Friday, April 28, 2006

La Bandera Estrellada y Sagrada

A new version of the Star Spangled Banner is due to hit the airwaves today. It is titled Nuestro Himno – " Our Anthem" – and consists of the traditional English words translated into Spanish. While the anthem's familiar melody and structure are preserved, the rhythms and instrumentation come straight out of Latin pop. Likewise, it is performed by a plethora of Latin pop stars, who flocked to the project à la We Are the World.

Its creators insist the song is meant to be an anthem of solidarity for those marching for immigrant rights in Washington and other cities across the country. "It's the one thing everybody has in common, the aspiration to have a relationship with the United States . . . and also to express gratitude and patriotism to the United States for providing the opportunity," says a spokesperson.

Yet some of us English-speaking Americans are having none of it. A movement that began in the conservative blogosphere is gaining ground fast that the song is offensive and anti-American. The charge is led by syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who coined Nuestro Himno as "The Illegal Alien Anthem." The critics' argument is that the song represents a rejection of and attack against assimilation by Latinos into U.S. mainstream culture.

The controversy here did not surprise me. However, MSNBC carried this story from the Washington Post this morning and included one of their online polls. While I appreciate they are not scientific surveys, I was nonetheless surprised to see that respondents had rebuffed Nuestro Himno as "reflecting the multicultural country the U.S. has become" and denounced it as "a rejection of assimilation" by an astonishing eight to one margin.

I'm astonished because one never knows exactly how people will react to non-traditional versions of our national anthem. Jimi Hendrix's electric guitar riff of it has been hailed as a classic. Roseanne Barr's crotch-grabbing version got her booed off the field. One distinction may have been that Barr was clearly playing around with parody, if not necessarily trying to deliver any particular political statement, while Hendrix insisted he was attempting to be positive and pro-American. "We play it the way the air is in America today," he once said.

With the huge Latino minority – soon to be a majority – in this country, it seems like Nuestro Himno is simply reflecting the current air. Naw, says Malkin, this rendition crosses a line that Hendrix never stepped over. Changing the music is one thing but changing the words, an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of translation, is another and unacceptable one.

In fairness, even some in the Spanish-speaking media are questioning this particular translation. Apparently, the first stanza is relatively faithful to the spirit of the original but the more obscure second stanza is almost a rewrite. "I love my country and I love my [Mexican musical] heritage," says one musician. "But some things are sacred that you don't do."

He ought to try telling that to California pastors Mike Foster and Craig Gross. The two run an anti-porn ministry, XXX Church. Among other things, they routinely hand out Bibles at adult film conventions. Earlier this month, they got a brainstorm and ordered ten thousand copies of the New Testament printed with the words "Jesus Loves Porn Stars" emblazoned on the covers. After a bit of thought, the American Bible Society refused their order, saying that while it appreciated the pastors' mission, such a cover would be "misleading and inappropriate."

This article also carried an online poll. Readers agreed with the bible society that the creative cover translation was an "inappropriate message" over the pastors' sentiment that "Jesus' love is all-inclusive, and this is a way to reach people who might otherwise miss the message." However, the vote was a much closer three to two margin.

Here's another silly story about a translation leading to a misrepresentation. Last December, a cat named Baby, age two, got stuck in a sewer. The Houston Texas family who owned her tried to retrieve her without success. The cat's owner called the Houston Fire Department three times and asked for their help but found them non-responsive. So the fourth time, she dialed 911 and reported "my two-year-old Baby is stuck in a sewer." She ended up paying a fine for making a false report, a Class B misdemeanor. On the plus side, the Fire Department was finally dispatched and rescued the cat.

This story carried no online poll but I think we can all agree, even if we were rooting for the kitty, that the woman owner did a wrong and dangerous thing by commandeering emergency rescue workers and equipment for purposes other than that for which they were intended. It is not impossible that an actual child trapped in a Houston sewer could have died there because firemen were busy rescuing a cat.

These two silly situations both contain translation errors that lead to misrepresentations but there is a difference between them. Regardless of whether you feel Jesus loves or disapproves of porn stars (or both), putting an exclamation about it on a New Testament cover is misleading only in the sense it has nothing much to do with what is inside. In fact, the inside – the truly sacred part in this instance – remains entirely unchanged.

Baby the cat is different. Her owner's mis-translation during a 911 call caused Baby to be misrepresented and subsequently treated as something very different than what she actually was.

Translating the Star Spangled Banner into Spanish does change its outward appearance somewhat, in terms of what it will sound like to anyone listening to it. But even with some "creative" translation in the second stanza, it appears that the basic contents and ideas of the song remain unaltered. Why then must some of us hear the "our" in "Our Anthem" to mean "We, the Latinos" rather than "We, the People of the United States." Is the translation error here in the mouth of the speaker or the ear of the listener?

If translating our National Anthem into Spanish is "awful" and "appalling," then I assume doing the same to other of our even more basic patriotic documents represents pure anathema. Yet I could easily find the U.S. Constitution in Spanish, prepared by Georgetown University, which is linked to, among other places, by a U.S. Department of Defense Constiution course. Likewise, here is the Declaration of Independence in Spanish, prepared by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

I do not think we need worry that it is only a matter of time before Nuestro Himno is played before the start of baseball and hockey games. I suppose there is a legitimate danger that Latinos who listen to it often/primarily may not understand the words in quite the same manner as the rest of us. On the other hand, a recent Harris poll found that sixty-one percent of English-speaking American adults do not know all the words to the Star Spangled Banner in English, so maybe that is not such a big problem.

I am forced to conclude that the widespread pre-dislike for this particular song at this particular time has less to do with any taboos it crosses than the fact that illegal immigration is a hotspot for many Americans at the moment and most illegal immigrants in the U.S. are Spanish-speaking Mexicans. But to say that all Latinos are illegal immigrants, as Michelle Malkin apparently believes, would be as preposterous and insulting as saying that all English-speaking Americans support racial profiling and determent camps during war time, as Michelle Malkin most definitely believes.

So if you find yourself foaming at the mouth over Nuestro Himno when you first hear it played – or are even a little bit bothered by it – try to relax and give it a chance first. ¿Por favor?

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