A legitimate translation of Günter Grass’s “Was gesagt werden muss”

(UPDATE: Here are my notes on this and other translations. Since I first published this post, I have added a little bit of material to the fourth stanza. I am also indebted to Bernard Katz for pointing out that “pre-emptive strike” really has to be “first strike,” and I’ve changed it accordingly, and have likewise changed “drops” to “drop.”)

This is, I believe, the first legitimate translation of Günter Grass’s poem, entitled “What Must Be Said,” into English. I can only barely read German. I cannot speak it. It was not for me to translate this poem, but I have done so because no-one else will.

The translations done by the Associated Press and by various laypersons have been so incompetent that they are actually immoral. It was also immoral of The New York Times to publish stories about this poem, and the controversy surrounding it, without bothering to find or pay for a decent translation. “What must be said” deserves a fair hearing. Israel has banned Günter Grass. Until right now, nobody who speaks English but not German could even say whether it has acted justly.

At times, I have been ashamed of the actions of my government. I have sometimes been ashamed of the actions of American corporations. But this is the first time I have had to be ashamed of the entire scholarly community, not only in my country, but in the whole of the English-speaking world.

I will write some notes on the translation in a forthcoming post.


Why am I silent, silent for too long,
about that which has obviously been practiced
in war games where we, the survivors,
are footnotes at best?

The alleged right to a first strike —
against a subjugated people,
compelled into obedience,
acting in pageants orchestrated by bullies,
and now, under their influence,
suspected of constructing nuclear weapons —
threatens the Iranian people with annihilation.

Why do I stop short of naming
that other country
which for years, in secret,
has been developing nuclear capabilities
not subject to inspection or control?

My silence is part of what I now recognize
to be the greater silence, the constraining lie
enforced by the familiar threat
that we will be judged guilty of anti-Semitism.

And now, my country
(because it is still held to account
for its unprecedented crimes)
can describe as “reparations”
what it does in its own commercial interest:
delivering another U-Boat to Israel,
one capable of deploying devastating warheads
against targets inside a nation that has not, so far,
been proven to possess a single atomic bomb.
Fear is serving as a substitute for evidence.
I say what must be said.

But why have I been silent until now?
Because of my own background,
and ineradicable shame —
which, as well it should,
binds my fate to Israel’s.
I was too ashamed to state the facts.

Why should I say, as an aged man,
down to his final drop of ink:
“Israel’s nuclear capability
is a threat to this world’s
already fragile peace?”
Because it must be said;
tomorrow it may be too late.
We Germans, already so burdened with guilt,
may become complicit in a crime
that we can foresee
and for which the usual excuses
will not suffice.

Granted, I am also speaking now
because I am tired of the West’s hypocrisy,
and because I wish
to free many others from their silence.
I appeal to you who have created this danger
to renounce violence, and to insist upon
the unhindered, permanent control
of Israeli nuclear capability
and Iranian nuclear research
by an international agency
authorized by both governments.

For Israelis, and Palestinians
and all of the people, ourselves included
living as enemies, in territories
occupied by delusion:
This is the only aid.