Gary Littman

OWNER OF THE LANGUAGE HOUSE

Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes*

* Le chemin de la gloire est construite par les cadavres de nos ennemis

I like La Marseillaise, the French national anthem (hymne national). It’s stirring and inspiring. But then, I found a translation of its bloody lyrics. I now sympathise with French footballers and others who seem to be tongue-tied when it thunders, pre-match or pre-ceremony, over the loudspeakers.

Would any vaguely responsible person in 2014 really wish to enthusiastically sing the following lyrics?

Do you hear in the countryside? The roar of these savage soldiers? They come right into our arms; To cut the throats of your sons and women! (Entendez-vous dans nos campagnes; Mugir ces féroces soldats? Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras. Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes!)

May impure blood water our fields! (Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons)

Anthems are generally pretty ugly songs, both musically and lyrically.

We educate our children to behave compassionately and non-violently in our cosmopolitan multi-national cities. We speak to them of fair play, respect and ethnic and sexually diversity. We encourage them to give blood, not to spill it, nor irrigate our lands with it. Yet we expect them to proudly and fervently chant racist and violent diatribe with a hand over their hearts.

Many anthems are tribal calls to war.  They speak of rivers of blood, death to the foreigners and our own selfless death in defence of the sacred lands within our glorious borders. It’s all a bit Kim Jong-unesque.  A little uncivilised in this day and age, one might think.

Perhaps it’s a French thing, but the Algerian national anthem Qassaman (We Pledge) written in 1956 by poet writer Moufdi Zakaria is as dire as La Marseillaise. It is sung to the beat of war; the melody of machine guns and the rhythm of gunpowder.

We swear by the lightning that destroys, By the streams of generous blood being shed.   When we spoke, none listened to us, So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm, And the sound of machine guns as our melody…

This cry for war is perhaps understandable, as it was allegedly first written on the walls of Zakaria’s cell in blood between spells of torture in a French colonial prison. Most people would agree that things have since improved somewhat.

Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians) was written by a 20 year old.

As you can imagine, we sing of lazy summery afternoons, sensual kisses, floral dresses, homemade pasta and fine wines in Tuscany. No, of course we don’t. The over-riding sentiment is sacrifice: we are ready to die (siam pronti alla morte). This line is sung four times in each chorus and the chorus is sung five times. That is 20 times each anthem, or brainwashing according to a UN charter.

We sing at the top of our lungs of the Italy that we all know: 

Mercenary swords, they're feeble reeds. The Austrian eagle has already lost its plumes. The blood of Italy and the Polish blood it drank, along with the Cossack. But it burned its heart."

It’s just the kind of merry song that unites Europe.

The Turkish national anthem İstiklâl marşı elevates martyrdom to a new level.

Render your chest as armour and your body as trench! For only then, shall my fatigued tombstone, if there is one, prostrate a thousand times in ecstasy, and tears of fiery blood shall flow out of my every wound, and my lifeless body shall gush out from the earth like an eternal spirit.

If the Americans had heard (and understood) the Vietnamese national anthem in the 1950s they would have quickly understood that dominos was a game to be played while eating pizza rather than a political theory to base a war upon. The Vietnamese anthem, The Song of the Marching Troops (Tiến Quân Ca) basically translates as: I wouldn’t make me angry, if I were you….

Our flag, red with the blood of victory, bears the spirit of the country; The distant rumbling of the guns mingles with our marching song; The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes;  For too long have we swallowed our hatred. Be ready for all sacrifices.

Hats off to Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina and San Marino. They are the only countries that have wordless anthems; a trend that should definitely be adopted worldwide.  Besides, who actually knows all the words to their anthem and, for that matter, who would really want to sing with pride about gushing rivers of blood?

Thankfully, there are some anthems that lift hearts and souls, rather than swords and guns. One is called the European Union Anthem.

More reading:

Six national anthems that will make you tremble with fear

Anthem lyrics in English

Anthems to listen to:

France – La Marseillaise

Italy - Il Canto Degli Italiani

Vietnam - Tiến Quân Ca

Liverpool Football Club - You Will Never Walk Alone

Pink Floyd - Fearless (with You will never Walk Alone) starts at 4.40

Queen – We are the Champions

God Save the Queen

The Sex Pistols - God Save the Queen

Whitney Houston -The Star Spangled Banner

Jimi Hendrix – The Star Spangled Banner

 

 

 

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