Friday, April 28, 2006

Oy vey! Der Star spengld bener!


Those who are interested in the controversy surrounding Nuestro Himno, the recently released Spanish language version of the National Anthem might take a look at this 1943 translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Yiddish by Dr. Abraham Asen, described as "the foremost Yiddish adapter of English poetry," and proudly presented in commemoration of the one hundred anniversary of the death of Francis Scott Key:

O'zog, kenstu sehn, wen bagin licht dervacht,
Vos mir hoben bagrist in farnachtigen glihen?
Die shtreifen un shtern, durch shreklicher nacht,
Oif festung zich hoiben galant un zich tsein?
Yeder blitz fun rocket, yeder knal fun kanon,
Hot bawizen durch nacht: az mir halten die Fohn!
O, zog, tzi der "Star Spangled Banner" flatert in roim,
Ueber land fun die freie, fun brave die heim!

Is this a patriotic act of affirmation of all that is great about America or just a shonda fur di goyim? We report, you decide!


Maybe Oprah should feature Gregory Jay's American Literature and the Culture Wars and Werner Sollors's Multilingual America on her book club so we can actually get some informed opinion on the question you raise?

Personally, I do not think the translation is a problem for American society. I think that those who support the assimilation of immigrants are focusing too exclusively on language and not enough on values. As far as assimilation goes, English has mostly instrumental value: it facilitates the acquisition of important American values and civic education that have intrinsic societal value. The primary goal in assimilation should be acquiring those values; the means to that end should be largely secondary.

That is not to say that English acquisition isn’t important, because it is, particularly for the individual immigrants, who can find their employment opportunities limited by their linguistic ability. I think that fact is enough to motivate English-language acquisition. The problem is that ESL opportunities in this country are severely limited. For example, although states may offer ESL training as part of their social welfare programs, many (if not most) preclude the use of welfare funds for ESL training. Others who do offer ESL classes nonetheless do not give them job training credit like they do high-school equivalency or technical training classes. Misguided decisions like these (largely driven by short-term fiscal concerns) impede English-language acquisition and gainful employment while risking the creation of an economic underclass held in place by their inadequate language skills.

Those who are truly concerned about the preservation of English as the unofficial-official language of the United States need to realize that expressing moral outrage over the prevalence of Spanish is ignoring the real problem that they are helping to facilitate: it’s too difficult to learn English as a second language in this country. We need a new dedication of resources that provides ESL opportunities, particularly in the job training context. Mere rhetoric is not going to make this problem go away; we need to put our money where our mouths are.

I blogged about this here.

In my opinion, the only legitimate reason for anyone to be concerned about a Spanish language version of the national anthem would be if someone tried to impose the Spanish version as a replacement for, or addition to, the English version at a public event at which the national anthem would traditionally be sung.

The Spanish version of the national anthem might get airplay on some Spanish-language radio stations. But I have seen no evidence of anyone trying to "impose" the Spanish version on the nation. The only events at which the national anthem is commonly sung are sports events. At Olympic medal ceremonies, only the music is played without lyrics.

Until someone demands the national anthem be sung in Spanish at a sports event or at some government meeting, then I see no reason to be concerned. I have not heard anyone even suggest there should be some official or publicly recognized parity between the English and Spanish versions of the national anthem. Unless and until this happens, then I view the condemnations of the Spanish version of the national anthem to be nothing but raw prejudice and hatred. It is simply people seeking to repress something for the sole reason that they are "horrified" at the thought of it. In my opinion, that is not a legitimate reason to be against something.

The National Anthem is a reminder of a time when a revolution was needed to secure liberty and freedom (but not for all). Today, revolution is frowned upon, as terrorism may be involved (just as terrorism may be involved with war, just or unjust, although war is not frowned upon when God is on your side). Democracy - liberty, freedom - is the goal, including by imposition. But revolution may lead to something less desirable than democracy. Some former Soviet Republics trying to make their way into the global economy focus upon "evolution" not "revolution" in explaining to the "free" world that it should not expect democracy, as we in the west know it, to emerge overnight.

So perhaps the Yiddish version should start:
"Oy vey, ken't you see?"

My apologies for the incorrect reference to a revolution rather than the war of 1812 that inspired Francis Scott Keyes.

I find it inappropriate that this Spanish version refers to the U.S. flag as a "bandera sagrada" (sacred flag).

Suprisingly, the same is done in this official website:

Language as an ethnic identifying trait is ingrained deeply in some societies.

One line in the text version of the Spanglish anthem translated says, "My people continue the struggle, now it's time to break their chains."

That couplet certainly embodies the passion which infuses most such bulky state-sponsored compositions; though I have not linked to your audio file to hear it, reportedly the performing artists resort to contemporary rhythms in places.

It is unlikely even Anglophones in our time would be likely to intone the century XVII song on which the US anthem was superimposed; consider the following refrain:
"And, besides, I'll instruct you like me to entwine
"The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine".
It was an imbiber's song. One imagines John Stafford Smith's slight revision of the melody and Francis Scott Keyes' addition of the actual anthem's lyrics to some extent were inspired by appreciation of the dignity of the old British beer drinker's song, Anacreon in Heaven, q.v., though I have heard even that continental origin was derived from Bavaria, where such matters are subtle and advanced.

In researching this topic I happened upon the inevitable: Banned in Boston: 1944 Igor Stravinsky conducted an atonal version of the US anthem, but police arrived to prevent a reperformance the subsequent nite. Such is the relative importance of discord and altruism.

It is a difficult song to sing. One appreciate's Stravinsky's instant insight that here is an opportunity for a measure of dissonance to create a variation upon a fairly uninspired score, John Stafford Smith's pardon requested.

Actually, if one imagines composer Smith on his Gloucester cathedral pipeorgan writing the melody, the cumbersome tonality of the anthem is more understandable, given the acoustics of that performance space.

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