José can you see?

The controversy over the Spanish translation of the Star-Spangled Banner

by Dennis Baron


Above: A montage of video clips about the issue

Below: the first printed version of what soon became known as the "Star-Spangled Banner" appeared only a day or two after Francis Scott Key wrote the poem. The image is from the Smithsonian Institution web site.



On Friday President Bush rejected a Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that hit the airwaves in conjunction with the May 1 “Day without Immigrants.” Mr. Bush told reporters, “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."

Referring both to the immigration debate and to the controversial Spanish recording of “Nuestro Himno,” which alternates between a close translation of the national anthem and a loose one, the president added, “One of the things that’s very important is when we debate this issue that we not lose our national soul.”

On Monday Senator Lamar Alexander (R., Tennessee) seconded the president’s message and introduced a Senate Resolution “affirming that statements of national unity, including the National Anthem, should be recited or sung in English.”

Alexander reminds us that, just as we wouldn’t want the Pledge of Allegiance recited “in French, or German, or Russian, or Hindi, or even Chinese (which after Spanish, is the second most spoken foreign language in the United States) . . . . we shouldn’t sing the national anthem in Spanish or any other foreign language.”

Although the Pledge of Allegiance was not written until 1892, and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” composed in 1814, did not become the national anthem until 1931, most people acknowledge that their words express the national soul as effectively as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

And it’s a commonly-held belief that the language of our sacred civic texts – the English of British colonizers and empire-builders – somehow embodies the enlightened spirit of American democracy, a spirit which can’t be expressed in words from other tongues.

But foreign languages were not a problem for the nation’s founders, who chose the Latin E pluribus unum, ‘from many, one,’ as the national motto. And officially-sponsored French versions of our Declaration of Independence sought to encourage the Québécois to rebel against their British rulers and fueled the revolutionary spirit against the monarchy in France.

It turns out that the American government has always recognized the practical need to communicate with nonanglophone residents in their languages. The national anthem itself was translated into Spanish as early as 1919, during the hey-day of Americanization and long before bilingual education became controversial. It and several other versions of the anthem are featured on the Spanish-language version of the U.S. State Department’s web site. Moreover, Pres. Bush himself often joined in the singing of a Spanish version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during his first presidential campaign, and a pop singer performed the national anthem in Spanish for the president at Mr. Bush’s first inauguration.

We freely translate our most sacred religious texts into the vernacular because few of us can read the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Sanskrit, Arabic, or Latin with any degree of understanding. There’s no reason to build an English-only bubble around our civic documents. After all, it’s not a common English language, but commonly-shared ideals, laws and culture, that provide the glue holding American society together.

The 2000 Census reports that 94% of the adults in this country speak English, and there are clear indicators that although immigration is up, immigrants continue to adopt English today at rates comparable to those of past generations. With a general policy of linguistic tolerance, the United States has become a nation of monolingual English speakers – a feat that countries seeking to impose official languages on their citizens look at with envy.

English is in no danger from the Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “Nuestro Himno” is no more a threat to national unity or the national aesthetic than the renditions that precede our baseball games or the versions recorded so controversially by Jimi Hendrix, José Feliciano, Tiny Tim, Dolly Parton, or Roseanne Barr. We will even survive the Mozart-meets-John Philip Sousa anthem played on original instruments which can be heard on the Smithsonian Institution’s web site.

first printed copy of anthem