Notes on the translation of “what must be said”

I’ll start with the specifics of the translation, then move to a discussion of the poem. Here are the versions I was working with:

Many thanks to Professor Andrzej Warminski for pointing me to another translation (available here), published online by PULSE magazine and written by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz. I didn’t know of it while I was doing my own translation, but I’ll include it in these notes.

Abbreviations: (KM) for PULSE and (AP) for the Associated Press.

Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange,

Why am I silent, silent for too long,

KM has “Why have I kept silent, silent for too long”. Pretty close. I don’t like eliminating the comma, as it speeds up a line that I take to be deliberately slowed by regret, hesitation, and worry. Also, I believe Grass intends for an repetitive echo in the stanzas that follow. Nonetheless, “kept silent” does sound appropriate to the political situation of the speaker.

AP has “Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long,” which is just terrible. First of all, “why do I stay silent” is oddly impersonal. Second, the speaker isn’t “concealing” the nuclear crisis (thus “for too long” becomes laughable). He’s simply not speaking up about it. Grass clearly intends the repetition of schweige (“silent”).

was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen
geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende
wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.

about that which has obviously been practiced
in war games where we, the survivors,
are footnotes at best? 

KM has “over what is openly played out / in war games at the end of which we / the survivors are at best footnotes.” I don’t think this stanza works very well, in English, without a question mark. I prefer “that which has obviously been practiced” because I’m not sure these war games are common knowledge around the globe. (“That which” instead of “what” because, in context, “what” can sound like it’s another embedded question.) I take Grass to be saying that it is now obvious that Israel has been preparing its response to this situation for a long time. I wanted a heavier stress on “we the survivors,” because I think Grass is also alluding to people who have survived WWII, Nazism, and the Holocaust (i.e. “Holocaust survivors”). “Are at best footnotes” is just a little clumsy and puts too much emphasis on the word “footnotes,” rather than on the indifference to human life which concerns Grass here.

AP does a pretty good job with the content. There’s the same overemphasis on “footnotes,” the third line is too long, and the second line, “What clearly is and has been,” is vague until the reader gets to the rest of the stanza.

Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag,
The alleged right to a pre-emptive strike —

It’s pretty obvious that Grass intends a parallel with the Bush Administration’s favored phrase, “pre-emptive strike.” KM has “It’s that claim of a right to first strike,” which seems a little too (unironically) swaggering to me, because of the alliteration and internal slant rhymes. It’s also overly colloquial. (UPDATE: I’ve now changed this to “first strike” thanks to feedback from Bernard Katz. However, I still have the same poetic qualms about the KM version.)

der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte
und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte
iranische Volk auslöschen könnte,
weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau
einer Atombombe vermutet wird.

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.

AP and KM’s “loudmouth” just isn’t threatening enough to take seriously, and “under [his] thumb” is a bit puerile. I also think “an atom bomb’s being built” is Dr. Seuss-like, but it’s definitely closer than my “nuclear weapons” to the literal meaning. Otherwise, I like the KM just fine. I chose “pageants” over “cheering” because cheering isn’t an especially organized activity; also, I’m making something of an allusion to North Korea, which I think is in keeping with the original. AP’s “territory” is too impersonal, and “organized jubilation” is ridiculous.

The whole thing has to be grammatically subordinated within a “strike” that “threatens the Iranian people,” to capture Grass’s subtle implication that the Iranian people are already being “erased” by the actions of their leaders. We’re losing our ability to see what they want, or how they really feel. I chose “annihilation” to capture Grass’s clear echoing of Hitler’s language with respect to the organized murder of Jews.

Doch warum untersage ich mir,
jenes andere Land beim Namen zu nennen,
in dem seit Jahren – wenn auch geheimgehalten –
ein wachsend nukleares Potential verfügbar
aber außer Kontrolle, weil keiner Prüfung
zugänglich ist?

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?

Here I actually think the Nazi echo of “forbid” (AP & KM) is not correct. If Grass had wanted to use that verb, “verbieten,” he could have. The dictionary definition of “untersage,” which is “prohibit,” has a very officious connotation in English: “the use of cellphones is prohibited,” etc. Yes, this is about Grass’s superego, but in the context a very intense personal battle taking place within himself. Hence “stopping short.”

It’s a difficult passage overall, and I can certainly support KM’s decision to hew close to the literal translation. My version slightly diminishes Grass’s point that Israel’s power is “out of control.” However, I just think KM ends up being really awkward, with “although kept secret” turning into a jarring interruption, and “a usable nuclear capability has grown / beyond all control,” which is practically gibberish. KM ends in passive voice, and “scrutiny” is not the right word, since the United Nations calls scrutiny “inspection.”

Regarding “that other country” versus “that other land” — since Hamlet is taking about death (the “undiscovered country”), and so (implicitly) is Grass, I’m going with the Shakespherian echo. It’s so elegant! so intelligent! as Eliot would say.

Das allgemeine Verschweigen dieses Tatbestandes,
dem sich mein Schweigen untergeordnet hat,
empfinde ich als belastende Lüge
und Zwang, der Strafe in Aussicht stellt,
sobald er mißachtet wird;
das Verdikt “Antisemitismus” ist geläufig.

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

Again, AP’s “concealment” is ill-fitting. Both AP’s “to which my silence subordinated itself” and KM’s “under which my own silence lay” do not capture the speaker’s point that he is complicit in the international silence and helping to make this larger silence possible in the first place. At least the AP version captures the theme of obedience; KM’s image is oddly spatial.

Regrettably, my version does not really give us the sense of Grass coming to realize how constrained and untruthful he has become. In that respect the literalism of the other versions is helpful, and I will probably revise what I have.

(UPDATE: Here’s the revised version.)

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.

As for the final line, “the verdict of ‘anti-Semitism’ is familiar” (AP) or “well-known” (KM) sounds atrocious, almost like high school poetry, and is a case of bad transliteration. In English, we need to know (for example) familiar to whom? I’m also not a fan of the clumsy, wordy versions of Grass’s point that dissent will be punished. “Enforced” says plenty, in my opinion.

Jetzt aber, weil aus meinem Land,
das von ureigenen Verbrechen,
die ohne Vergleich sind,
Mal um Mal eingeholt und zur Rede gestellt wird,
wiederum und rein geschäftsmäßig, wenn auch
mit flinker Lippe als Wiedergutmachung deklariert,
ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel
geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität
darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe
dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz
einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,
sage ich, was gesagt werden muß.

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.

KM’s “primal” is a really goofy way to translate “ureigenen,” which means, in the context, “belonging to it.” Yes, my simple possessive does not quite capture the full “belongingness” of these crimes, but there’s nothing primal about the Holocaust. AP’s “sought and confronted” sounds like Germany has been very hard on itself in the post-WWII era — which is perhaps true, but is not Grass’s point at all. KM’s passive “for which time and again it must be tasked” is another awkward, passive fragment, and as such doesn’t connect the ideas in the stanza. The speaker is observing that Germany is quite pleased to have an opportunity to make “reparations” that also make profits; what a nice alternative to being guilty in the eyes of the world! Any reasonable translation has to capture his bitter sarcasm here. That’s why I was willing to introduce quotation marks, parentheses, and colons.

“Nimble lips” (AP) and “quick lips” (KM) do not make sense in English, and neither does KM’s “in pure commerce.” (AP’s “on a purely commercial basis,” though not poetic, is at least comprehensible.) AP and KM’s “specialty” is, in English, an overly cutesy translation of “Spezialität.” My own “capable of” doesn’t quite deliver Grass’s sarcasm, but it’s hard to find middle ground, since you order “specialties” at diners. In general, I switch to military diction here, just so all the talk of “delivery” and the unclear locative “where” do not leave the reader simply bewildered. (One can say “deliver a payload,” but the word “delivery” by itself does not invoke that.)

KM’s “warheads capable of ending all life” is pretty good, but also slightly hyperbolic. “Suspicion serves for proof” is good, although the first part of the line, “but where,” is bewildering. I still like “fear” rather than a repetition of “suspicion.” KM’s “now” at the end doesn’t work.

I’m not going to even touch AP’s mind-crushing “But wishes to be out of fear of conclusiveness.” I’m sorry — how did the Associated Press actually run this?

Warum aber schwieg ich bislang?
Weil ich meinte, meine Herkunft,
die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist,
verbiete, diese Tatsache als ausgesprochene Wahrheit
dem Land Israel, dem ich verbunden bin
und bleiben will, zuzumuten.

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.

A difficult stanza. AP’s version is so miserably bad that it’s next to useless. I don’t know whether I hate “obliterating flaw” or “expected as pronounced truth” more.

KM’s version is pretty good. Some of our wording turned out to be almost identical. I still just don’t like “forbade” here, but it’s absolutely correct, so…fair enough. However, “attached” is definitely wrong. Grass is not describing his sentimental affection for Israel. He’s describing the fact that he participated in a regime of organized hatred that became part of the reason for Israel’s being established as a nation. Even if he doesn’t like what they’re doing, he’s got to take a certain amount of responsibility for that himself. The more literal “bound” is better, and I tried to use some English idioms (“binding fate,” “as well it should”), to capture the speaker’s own intense self-critique and sense of historical irony.

As for KM’s “mention of this fact as definite truth,” it’s just confusing. What makes sense in German is merely redundant translated literally into English.

Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?
Weil gesagt werden muß,
was schon morgen zu spät sein könnte;
auch weil wir – als Deutsche belastet genug –
Zulieferer eines Verbrechens werden könnten,
das voraussehbar ist, weshalb unsere Mitschuld
durch keine der üblichen Ausreden
zu tilgen wäre.

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.

I chose “aged” over “old” because I think the shame of his own past has aged the speaker, above and beyond the fact that he is old. I added “guilt” after “burdened,” because I think it’s what he means, and the line sounds a little whiny otherwise. KM’s “eradicated” is very awkward, especially since this is a poem about people being eradicated. “Enablers” is really terrible; this isn’t Alcoholics Anonymous. Reading that, I began to worry that Keefer and Mintz were co-dependent.

“Suppliers,” from AP, is too pedestrian. Then AP switches into Elizabethan English, which they are into lately, wherefore I know not. After that, they continue, “our complicity could not be redeemed though any of the usual excuses.” I can’t be the only one who started to hear: “Come! Redeem your complicity! Five excuses gets this adorable stuffed giraffe! Ten excuses for a big-ass panda!”

“Suffice” is a tiny stretch, but from what I’ve tasted of desire, I thought the echo of Frost would be fitting.

Und zugegeben: ich schweige nicht mehr,
weil ich der Heuchelei des Westens
überdrüssig bin; zudem ist zu hoffen,
es mögen sich viele vom Schweigen befreien,
den Verursacher der erkennbaren Gefahr
zum Verzicht auf Gewalt auffordern und
gleichfalls darauf bestehen,
daß eine unbehinderte und permanente Kontrolle
des israelischen atomaren Potentials
und der iranischen Atomanlagen
durch eine internationale Instanz
von den Regierungen beider Länder zugelassen wird.

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.

KM’s “silent no more” is another detour into archaic English, which is particularly funny given the colloquialism of “I’ve had it.” That said, “one can hope that many others too / may free themselves from silence” is pretty good, and less suddenly heroic than my version. It’s a huge matter whether you think the speaker is appealing primarily to those responsible for the violence, or to his fellow Germans. I prefer to keep it broad and hopeful because of the way the poem ends, but in some ways the KM version is more logical. KM’s fondness for “atomic power” is confusing, because “atomic power” can refer to a nuclear power plant.

AP’s version of this stanza is pretty good, because Google Translate does fine with straightforward declarative sentences. “Sites” is too strong, since Grass doesn’t believe that there’s any proof of Iran’s nuclear capability.

Nur so ist allen, den Israelis und Palästinensern,
mehr noch, allen Menschen, die in dieser
vom Wahn okkupierten Region
dicht bei dicht verfeindet leben
und letztlich auch uns zu helfen.

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

Of course, this final stanza is probably the most important moment in the entire poem. “Wahn” should definitely not be translated as “mania” (AP) which is too positive and active. I’m fine with either KM’s “madness” or my “delusion.” I went with “delusion” because of the resonance with Grass’s earlier lines about paranoia and insufficient evidence. AP’s “cheek by jowl” is ridiculous, and “in the end also to help us” is computer translation gibberish. AP’s “even more, all people,” just lacks emotional force.

“Neighbour-enemies” is silly, not just because it sounds absurd, but because it doesn’t get the meaning. Grass isn’t lamenting the fact that enemies have to live so close together…he’s saying that these people shouldn’t be enemies. He’s calling the polarization itself into question by describing it as delusion/madness. It’s alright to translate “helfen” as “help,” but I think Grass is going for the overlap with “aid” in the sense of “foreign aid.” Even more important, what with the speaker’s explicit reference to Palestine, to translate “okkupierten Region” as “occupied Region” is really odd. It’s blatantly obvious that he’s alluding to the so-called “occupied territories.”


There’s no question that, on aesthetic grounds, “What Must Be Said” is a mixed bag at best. Some of it is wonderful, particularly at the end; other parts, including the title and the first line, are woefully corny. The repetition gets to be a bit much. Several lines are policy recommendations, rather than poetic achievements.

Nonetheless, Grass’s best defense against his detractors is the rhetorical power of his work. It deserves to be reproduced faithfully, and not too literally, so that “kicking the bucket” doesn’t end up being translated as “striking a hollow metal object with one’s foot.”

Furthermore, looking at a decent translation of the poem makes Israel’s denunciation and ban difficult to understand. Or, rather, not difficult to understand, but impossible to accept. This was legitimate dissent, not anti-Semitism or partisan propaganda. Especially now that Adrienne Rich is no longer with us, the world is starving for poets who believe that something needs to be, and must be, said. But there are so many places now, on every continent, where they and their words are not permitted to go.


…Let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”