José Velasquez immigrated from El Salvador to North Carolina six years ago, learned to speak English fluently, and did so well in his studies that he graduated early from high school last month. José eventually hopes to join the police force, and he was profiled last year in the Charlotte Observer as an example of the American dream. But when he was asked to lead the Garinger High School graduation in the Pledge of Allegiance, first in English, and then again in Spanish for the benefit of Spanish-speaking parents in the audience, Velasquez rekindled a debate over the appropriate language of patriotism that first flared up last spring when promoters released a controversial recording of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in Spanish.
About the same time that Velasquez was stirring things up out east, Chandra Carlson, a student in Nampa, Idaho, became a local hero when she sat down to protest a recitation of the pledge in Spanish in her fifth-grade classroom. She says she sat down because she didn’t understand the words, but Carlson’s fans are hailing her as the next Rosa Parks.
To understand the controversy over translating the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, we need to know something about their history. Francis Scott Key composed the Star-Spangled Banner in 1814 to commemorate the defense of Fort McHenry against the British during the War of 1812. Key was being patriotic, to be sure, but he expressed his patriotism by putting new words to a British drinking song, a process of adaptation that has a lot in common with translation. Many Americans believe that the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner is so difficult to sing that it helps to have a drink first, but whatever the reason, Key’s creation didn’t become the official national anthem until 1931.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, an American Baptist minister and socialist who worked among the poor and probably wasn’t named after Francis Scott Key. Bellamy’s salute was intended to replace an earlier one written by a certain Col. Balch which pledges loyalty to an explicitly god-fearing, English-speaking nation: "We give our heads and our hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one Flag.”
Interestingly, Bellamy drops both monotheism and monolingualism from his own pledge of allegiance, leading one to suspect that the author might not object to having his words translated into the languages of the immigrants he worked among.
Bellamy’s pledge didn’t initially specify the United States of America. But like the Constitution, the pledge was considered a living document that could be amended and reinterpreted, and those words were added to the pledge in 1923. In its latest revision, God was put back in the pledge in 1954.
Many schools required students to recite the pledge of allegiance, a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court initially approved but ultimately rejected, but the pledge remained unofficial until 1942, when it was finally written into federal law as part of the U.S. flag code.
Despite the ruckus being raised today over the North Carolina graduation, translations of the pledge abound. The state of Washington’s website has versions in Spanish, German and French. Another superpatriotic site adds Hindi, Portuguese and Dutch. Yet a third offers the pledge in Italian.
But today’s hyperpatriots, who see nothing wrong with translating the Bible into English, insist that translating sacred political texts like the Declaration of Independence or the Pledge of Allegiance into another language perverts their meaning. As they see it, no one can possibly understand the principles on which the United States was founded unless they can read these documents in English.
But the American revolutionaries of 1776, who at one point actually entertained the idea of choosing a language other than English for the brand-new nation (Hebrew, Greek, and French were all considered and rejected), translated founding documents like the Articles of Confederation into French and German, hoping to enlist the Québecois and the German settlers in Pennsylvania in the fight against England, and the U.S. State Department translated the national anthem into Spanish in 1919 as part of its Americanization efforts.
The Star-Spangled Banner was translated into Yiddish in the 1940s (more Americanization), and there’s even a version in Samoan. Presumably the residents of American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific, sing it to the strains of a steel guitar to remind them that they’re not part of the nearby nation of Samoa, which has been independent since 1962.
To underscore their opposition to translating American symbols like the pledge into other people’s languages, English-only advocates claim that English is the glue holding our diverse and compulsively centrifugal nation together. While they insist that language is the one thing Americans have in common, in fact what keeps the nation going is not a specific language, but the ideas, customs, and laws that make the country what it is today, that plus an unhealthy appetite for fast food.
But if kids like José Velasquez keep reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a foreign language and kids like Chandra Carlson keep sitting down when they hear it, it won’t be long before someone asks Congress to put English back into the very pledge that originally rejected it, further proof that our supposedly immutable national treasures are living documents after all, documents that can be edited, amended, and yes, even translated into other languages without losing meaning.