Saturday, January 19, 2013

Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias

Where: American History Museum

When: through April 28, 2013

Yet another entertaining and informative trip to the Small Documents Gallery!  This exhibit focuses on the life of Clotilde Arias, who (among many other things) wrote an official Spanish language translation of the Star Spangled Banner.  The Museum had put her translation on display a couple of years ago, and I was eager to learn more about the person who had written it.

The first thing I noticed was that the museum informed visitors that the Star Spangled Banner was on display - probably not necessary, but good to see nonetheless.  I've been frustrated before by their lack of cross-references, and I'm glad to say that I have no cause for complaint this time.

The museum also set up some stuff outside the gallery, so as to draw visitors in - also good!  The Small Documents Gallery is down a corridor, and easy to overlook, so the more you can alert people to its existence, the better.  I say this and mean it, although part of the attraction of the Gallery for me is the fact that it's often empty when I come to visit.  Not so this time, the display outside in the corridor seems to have worked in luring people in.

So who was Clotilde Arias?  She was a Peruvian immigrant who came to New York City in 1923 to study music.  In 1945, the State Department asked for a translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Spanish and Portuguese, in order to spread American values in Latin America.  Previous translations were not singable - apparently, they were simply word for word translations.  The government was looking for something that could be sung to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner (originally the official song of a London club, the Anacreontic Society, and the lyrics celebrated wine, women and entertainment - bet you didn't know that, did you?  I certainly didn't.).  Arias' version was chosen as the official Spanish language translation, and is the only version allowed to be sung.  She received $150 for her work.

Although Arias was separated from Francis Scott Key by time, gender and ethnicity, they are tied together by her work on the song.  I found that concept very interesting: that two people who never met or worked together and would have had little in common if they had, are able to share the credit for creating something.

The translation was not the only work that Arias did, however.  She translated Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and numerous advertising pieces into Spanish, for use in Latin American markets.  She also wrote her own Spanish language advertising jingles.  She also became involved in the idea of Pan Americanism - the idea that the countries of the Western Hemisphere should be more unified.  For example, she advocated requiring Spanish to be taught in U.S. schools, in order to foster more unity with Latin America.

This display was by far the most elaborate of the ones I've seen over the years in this space.  Whether this is a one-time extravaganza, or a harbinger of things to come, only time will tell.  Much as I like the solitude and the homely arrangement of artifacts, I hope they continue to show more "splashy" exhibits here - more visitors will be likely to take a look at what's on offer, and that's a good thing.

Verdict: Make time for this show the next time you're at American History - interesting and fun.

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