What must be said

Following is a translation by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz of Günter Grass’s “Was gesagt werden muss”, which we posted earlier. It is the best by far; it manages to preserve the poetic intent without sacrificing precision.

(UPDATE: Financial Times, German edition, is carrying out a poll to assess people’s view of Grass’s poem. We would encourage readers to take the time to vote. )

What Must be Said

By Günter Grass

Why have I kept silent, silent for too long
over what is openly played out
in war games at the end of which we
the survivors are at best footnotes.

It’s that claim of a right to first strike
against those who under a loudmouth’s thumb
are pushed into organized cheering—
a strike to snuff out the Iranian people
on suspicion that under his influence
an atom bomb’s being built.

But why do I forbid myself
to name that other land in which
for years—although kept secret—
a usable nuclear capability has grown
beyond all control, because
no scrutiny is allowed.

The universal silence around this fact,
under which my own silence lay,
I feel now as a heavy lie,
a strong constraint, which to dismiss
courts forceful punishment:
the verdict of “Antisemitism” is well known.

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.

Why is it only now I say,
in old age, with my last drop of ink,
that Israel’s nuclear power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what by tomorrow might be
too late, must be spoken now,
and because we—as Germans, already
burdened enough—could become
enablers of a crime, foreseeable and therefore
not to be eradicated
with any of the usual excuses.

And admittedly: I’m silent no more
because I’ve had it with the West’s hypocrisy
—and one can hope that many others too
may free themselves from silence,
challenge the instigator of known danger
to abstain from violence,
and at the same time demand
a permanent and unrestrained control
of Israel’s atomic power
and Iranian nuclear plants
by an international authority
accepted by both governments.

Only thus can one give help
to Israelis and Palestinians—still more,
all the peoples, neighbour-enemies
living in this region occupied by madness
—and finally, to ourselves as well.

“Was gesagt werden muss” published in Süddeutschen Zeitung (4 April 2012)

Translation by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz

46 thoughts on “What must be said”

    1. Just like Bob Geldof, Bono, Barack Obama, and every Miss Universe ever chosen for an ability to flutter her eyelashes prettily.
      For those who are not quite familiar with the name, Gunter Grass is a post WWII German writer and the author of The Tin Drum – a memorable, albeit unorthodox, novel about a dwarf living in Nazi Germany. This dwarf did not wish to grow up to become a soldier and succeeded remaining small in stature. He has another two attributes – a tin drum he bangs every time he becomes upset and a falsetto voice, which cracks glass. Naturally, Gunter Grass has written other pieces but is most famous for this novel, and he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature. The anti-war and anti-militarist novel contrasted sharply with the persona of the writer himself, who, as a teenager, unknown to the adoring public, was a member of Waffen SS. This unexpected twist of fortune and ideology of one of the active members of the “Übermensch” generation offered an insight, indeed, a hope for the post WWII Germany’s redemption. It promised a genuine repudiation of the Nazi ideology of racial superiority, anti-Semitism and world conquest.
      As a Nobel Prize winning writer Gunter Grass was a noted part of the generation traumatised by the Germany’s Nazi past. He regularly urged his compatriots to face up to their country’s sordid history. Calling upon others to own to their past, to learn from it and to be remorseful, he, nevertheless, did not disclose his own membership in the criminal SS until 2006.
      Suddenly, last Wednesday, everything has changed. He published a poem and the previously universally respected and admired Nobel Prize winner became shrouded in controversy. Israel’s Interior Ministry declared Grass persona non grata; The Guardian, with classic British understatement published a slightly miffed editorial of Blitz time intensity; The Jerusalem Post was genuinely angry in an editorial sermon, proclaiming “Shame on Grass”; Russian news website Lenta.Ru was full of schadenfreude; and Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper, where the offending poem was published, was puzzled at the truly world reaction to the little German poem “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”).
      The poem was written on the occasion of the sale to Israel of two conventional German-built submarines, potentially capable of carrying nuclear tipped missiles. It laments the possible fate of the Iranian people, who, according to the poem’s author, are awaiting the Israeli aggression like lambs led to slaughter. Imagine that! Iranian mullahs, like a collective Red Riding Hood’s granny, are sitting pretty, awaiting the arrival of 13th Imam. They insult nobody except USA, UK, France, Israel, and the rest of the world; they threaten nobody except Europe, America, Israel and the rest of the world; they terrorise others only through proxies and never by themselves; all they do is quietly enrich uranium to weapons grade concentration. Suddenly, without any reason whatsoever, without the slightest provocation, Israelis might decide to attack Iran. Herr Grass feels that they could do so with nuclear weapons, thanks to the German submarines sale. To make a bad situation even worse, Israelis don’t care that they will destroy all Persian carpets from Tabriz to Tehran in the process. This is, I think, the real reason for the sudden anti-Israeli outburst of the former SS member.
      Of course, there is always another possible reason for an uncontrollable logorrhea – all Gunter Grass wants is world peace. I am sure he does, despite not being as pretty as an average Miss Universe or, even worse, not having eyelashes to flutter with. To achieve world peace all that is necessary is to prevent Israel from being able to defend itself and everything will be hunky-dory.
      To be abundantly clear in his meaning, Gunter Grass has promptly declared himself to be a friend of Jewish people and explained that his poem is directed towards the Netanyahu Government, not, repeat, not against Jews per se. Now, that is a relief. G-d forbid, Herr Grass would declare that he does not like Jews after all. Can you imagine what could’ve happened? He could’ve protested against the sale of two German built potentially nuclear capable submarines to Israel and written a poem against this sale! Perish the thought.
      Now, finally, I get it – Gunter Grass is upset that Israelis are not about to rely on him to defend them from annihilation. That must be deeply upsetting. No wonder that he, insulted to the depth of his soul, is so distressed.
      People like Gunter Grass still do not comprehend the main lesson Jewish people have learned after two millennia of being on the verge of total annihilation. This simple lesson is – Si vis pacem parabellum. If you wish for peace – be prepared for war. In other words – if you do not defend yourself – nobody else will. No Nobel Laureate’s poems will change that. Actually, nothing will.

  1. Israel and German Jewish groups have slammed the poem as a rant of a Jew-hater while comparing it with Europe’s centuries-old anti-Jews Blood Libel around Passover. Israel is the sole nuclear power in the region and has threatened Iran to use its nuclear power to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power or achieving a ‘nuclear capability’.

    Iranian are being punished by severe sanctions by the US, Canada and EU countries for country’s civilian nuclear program which the Zionist regime claims to be an ‘existential threat’ to Israel. Tehran has denied its nuclear program is for military purposes. Iran’s claim is backed up by several American and Israeli intelligence reports.


    1. ” Israel is the sole nuclear power in the region”

      Depends how you define region. Pakistan, Russia, and India are all declared nuclear powers and they are all geographically closer to Iran than Israel.

  2. A very courageous and moral position to take. It is about time that we look with critical eye at what is going on; how engineered and crafted information is given to us, in order to direct our thinking towards what others with special hidden interests would want to have accomplished. The one sided biased Western news organizations and its illustrious journalists better not fail again, as they did with Iraq, this time the price will be much higher to Mankind. Let all those who profess courage and rattle their sabers, muster real courage and instead of war bring peace.

  3. This is a great translation. By now I have read a half-dozen and this brilliantly solves the problems created by Grass’ elliptical style. Congratulations an a great translation.

  4. They banned him for this? What a bunch of dumkoffs! He takes Iran to task as well so what is the fuss about bias against Isreal? Fuck all warmongers whoever they are, and whichever country they reside in.

  5. What a wonderfully courageous effort to bring sense and balance to a region where truth is sacrificed out of fear of name calling. Much more of this is needed!

  6. If these words of utter wisdom and reality are the expression of “antisemitism” then the warmongers in Israel have a huge problem for there are millions if not billions of ordinary human beings in the world today that totally share Mr. Gunters view.

  7. Hi guys. My translation is here. I thought you did a great job in places, though we also have our differences. In any case, although I wasn’t looking at your translation when I produced my own, I wrote up extensive notes on the poem and these different versions, all of which is linked from the main post.

  8. Gut, Wave Review and Nerve
    (a poem in response to Letter-poem to Grass: If We Go, Everyone Goes by Israeli poet Itamar Yaoz-Kest)

    He witness.
    How are yah?
    I’m hurting,
    Claiming responsibility world said.
    Can’t get out.
    That’s her state-run TV.
    To think captain
    Come back to it
    In a world filled with war.
    All this mischief,
    All this dustbin,
    All this problem,
    The fault of the neighbors.
    We’re gonna annihilate the world
    In an open letter to Samson.
    There stand atonement?
    I don’t understand.
    A little more flavor from you
    Of brother
    And school.
    You didn’t
    Give a crossing for him.
    Is he White?
    He isn’t Jewish.
    (An open parallel.)
    What about that up here Nancy?
    A White one
    Grow by the principles
    Grown from the elements
    A Jewish state.
    Her individual dawn
    If I am a common thinker.

    Now what do we do with Adam?
    Exterminate further?
    No that dead show.
    Gimmie my flashlight.
    (Illuminates the room.)
    I’m not comin’ back.
    Oh you’re not comin’ back?
    You’re defenseless
    (He was a real loud photographer.
    Here I might be able to help him.)
    In hold humanity,
    The change I’m not really supposed to tell.
    Then tell.
    No matter who’s walking
    They’ll have a right of crossing.
    Change now ahead.
    Consider it done.
    There’s victory in there somewhere.

    What are you talking about?
    On the other hand,
    Why don’t you shut your mouth?
    Good idea,
    Now I’m uncle on the floor
    In a blue outfit.
    Even spiritual
    You’re gonna wanna beat me up.
    I’m lensing
    Right here:
    The parentheses around Spirit will be taken off –
    Spiritual victory.
    We’ll all be in a different world.
    We’re all livin’ in this one.
    I just wanted you to see it
    Through the lens
    Of poetry’s nodule.
    Not secular,
    No religion.
    Is he dead or alive?
    No, this is not heaven.

    At the rift.
    Picket no longer.
    Are you gonna tell me about this neighborhood?
    Somebody last screamed it.
    I ain’t exercisin’ no new restraints.
    This is the only kind one of a people,
    Superman’s brother,
    A tough customer,
    Earth activated.
    Just think,
    You’re part of it
    Whole thing,
    A full nelson,
    And we got our full moon.
    A camera
    Analogy with pain
    Put the broad on our feet,
    The teacup
    While our hairs are going down.
    The world is so very small.
    Put in our face
    As you.
    Touch it
    To see where I’m going.
    What do you take me for?
    I’m not blaming you.
    In that camera
    Is our hopscotch item,
    Toll we count.
    Better than a machine gun.
    Coming events
    We take a peer at
    In a nodule.
    I’m fixin’ your plate,
    Mine too by the looks of it.
    Will you look at that?
    Out of danger.
    Before I forget,
    God makes this perfect.
    You take it home.
    Good idea.

  9. I like the poem. As to what will happen, all we have are our crystal balls. But there is a muffled and continuous drumbeat here in the US for a war against Iran. Perhaps sometime after the November elections.

    Lyndon Johnson promised he would not send us to war in Vietnam, but it didn’t quite work out that way. And let’s not forget the “Cakewalk”, also known as our war in Iraq. We keep falling for this crap.

    As far as I can tell neither the New York Times nor the LA Times have published the poem. Perhaps they are afraid that if their readers could see the actual poem they might agree with it. But that would clash with the propaganda message we’re being given.

  10. Jeez! What’s the big deal? The minute someone looks critical at Israelian politics, Israel is screaming “Foul” and accuses the person of being antisemitic -or in case it is a German then he/she is branded as a Nazi. Then usually the Jewish Lobby in the U.S. will reinforce it in the media.

    FYI Germany is financing Israel’s wars for years. Just recently the German government has subsidized four nuclear submarines for the Israelis.
    This poem was written because the author Mr. Grass fears the danger of a nuclear war. He questions the right of the country Israel for a nuclear first strike to annihilate the people of Iran just for a bad feeling that there MIGHT be a nuclear weapons program going on. (Like the big lie of “weapons of mass destruction” in Afghanistan you all fell for.) Mr. Grass also says that by questioning Israel one is automatically branded as an anti-semitic. (Which BTW totally happened!!) Mr. Grass is afraid Germany could participate in a future wrongdoing, where we later can’t say that we haven’t already known. He wants to achieve that both countries nuclear program is inspected/supervised by an international authority that is approved by BOTH countries Israel and Iran.

    IS THAT REALLY SUCH A BAD THING? Why do so many people twist the facts and make Mr. Grass look anti-semitic? He has a point! I pray that the people in the Mideast will one day live peacefully without suppression and wars again.
    I am with the author and believe that it isn’t the right solution to add fuel to the fire!

  11. Gunther has said it like it is. Facts are stubborn things. When the Jewish working class awaken and unite with the awakening Arab working class in a Middle East Semetic Unity of Proleterians, the cries of “anti semetism” bellowed forth by Zionists both Jewish and non Jewish, will be but a murmur from history. In the meantime I tremble because the horror that still is Iraq, firmly and indelibly ingrained in my mind, and without the movement among the good people like me, makes think for the worst. I hope not.

  12. There are some parralels between Nazi Germany and the Israel of today. Racial Superemacism, the opression of a certain ethnic group, the confinement of that ethnic group to ghettos. And what’s more both Nazi Germany and Israel received funds from Wall Street banksters.

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