The backlash created by the Coca-Cola commercial featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in seven languages besides English should, in this day and age, be so contemptible as to be beneath the dignity of a response.
Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t quite grown up enough to rid itself of such jingoistic attitudes.
“America the Beautiful” is a work of art, written as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates and published in 1895. It was first published as a song in 1910. Works of art are translated all the time; without translation, we wouldn’t be able to read such stirring works as “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Dante’s “Inferno.”
The song is not, as a significant portion of the Coke commercial’s bashers have stated in their tweets and posts, the national anthem. May I recommend to those who make that egregious mistake that they adhere to the advice of Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Criticism,” “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing / drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring.” As a public service announcement, I will point out that our national anthem is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written originally as a poem (titled “Defence of Fort M’Henry”) by Francis Scott Key, and later set to music by a British man, John Stafford Smith.
I know this probably just rankles those upset with the commercial even more (I mean, the music for our national anthem was not written by an American!?!?), but it illustrates why the objection to the Coke commercial is so offensive.
We are a nation of immigrants. No one here, outside of the Native Americans, can claim to be only Americans. We are every country and every nationality and every race brought together under the umbrella of this nation. We are a mixture of Armenians and Turks and Greeks and Chinese and Russians and Spaniards and English and Irish and Japanese and West Africans and Persians and Arabs and of every other people from every corner of the world.
We’ve all done great service to this country, no matter what language we speak. My paternal grandfather, an officer in the Chilean navy, came to Washington D.C. to serve with the Office of Strategic Services and help defeat Nazi Germany and Japan. He spoke 13 languages, and yes, one was English. My maternal great-grandmother and grandfather emigrated here from Spain, through Cuba. She never learned to speak English, but helped build a home in Sunnyvale and raised a family of soldiers and entrepreneurs.
Immigrants, often without learning English, helped build the American railroads. They contributed to the powerful economies of New York, Boston and Chicago. Navajos, using their native language as an unbreakable code, befuddled the Japanese in World War II.
And let me also point out that there is nothing inherently American about the English language. It comes, of course, from the English. Sixty countries list English as one of their official languages, including Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria and the Philippines, to name but a few. We speak it because the majority of our colonists on the East Coast were English. Of course, the dominant language of the West Coast for the majority of the time since colonization is Spanish.
The Coke commercial did what we all should be doing – celebrating the diversity of this country. My hope is that those angry with Coke for setting “America the Beautiful” to different languages will eventually be able to see that the spectrum of our backgrounds is a strength for the United States, not a weakness.