Somos Americanos

In 1923, a 22-year-old Peruvian woman named Clotilde Arias immigrated to the United

States. She worked for years here, as a translator, composer, journalist and a language teacher, impressively maintaining employment even through the Great Depression.

In 1945, she entered a US State Department-sponsored competition to create an original Spanish translation of the US National Anthem, or "The Star Spangled Banner". This wasn't as trivial as perhaps it sounds, as this was during World War II, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to use cultural diplomacy (as part of his Good Neighbor Policy) to help win and secure allies in Latin America.

Sra. Arias won the competition.

Her translation is now official, as it was adopted by the State Department, and it is nowadays on display in the Smithsonian. It has been called "near perfect"... no small feat, as translations trying to maintain rhyme and meter (and not step on something so culturally significant) are notoriously difficult. You can see below the result of her effort. Her translated lyrics are:

Mirad! ¿Podéis ver al sutil clarear

Lo que erguido se alzó cuando el sol se ocultaba?

¡Y sus franjas y estrellas en el rudo luchar

Sobre recio baluarte gallardo ondulaba!

Y la bomba al lanzar su rojiza explosión

En la noche dió a ver que allí estaba el pendón.

¡El Pendón Estrellado tremola feliz

En la tierra del valor, sobre libre paíz!

En la costa, velado en brumosa extensión,

Donde hueste enemiga en silencio reposa,

¿Qué es aquello que ondule sobre alzado peñón,

Que la brisa al jugar va a mecer caprichosa?

Ora fulge a la luz de alborada irradiar,

Ora en gloria en las aguas se ve reflejar.

¡El Pendón Estrellado tremola feliz

En la tierra del valor, sobre libre paíz!

¡Sea así: que por siempre luche el hombre de honor

Defendiendo su hogar del furor de la guerra!

En victoria y en paz del supremo en loor

Alce al cielo su voz bendiciendo esta tierra

Y jurando del bien y justicia ir en pos

Nuestro lema hoy sea: "Confiamos en Dios."

¡Y el Pendón Estrellado tremola feliz

En la tierra del valor, sobre libre paíz!

If you want to appreciate the point about what she achieved with these lyrics, you can listen to a previous translation being sung using the link to follow. As you listen, pay attention to what you hear at about the 20 second to 25 second point, where the meter becomes a real problem.

Now, in the next link, you can hear the Clotilde Arias lyrics being sung. It is an amateur recording, but there is no mistaking how much more “sing-able”, so to speak, the lyrics are.

After all of that, it is interesting to consider a yet another version of the National Anthem in Spanish.

In 2006 a hip-hop version of the Anthem was released, with Wyclef Jean, Pitbull, Carlos Ponce, Olga Tanon, and others. It was called Nuestro Himno, and it was part of an album called “Somos Americanos”. Its translation is so much more liberal (producing lines such as "My people keep fighting. It's time to break the chains”), that it should more accurately be called an artistic reinterpretation.

I mention it here because there was quite an uproar over this at the time, a controversy that collided rather uncomfortably with the immigration debate. George W. Bush personally weighed in, stating that "The national anthem ought to be sung in English."

This debate produced some strong opinions. Some say that the very act of attempting to translate the Anthem sullies something sacred about it. I would answer that the Christian Bible, which many people would certainly uphold as sacred, itself has been translated into well over 500 languages. Has it been sullied by this process, or has it been made more accessible in current contexts?

What I saw when I watched the video seemed to me patriotic, inclusive, and hopeful. It also struck me as vindication of the belief that worthy, fundamental truths exist as independent of language.

You can form your own opinion. Use the link below.

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