THE BLOG
06/22/2010 02:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Those National Anthems: What Are They Singing?

Watching the World Cup game between Uruguay and Mexico today, I found myself wondering, as I often do before these encounters, about the national anthems. I love to see the players placing their hands on their hearts and lustily belting out the words of their country's hymns (many of which sound like they were written by Rossini impersonators) -- but I do wonder what exactly are they are singing.

Today I decided to find out. With the help of Wikipedia, here is a partial guide.

Uruguay's anthem is the world's longest at 105 bars. It takes over five minutes to perform in its entirety. Fortunately, we get a shortened version at sporting events. Here's the first stanza:

Orientals, our nation or the grave, Liberty or with glory we die.
Orientals, our nation or the grave, Liberty or with glory we die.
It's the vows that our souls pronounce and which heroically we will fulfill.
It's the vows that our souls pronounce and which heroically we will fulfill.
We will fulfill.
Its the vows that our souls pronounce and which heroically we will fulfill.
We will fulfill.
We will fulfill. We will fulfill. We will fulfill.

The words were written by Francisco Acuña de Figuero, who also wrote the national anthem of Paraguay:

Paraguayans, Republic or Death!
Our spirit gave us liberty
Neither oppressors nor slaves exist
Where union and equality reign.

I quickly discovered that this theme - liberty or death - is predominant in these songs, especially for Latin American and European anthems. Of course, these songs reflect a history of bloody struggles for independence. Another similar example comes in the chorus of the Argentine national anthem:

May the laurels be eternal
the ones we managed to win,
the ones we managed to win.
Let us live crowned in glory...
or let us swear in glory to die!
Or let us swear in glory to die!
Or let us swear in glory to die!

The refrain of the Honduran anthem offers some relief with a rather lovely description of the nation's landscape as reflected in the flag:

Your flag is a splendor of sky
Crossed with a band of snow;
And there can be seen, in its sacred depths,
Five pale blue stars.
In your emblem, which a rough sea
With its wild waves shields,
Behind the bare summit of a volcano,
There is a star of clean light.

However, by the time we reach the final stanza, it's back to death:

To guard this divine emblem
We shall march, oh fatherland, to the death;
Our luck will be generous
If we die thinking of your love.
Defending your holy flag,
And shrouded in its glorious folds,
There will be many, Honduras, your dead,
But all shall fall with honor.

Brazil has won more World Cups than anyone. This is what they sing:

The placid banks of Ipiranga heard
the resounding cry of a heroic people
and in shining rays, the sun of liberty
shone in our homeland's skies at this very moment.

If the assurance of this equality
we achieved by our mighty arms,
in thy bosom, O freedom,
our chest shall defy death itself!

O beloved,
idolized homeland,
Hail, hail!

European anthems also tend to be rather bloody. We all know about the Marseillaise with its warning of enemies coming to "slit the throats of your sons and wives" but Il Canto degli Italiani (The Song of the Italians) stays firmly on message:

Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called.
Let us join in a cohort,
We are ready to die.
We are ready to die,
Italy has called!

Portugal takes a similarly direct approach:

To arms, to arms!
Over the land, over the sea,
To arms, to arms!
For our Fatherland, fight!
Against the cannons, march, march!

As befits a nation that upholds neutrality and stays out of wars, the Swiss have a Psalm-like anthem, appropriately entitled, "The Swiss Psalm."

When the morning skies grow red
And o'er us their radiance shed,
Thou, O Lord, appearest in their light.
When the Alps glow bright with splendour,
Pray to God, to Him surrender,
For you feel and understand,
That He dwelleth in this land.

What of newer nations? Slovenia, which won independence in 1991, turned to a poem by Romantic poet France Prešeren. It's a refreshing change.

God's blessing on all nations,
Who long and work for that bright day,
When o'er earth's habitations
No war, no strife shall hold its sway;
Who long to see
That all men free,
No more shall foes, but neighbors be.

Slovakia became independent in 1993 but also turned to the work of a 19th century poet, Janko Matúška, for its national anthem:

That Slovakia of ours
has been fast asleep so far.
But the thunder's lightning
is rousing it
to come awake.

One of the more interesting anthems is Spain's which has no official words, those of the Franco era having been abolished but not replaced.

The Dutch anthem, "The William" claims to be the oldest in the world dating from 1574 although it was not officially adopted until 1932. (Japanese may dispute this claim: their anthem, Kimi ga yo, has 9th century lyrics but a 19th century tune.) The Dutch anthem has 15 stanzas which tell the story of William the Silent, who led the Dutch revolt against the Spanish.

The Japanese anthem has a pleasant haiku-like vibe:

May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss


Strangely, North Korea provides one of the least warlike anthems:

Let morning shine on the silver and gold of this land,
Three thousand leagues packed with natural wealth.
My beautiful fatherland.
The glory of a wise people
Brought up in a culture brilliant
With a history five millennia long.
Let us devote our bodies and minds
To supporting this Korea forever.

And since the tournament is in South Africa, it seems only fair to end with their national anthem adopted in 1997. The first two lines are sung in Xhosa, the next two in Zulu, the next four in Sesotho, the next four in Afrikaans and the final four in English:

God bless Africa
Raise high Her glory
Hear our Prayers
God bless us, her children
God we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation, our nation, South Africa - South Africa
Ringing out from our blue heavens,
From our deep seas breaking round,
Over everlasting mountains,
Where the echoing crags resound,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.