worse than the examples you provide in your latest response.
    We had a president – an excellent and smart one — who played around with what the definition of “is” “is” and if “is” is open to interpretation – as it was in his supremely narrow and lawyerly example – then translating “is” into something concrete and wholly understood cross-culturally is not an easy task. It would be interesting to go back and read to see how the Spanish, Chinese, Finnish, Russian and French newspapers reported that “is” “is” issue in translation.
    I also think intent has to be considered. If someone is trying to be provocative and to do a wild interpretation that isn’t very interesting while a translation that comes close to the spirit of what is being translated is fine with me.
    In the world of the interpreter there are levels of experience and expectation. There are interpreters who are conversationally fluent, then there are certified interpreters who meet certain universal standards and testing and then there are legal interpreters who are more experienced and more adept and higher trained because freedom and liberty is at stake in court.
    When the Deaf go to court there can sometimes be four brains processing and translating a single sentence. Some Deaf are not good with English and they use base ASL. Not all interpreters — even legal interpreters — are able to *precisely* interpret on that basic level. So the court calls in a sub-interpreter (usually another Deaf person who is higher functioning on a language level) who may or may not be licensed but who can communicate with the defendant. So the communication chain goes like this:
    Deaf to sub-Interpreter to Interpreter to Court — for one sentence!
    Then back again for a question or an answer from the court.
    It takes forever and it is rare to find a judge patient enough to put up with what usually becomes an endless translation string that gets lost in basic ideas let alone what “is” “is” or if “sky fire” is an appropriate synonym for “star.”

  15. Chris, thanks for the great info on “hmoob!” This is stroob!
    David, you are right, I did take a look! My point is, whether its “Hmong”, “Hmoob” or something else – the language is the same! What’s there in a name??? 😀
    If a national anthem/ song is being translated in some other language that doesn’t mean people are being territorial – as long as they pay the due respect.
    Ok, David, I am missing the archive link in the main page, and I am missing all the related entries on the right side of this page.

  16. Hi Katha!
    Yes! I am with you and you said it well.
    Hmm… the archive page was deleted long ago. The archives weren’t working properly. I hope to add them back as soon as K2 comes out of beta.
    You can always use the search box on the right side of the page at the top.
    I see related entries but you have to scroll all the way up to the top of the page because you can’t read them down here. Which browser are you using?

  17. I suggest you empty your browser cache and restart your computer.
    Are you using IE or Firefox?
    Ah! You’re using IE. I just checked IE and I see what you’re seeing (NOT seeing). For some reason everything is pushed down to the bottom of the page. Go to the very bottom of the page on the main page and you’ll see all the good stuff clunked down there.
    I think I know what happened. I’ll see if I can fix it.

  18. Okay it’s fixed!
    The simple answer was today’s beautiful “Immigration Flag” image was too big for its britches — actually IE’s britches because Firefox was just fine — so I shrank it down and now it works.
    Hey Katha!
    Next time don’t wait all day to tell me something important like that!
    :mrgreen:

  19. I may be remembering my elementary school english teach telling us that the melody was taken from another country’s anthem w/ our words added… England I think.
    How was that much different.
    It’s not like they are changing the bible or anything…
    Wait; King James did that 17 times… The catholics added books… The Jahova’s Witnesses used a thesaurus to suit the “spirit” of the message… & the Mormans create their own book of Christ’s techings after the resurection….
    You would think we would be used to people customizing culture & custom to suit their own comforts by now.

  20. Yes, the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner comes from an English drinking song:

    The original tune was “To Anacreon in Heaven,” an English drinking song written by John Stafford Smith with words by Ralph Tomlinson, Esq. According to tradition it was first “sung at the Crown Anchor Tavern in the Strand, circa 1780.” Tomlinson was president of the Anacreontic Society, a gentlemen’s club popular with upscale London boozers. Anacreon (563-478 B.C.) was a Greek poet known for his songs of wine and women.

    I especially like the ‘upscale boozers’, which I think sums up the American ethos nicely :).
    I think the anthem is in the melody. Most Americans can’t sing the words to the anthem yet can easily recognize even a few bars of the melody. What do they play at the olympics? The melody. Its a difficult song to sing even for talented singers but anyone can passably hum the tune. This is all pig-headed isolationist puffery, politicians need to remove their blinders and notice that as many have mentioned we are a nation of immigrants, a nation of many languages. We should celebrate that rather than close down to preserve an America that doesn’t actually exist.

  21. News update: There are news reports that the national anthem was sung in Spanish at President Bush’s 2001 inaugural and was a feature of the campaign.
    Writes the Washington Post:

    President Bush declared last week that the national anthem should be sung in English not Spanish, but he evidently never told his own government or campaign organizations.
    The State Department posts four Spanish versions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on its Web site, and accounts from the 2000 election suggest that the song was at times performed in Spanish at Bush campaign events. Critics even turned up one reference to Bush himself singing the anthem in Spanish on the trail, but there was no confirmation.

    Per Think Progress the Spanish version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung by Bush and his family and was also sung at the 2001 inaugural:

    Apparently, Secada singing the anthem in Spanish was a regular feature of the Bush campaign. From the 8/3/00 Miami Herald:
    The nominee, his wife Laura, erstwhile rival John McCain and his wife Cindy joined Bush on a platform where children sang the national anthem – in “Spanglish,” Secada explained.

  22. What’s missing from today’s new wave of illegal immigrants (and it was evident during the recent work stoppages and demonstrations) is the willingness to assimilate into American society.
    America is a nation of immigrants. It is a nation built by immigrants. It owes much of its success to the millions of immigrants who came here to work in its factories and farms and fight its wars.
    America is also a nation that may not survive because of immigrants.
    An estimated 12 million illegal aliens are living in the United States today. That number grows every day as states and the federal government refuse to protect our porous border with Mexico. These illegals don’t pay taxes. They don’t vote. They don’t serve on juries. Many of them drive without licenses or have committed serious crimes.
    There’s no question illegal aliens contribute to the U.S. economy, many holding down jobs that nobody else wants. But they also burden the welfare and healthcare systems. They jam our legal system. And they disrespect the tens of millions of immigrants before them who came to this country legally and followed the rules to become American citizens.
    America has been the destination for millions of people who were no longer wanted in their own counties. The fled religious or political persecution. They fled dictatorships. They fled famine and disease. Many wanted a better life for themselves and their families. They saw opportunity in the United States that they couldn’t find anywhere else in the world.
    I, too, am an immigrant. My family came to this country in 1969. We came here legally. A relative who gave my father a job sponsored us. We learned the English language. We went to school. We paid our taxes. We renounced the citizenship of our birth country for our new homeland. We went to the county courthouse for a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens. Millions of illegal aliens aren’t willing to do that today. They won’t play by the rules. They demand citizenship instead of work toward the privilege of becoming an American.
    As a naturalized American citizen and a former immigrant, I am dismayed by the recent demonstrations, boycotts and calls for amnesty by and for illegal aliens. The actions of labor leaders and politicians who pander to the illegals because they see them as potential members or a large voting block down the road are reprehensible.
    The problem of illegal immigration is not to be taken lightly. The arguments that Mexicans are already here or there’s too many of them to do anything about it won’t wash . Being part of a mob doesn’t make your crime any less severe. You still broke the law. You still have to answer for it.
    A nation that cannot secure its borders will cease to remain a sovereign nation. Mexico is not the 51st state of the United States. As we learned in New Orleans with last year’s devastation from Hurricane Katrina, you have to fix the breech in the levy before you can start cleaning up the flooded areas. We haven’t begun plugging the holes in the dam. Every day, hundreds or maybe thousands of illegal aliens cross into the U.S. from Mexico.
    Those 12 million didn’t come here overnight. They came day-by-day, year-after-year while our politicians looked the other way. Our current dilemma is decades in the making. It’s as much Bill Clinton’s fault as it is George Bush’s. Neither has taken the necessary steps to secure our borders. And let’s not forget that the Sept. 11 highjackers were illegal aliens. Imagine what our response would have been if the 19 men who flew airplanes into buildings on 9/11 were Latinos instead of Muslims. How quickly would we have secured the border with Mexico?
    This is a complex issue, but it’s also one ripe for demagoguery. It’s too important to leave it in the hands of Congress, the most embarrassing deliberative body this side of the League of Nations.
    Let’s put immigration — including key issues such as deporting illegal aliens and protecting our national borders — to a national vote. A binding referendum. Take the decision away from pandering politicians who see 12 million potential and give it to the people.
    Most Americans believe citizenship comes with responsibility. Sneaking into the U.S. illegally does not entitle you to anything except deportation if you’re caught. What’s missing from today’s new wave of illegal immigrants (and it was evident during the recent work stoppages and demonstrations) is the willingness to assimilate into American society.
    Assimilation, the process that leads to unity among America’s diverse population, goes hand-in-hand with immigration. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon your cultural or religious heritage. It means you have to be willing to make some sacrifice to become an American.
    The majority of Americans, including most immigrants, believe new citizens should learn to read and write the language of their adopted country. Most Americans believe the immigrants should know the basic history of their new nation. They should know who George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were. They should be able to tell you how many stars and stripes are found on the American flag and what they symbolize. They should know the Pledge of Allegiance by heart and take it to heart.
    Becoming a U.S. citizen is not just a way to improve your economic lot in life. It’s not an elaborate “guest worker” program to send money to third-world countries like Mexico. It’s believing and promising with all your hear that you will defend and support the Constitution of the greatest nation the world has ever known. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t call yourself an American.

  23. Hi Tony —
    Thank you for your comment!
    I don’t think illegal aliens wish to remain illegal. I think they yearn to become a part of our economy and society.
    It is the current immigration policy that has forced their “illegality” and, as in the history of this nation that was founded on an organized and militant protest against the majority, they are staking their claim to the American Dream along the only path they have available: The Streets.