Günter Grass's poem “Was gesagt werden muss,” published in the Süddeutschen Zeitung on April 4, 2012, was greeted in the German and international media with howls of execration. As he had anticipated in his fourth verse paragraph, Grass was widely denounced as an antisemite—and also as a political naïf with a dubious political past of his own, and a poetic incompetent.
I thought, in contrast, that Grass's text was courageous, carefully nuanced, and moving. I thought he was quite right to draw attention to the shameful complicity of his own country in building up Israel's stock of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and right as well to denounce the hypocrisy of the West, and to note that Israeli and American threats of nuclear attacks on Iran have been based on no more than “suspicion” that Iran might be developing a nuclear weapon.
Nowhere among the outcries prompted by this text did I see any acknowledgment that Grass's reputation as a writer had included early international recognition of his talents as a poet (translations of a selection of poems from his first three collections of verse were published in the mid-1960s in the Penguin Modern European Poets series).
Many of the journalists who denounced Grass's poem had clearly not read it, and by April 6 the only English translation available was a wretched error-laden version published on the website of The Guardian.
Nica Mintz and I tried in our rendering to achieve both literal accuracy and a sense of the cadences of Grass's poem. Our version was published on April 7, 2012 at the websites of PULSE Media, http://pulsemedia.org/2012/04/07/what-must-be-said/, and of Mondoweiss. It was subsequently reproduced at twenty-five other websites.
"What Must Be Said"
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