Friday, April 28, 2006

Nuestro Himno

News that the President responded testily to a recent Spanish version of the National Anthem was published in this afternoon's electronic New York Times ("Bush Says Anthem Should Be in English"). At today's White House press conference, President Bush apparently responded to a reporter's question about the song, as follows:

"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."

The President is certainly correct that the anthem can serve as an English language-learning tool. However, even the White House website that posted this news conference also has an official Spanish version.

In addition, like the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem is largely an invention of twentieth-century nationalism. In fact, according to this exhaustive website on national anthems in the context of a global set of discursive practices, until 1931 "Hail Columbia" was the most common score to official patriotism; then came the ascent of the "Star Spangled Banner" of Francis Scott Key.

The offending song, recorded in Spanish and released as Nuestro Himno, is spreading fast across the Internet. With its hip-hop opening call to "Latinos, Latinas, hermanos, hermanas" that morphs into pop star guitar strumming and crooning, it's not immediately recognizable. But soon the traditional standard emerges from its heterogeneous opening melodies and builds to an energetic climax. The British producer of the song, Adam Kidron, described it as an attempt to make the precise patriotic message of the song comprehensible to Hispanic immigrants. Certainly, many native speakers don't seem aware that the song that they sing at baseball games and fireworks displays describes an epic battle from the War of 1812.

Given the number of Spanish-speaking parents who have lost children in the war in Iraq, this National Anthem seems a fitting tribute to their sacrifice. I suspect that there must be versions of the National Anthem sung in many languages and will be interested to see how our current "remix culture," to use Lawrence Lessig's term, will respond to this controversy and what further variants will appear in the blogosphere.

In contrast, Canadian rocker Neil Young chose the less militaristic "America the Beautiful" for his Living With War album, which can be streamed for free and is being promoted through an innovative Internet-based strategy on MySpace and by this fellow Blogspot site.

The speed with which political songs can be disseminated, without face-to-face exchanges like marches and rallies, is certainly a new aspect of the digital age. Yet, because songs like these are composed in studios with elaborate orchestration, even in the case of recent parody songs like "I'm The Decider," they may not have the staying power of "We Shall Overcome" and other alternative national anthems.

Newsflash! An eagle-eyed Virtualpolitik reader located this Spanish translation of the National Anthem on a State Department website! (This is part of why I love the polyvocal character of government websites!) Thanks to Richard Myers. And thanks to Sivacracy, I've also added in an image of a 1943 translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Yiddish.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post. I heard some of the radio coverage of this "issue," along with sound bites from the song. Nice to revisit it in the fuller context that you provide here. There is clearly a long tradition of translating key national documents for the purpose of citizenship training. What offends Bush at the current moment is the use of this translated song in the context of pro-immigration strikes and protests, including the airing of the song in Latin American countries in support of demonstrators in the US. This orchestration of political action is also conducted in relation to a citizenship campaign -- but performed by those outside the circle of citizenship, rather than by those administering naturalization procedures. It thus represents a fundamental shift in the meaning and use of translation.

6:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cover photo on the May 2nd LA Times front page -- an army of demonstrating immigrants, carrying American flags -- shows another retooling of the symbols of citizenship. If the same flag on bumper stickers signals support for the war in Iraq, these flags carried through LA streets stake the claim for citizenship on the contested ground of the home front.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said... also pointed out the existence of this sheet music from the Library of Congress.

12:12 PM  

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