Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Sobre Tierra de Libres

Should the national anthem be sung in Spanish? The recent release of Nuestro Hymno, a Spanish version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” has been greeted with rabid ambiguity. On some Spanish-language stations it was widely played, but some avoided it. President Bush has recently criticized it, saying that the anthem should simply be sung in English, period, even though the Drudge Report notes, quoting the Kevin Phillips book American Dynasty that Bush himself sang it in Spanish when campaigning among ”Hispanics”.

FYI, here are two translations of the anthem, one old, one new. The first is from a version that, according to Wikipedia, was issued in 1919. (In both versions I include only the most well-known first verse).

Amanece: ¿no veis, a la luz de aurora,
Lo que tanto aclamamos la noche al caer?
Sus estrellas, sus barras flotaban ayer
En el fiero combate en senal de victoria.
Fulgor de cohetes, de bombas es truendo,
Por la noche decian: "¡Se va defendiendo!"
¡Oh, decid! ¿Despliega aun su hermosura estrellada,
Sobre tierra de libres, la bandera sagrada?

Below is a largely similar translation of the current version, copied from NPR, with their accompanying translation:

Verso 1
Amanece, lo veis?, a la luz de la aurora?
lo que tanto aclamamos la noche al caer?
sus estrellas sus franjas
flotaban ayer
en el fiero combate
en señal de victoria,
fulgor de lucha, al paso de la libertad.
Por la noche decían:
"Se va defendiendo!"
Oh decid! Despliega aún
Su hermosura estrellada
sobre tierra de libres,
la bandera sagrada?

English translation:

Verse 1
It's sunrise. Do you see by the light of the dawn
What we proudly hailed last nightfall?
Its stars, its stripes
yesterday streamed
above fierce combat
a symbol of victory
the glory of battle, the march toward liberty.
Throughout the night, they proclaimed: "We will defend it!"
Tell me! Does its starry beauty still wave
above the land of the free,
the sacred flag?

I don’t speak Spanish at all and read it very poorly, and so I am not in a position to assess either the accuracy or any deeper meaning in the more recent translation, nor the importance of any inconsistencies between the two. But given the changes in that language since 1919 there doesn’t appear to be much to choose from between them (although something is clearly lost in the translation to English). So what are we to make of this act?

Economic theory suggests two possibilities, as does the very title (“Our Hymn’), with its confusion over whether the possessive adjective refers to the nation as a whole or is an exclusive possession of its Spanish-speaking subset. The first is that it is an expression of devotion to the U.S. In this instance, it is an attempt to marry one’s own culture with love for the melting pot. It joins the Jimi Hendrix version at Woodstock, Marvin Gaye’s memorable one from the 1983 NBA All-Star game and others as loving variations on a theme. Each one is an addition, making the anthem more meaningful as its sentiments spread to more communities.

Another possibility, one feared by many, is that it is the foot in the door of balkanization. In this view Spanish speakers will have one anthem, English speakers another, and so it is a declaration of independence of sorts – we are here, and we will alter the anthem to suit our needs. A person truly fearful of demographic trends might argue it is outright linguistic colonization, a takeover of the anthem by those not interested in assimilating.

So which is it? The trouble with the diversity interpretation is that no one who is skeptical will believe it, because it is what economists call cheap talk. Cheap talk occurs in some games of signaling, in which the buyer of a product can’t observe some trait, but by incurring some cost the seller can persuade the buyer that he has invested a lot in the product. Car buyers, for example, don’t know car quality but the seller will invest in a warranty. Or universities trying to persuade would-be students and faculty that they invest a lot in instruction and research, when the actual investments are largely unobservable, might invest a lot in something that is unrelated but observable and expensive, like a big football stadium.

But when the signal is costless to invest in, it has no value because the buyer knows it is free to offer. He is therefore not persuaded that the seller is offering a high-quality product. Here the act of translating and performing the anthem is not a big sacrifice, and so no one takes it seriously as a sign of commitment to the U.S. A much more serious sign is enlistment in the military, and all too many illegal immigrants have in fact done that, with some being killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Less serious but still very informative signs might include such things as contributing to American social institutions. Jews and Catholics, viewed skeptically by many Americans in earlier eras, did this by building hospitals to serve their own communities which eventually became essential for the broader society.

And so the anthem has to be interpreted at best as an empty gesture, at worst a hostile one. Lee Harris has a fascinating article in which he analyzes a sign in the recent protests over immigration-law changes that called for a “Paró General,” or “general strike”:

A general strike is not to be confused with a normal strike. A normal strike takes place when workers refuse to work until a specific set of demands is met by those who have been employing them. Sometimes the workers get what they want; sometimes they reach a settlement; sometimes the strike is simply broken, as occurred during the strike of the air traffic controllers under Ronald Reagan. But the general strike is not targeted at any particular businesses or industries -- its target is the state itself. It is designed to intimidate the state into acceding to the political objectives of those who have called for the general strike.
The very idea of a general strike runs contrary to all the traditions of American politics. Instead of working within and through the traditional political system, those who championed the general strike have used it as a method of forcing the government to give into their demands by tactics such as taking to the streets and paralyzing the normal course of life.

The demonstrations are in this interpretation an attempt to import a foreign culture that gets what it wants through the mob rather than through the slow course of politics, with the latter being essentially to both liberty and stability. While the insight is provocative, it is surely too much to make of a single sign, although it does jibe with my own concerns about the fallacy of the public will that many participants in mass demonstrations often fall prey to. Overall, while I find the Spanish version of the anthem interesting and aesthetically pleasing, I find it hard to see how it makes people more comfortable with the political aims of those who recorded it.


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