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From star-spangled to estrellado: US Anthem translator celebrated

Arias at the piano Image copyright Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Image caption Arias at the piano in 1925

The Star-Spangled Banner, which was written by Francis Scott Key exactly 200 years ago, is one of the most famous national anthems in the world. Less famous is the official Spanish version, which came into existence much later.

In the 1930s and 1940s, after a series of military interventions in Latin America, the United States government set out to redefine its relationship with its southern neighbours by promoting trade and cooperation and spreading its values.

Implemented by President Franklin D Roosevelt, it was called the Good Neighbour Policy.

In 1945, the State Department wanted to share US patriotism with Latin America, and called for submissions to produce a Spanish version of the national anthem.

The lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner had been translated into Spanish previously, but the goal this time was to create a version as close to the original as possible, while still working musically.

Image copyright Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Image caption Arias with her son Roger in New York City

In the end, the US government chose the work by Peruvian immigrant Clotilde Arias, a New York-based composer.

And so El Pendon Estrellado, the only official translation of the national anthem that was allowed to be sung, was born.

But singing the anthem in Spanish never really caught on. Today, only a few recorded versions are known to exist.

One of these recordings was specially commissioned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for a recent exhibition on Clotilde Arias' life.

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Media captionListen to Coral Cantigas perform Arias' translation

Clotilde Arias arrived in New York in 1923 from Iquitos, a city in the Peruvian rainforest where her family had benefited from the rubber boom.

She wanted to study music in the US, but her hopes were dashed by the Great Depression. Her family needed her to work instead of going to school, so she took a series different jobs: she was a translator, a composer of classical and popular music, and wrote jingles for advertising campaigns.

She also almost single-handedly raised her only son, Roger Arias, who is now a retired US Air Force colonel.

"I remember her sitting at the piano and she would sing the words," Mr Arias says, when asked about the process of translating the anthem.

Image copyright Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Image caption Coral Cantigas, Washington DC's premiere Latino chorus, performed the anthem for the Smithsonian

"She was never good at singing," he says.

But she was undeterred, and dedicated to getting the translation right.

"She would sit there while we were eating dinner and she would say 'wait a minute, sonny, I have an idea'. And she would go to the table and write some words. I guess she was thinking all the time."

Clotilde Arias' version of the Star-Spangled Banner benefited from the fact that she was both a translator and a composer. The version she submitted is almost identical in content to the English version while still keeping the rhythm of the original intact.


Image copyright Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Image caption Arias' original manuscript, courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Extremely faithful

The Smithsonian describes Arias' translation as "a faithful translation that could be sung as required" by her State Department contract. Some examples of her work are below.

¡Mirad!, ¿Podéis ver al sutil clarear lo que erguido se alzó cuando el Sol se ocultaba?

Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?

¡Y sus franjas y estrellas en el rudo luchar, sobre recio baluarte gallardo ondulaba!

Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight, O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

Y la bomba al lanzar su rojiza explosión, en la noche dio a ver que allí estaba el pendón.

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

"¿El pendón estrellado tremola feliz en la tierra del valor, en libre país?

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?


The National Museum of American History praised the faithfulness of her translation. Impressive, they say "as Spanish requires more words than English to convey the same message".

"The idea was to send her work to Latin American consulates in the US, as well as to the countries themselves," says Magdalena Mieri, who helped organise the Smithsonian exhibition.

"Nevertheless, we don't have any record of that actually happening. It was indeed distributed, but we don't know whether it was sung."

Clotilde Arias died in 1959 at the age of 58. Today she is mostly remembered for El Pendon Estrellado and for her song Huiracocha, a composition that pays tribute to the Inca god.

Her son, Roger, admits he has not listened much to his mother's version of the song. Still, he believes the song should be played more today.

Image caption Roger Arias has travelled to Peru to learn more about his mother and her legacy

"It would be good to have the Star-Spangled Banner sung in Latin America", he says.

"If it's done properly, it would do a lot to help the relationship between Latin America and the US, because they've lost touch with the US in many ways."

The song could be a "musical connection," he says, to bring the regions closer together.