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Apr 30, 2006 4:39 pm

Anthem Translations Old Hat

Some historical context is sorely needed in the current controversy over immigration in general, and the National Anthem in Spanish translation in particular. Translations of the Star Spangled Banner go back over 150 years, and our history demonstrates the foolishness of automatically equating English with loyalty or foreign languages with disloyalty.

O! Sagt, könnt ihr seh’n in des Morgenroths Strahl,
Was so stolz wir im scheidenden Abendroth grüßten?
Die Sterne, die Streifen, die wehend vom Wall,
Im tödlichen Kampf uns den Anblick versüßten?
Hoch flattere die Fahne in herrlicher Pracht,
Beim leuchten der Bomben durch dunkle Nacht.
O! Sagt, ob das Banner, mit Sternen besä’t
Uber’m Lande der Freien und Braven noch weht?

This lively translation, true to the spirit of the original but not slavishly literal, originated in 1851 from the pen of a Texas German, Hermann Seele, the first mayor of New Braunfels. It caught on among German-Americans and hung on for more than half a century. It was still being sung in the bilingual public schools of Indianapolis in 1917. The attached image (a Library of Congress rare document) is a Civil War broadside from ca. 1862. Immigrants made up one quarter of the Union army, Germans alone one tenth. Many of them served in ethnic regiments where German was sometimes used as the language of command as late as 1863. But even if (and perhaps because) they were singing the Star Spangled Banner auf Deutsch, they understood the core principles of the United States better than many Anglophones of American birth who were whistling “Dixie.” Even neo-Confederates should be grateful that they did their part to save this great nation from being divided into a second rate power and a banana republic.
Fast forward to 12 November 2004: the Houston Chronicle reported that 40 of the first 100 Texans killed in the war were Hispanic (some of them not even citizens), a death rate 18 percent higher than their population share. Why am I not surprised?

Walter Kamphoefner
Texas A&M University

[my literal re-translation of the translation:
O say can you see in the morning’s red rays
What so proudly in the fading twilight we saluted?
The stars and stripes, which waving from the wall
In the deathly fight sweetened our view.
May the flag wave high in magnificent splendor
By the flashes of bombs through the dark night.
O say, does that banner, with stars bestrewn
O’er the land of the free and the brave still wave ]

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