Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Something I Didn't Learn in School

I never watch hockey anywhere except the local rink. Maybe if I did, I would hear our national anthem sung in French. Instead, it was my sister's karaoke machine that drew my attention to the French lyrics.

Have you ever seen a literal translation of our national anthem from the French version? Sometime in school, you probably learned that it was originally written in French, but did you learn what the French lyrics mean?

From the Canadian Heritage webpage about the anthem:
  1. O Canada! Land of our forefathers
    Thy brow is wreathed with a glorious garland of flowers.
    As in thy arm ready to wield the sword,
    So also is it ready to carry the cross.
    Thy history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits.

    Thy valour steeped in faith
    Will protect our homes and our rights
    Will protect our homes and our rights.

And a slightly different, perhaps even more literal, no, make that a more insightful translation, from Wikisource:
O Canada! Home of our ancestors,
Your forehead is wreathed with glorious garlands.
Because your arm knows the bearing of the sword,
It knows the bearing of the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats;
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that we sing such different visions of Canada, but I think we should know about it.

"Standing on guard for Canada" leaps to mind from the English version, but there is nothing of that here, at least not in an individual sense. Instead there is a vision of Canada itself wielding the sword; in singing the anthem, the individual is caught up within that vision. A subtle difference, perhaps, but I suspect that it's a powerful difference, too.

What about Canada "carrying the cross?" In the current official English version there is also a religious reference - the petition that "God keep our land glorious and free," but for me it does not convey the same sense of duty to that higher power. To me, carrying the cross means following the way of Jesus, willingly bearing the burden of the cross. Furthermore, to me the cross is a symbol of the place where spirit and matter intersect, and thus represents the lifelong struggle and blessing of being in the world. That's a powerful, humbling image when applied to a nation. Of course, others may hear "carrying the cross" to mean simply preaching conversion. Not many years ago, I too would have heard it that way. I wonder what it means to those who sing it in our national anthem?

When I saw the French lyrics on the karaoke screen, I didn't catch a lot of the meaning. It's twenty years or more since I studied French. The references to flowers and sword and cross all went by me. Still, one phrase leapt out at me from the chorus: "nos droits" - our rights.

I balked at this, as I do at most references to rights, because I think most of us have lost the sense of rights as something to be tended. If we think of rights only as something owed to us, we give up our own power and responsibility to protect, nurture, and even choose our rights. There are many "rights" being trumpeted in this world that I would gladly give up, in order to leave more room for the rights of other peoples, other generations, and other creatures.

I wonder. How differently would we English-speaking Canadians think, if instead of singing about standing on guard for our country, we sang about our country defending our rights?

I wonder. If I had not grown up with the English version of O Canada, what words and phrases in it would sound disturbing or challenging to me?

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