TCS Daily

'Oh, Say Can You Si?'

By Lee Harris - May 2, 2006 12:00 AM

There has been a lot of controversy recently on the question of whether the American National Anthem should be sung in Spanish. The President has said, No, it should only be sung in English, while his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice recently stated that she saw no harm in singing it in Spanish. Meanwhile, conservative talk shows have seized on the issue, and battle-lines are being drawn between those who say No and those who say Si, with passions running high on both sides.

For many English-speaking Americans, the Anthem controversy has become virtually a question of patriotism. The Star-Spangled Banner was written in English, and it should stay in English. Others are concerned at the idea that singing the National Anthem in Spanish is just another step on the slippery slope towards creating an America in which there are two official languages, English and Spanish, just as there are two official languages in Canada, English and French -- and few English-speaking Americans want that. On the other hand, Spanish-speaking Americans believe that they should have the right to sing what is after all their national anthem, too, but in their own native language. In short, for both sides, the controversy has become a hot button political issue, in which what is at stake is not the National Anthem, but a host of other divisive and vexatious matters.

But there is another way to look at the controversy, and that is to see it as a question not of politics, but simply of aesthetics.

In a song, you don't have words on one side and music on the other -- you have a fusion of the two, and in a great song this fusion can be so intense that the very idea of changing the words is as repugnant as the idea of changing the melody that accompanies them. If I were told that someone with a beautiful baritone voice had just released a recording of Schumann's song cycles in English, I would be appalled. This is not because I am opposed to the English language, but because Schumann wrote his music to fit perfectly the German poetry that he used as his text, which, in most cases, was poetry of exquisite and untranslatable beauty and delicacy, like the poems of Heinrich Heine.

I feel the same way about opera as well; there are recordings of Rossini and Wagner in English, but nothing on earth could persuade me to listen to them. Rossini's music is in Italian, just as Wagner's music is in German. Similarly, I would not care to listen to a Cole Porter song sung in Russian, or Gilbert and Sullivan patter song sung in French -- again, it is not because I have anything against Russian or French, but in both cases, the music and the words are simply too miraculously blended to imagine the one without the other. You just cannot separate them without doing violence to the organic whole that is the song itself, no more than you can cut off a man's head and still expect him to hold an interesting conversation with you.

Take a humble case: Rogers and Hammerstein's song from their first great hit, Oklahoma.

I'm just a girl who can't say no;
I'm in a terrible fix,
I always say, "Come on, let's go,"
Just when I oughta say "Nix."

Okay -- how do you translate that into another language? You could try to make a literal translation, but could you keep the peppy rhythm, the slangy rhymes, the breezy and cheeky spontaneity of the lyrics? And anyone who knows the melody to this song will realize at once that the words and the tune are a perfect fit; the melody seems literally to leap out of the words themselves.

Poetry is what is lost in the translation, and the only way to appreciate poetry in another language is to learn the language. But the same principle applies even more forcefully when the poetry has been fused with the music in a song; for then you lose not only the poetry, but the soul of the song.

Let us keep the soul of our National Anthem intact. Keep it in English, and if you are a Spanish-speaking American, do not regard this as a slur on your own beautiful and noble language, for it certainly is not meant as such. Your cultural heritage is rich with its own gorgeous songs and melodies, and you should teach your children never to forget them. But you should also teach them the English words that accompany the soaring melody that has stirred so many immigrants who came here from other lands speaking other languages, and who, without exception, learned to memorize the National Anthem of the home that welcomed them, singing the same English words, though in a hundred different accents.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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