Nuestro Himno

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Thursday, May 4, 2006

YOU DIDN'T recognize the first line of the national anthem, translated into O'odham, the language of the Tohono tribe? Don't feel bad: Two-thirds of Americans don't know all the words in English. Of the one-third who claim they do, only 39 percent, according to a Harris poll, can correctly sing the phrase that follows "whose broad stripes and bright stars" (answer: "through the perilous fight"). Written to a British tune that spans multiple octaves, Francis Scott Key's national anthem has always presented a vocal as well as a verbal challenge. Nevertheless, it has inspired patriotic immigrants and native Americans to produce Finnish, German and Yiddish ("O'zog kenstu senh...") translations as well as O'odham.

As it happens, there are already several Spanish versions, including one written in 1919 and several published on the State Department's Web site. There are other kinds of interpretations, too: Jimi Hendrix is only one of many pop stars who have riffed on the tune, much as artists such as Jasper Johns have found new ways to use the American flag. Converting national symbols into new art forms is an American tradition, which is why the objections to a new Spanish-language recording of the national anthem -- hard to take seriously at first -- are rapidly ceasing to be funny.

Perhaps President Bush was speaking from his gut when he said, "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English." It seems more likely that he was speaking from the part of his brain that calculates how many Republicans dislike his immigration policy. We can't imagine any excuse for the silly resolution introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), demanding that "statements of national unity" be read or sung in English -- never mind that Spanish teachers have been teaching their American students the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish for years.

Are Americans really so insecure that they can't bear to hear their anthem sung in Spanish? We suggest that readers take a moment to listen to "Nuestro Himno" -- a respectful, recognizable, stirring version of a familiar song -- before making up their minds.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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