what must be said

A legitimate translation of Günter Grass’s “Was gesagt werden muss”
Những điều phải nói.


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

Vì sao tôi đã làm thinh, đã im lặng quá lâu,
trước điều hiển nhiên đã được tập dượt trong các kịch bản chiến tranh, mà ở đó chúng ta, những kẻ sống sót, cùng lắm chỉ là những ghi chú bên lề?

Cái mà mọi người cho là quyền tấn công trước —
chống lại một dân tộc bị khuất phục,
bị buộc phải tuân theo


















Và giờ sao tôi phải nói, già nua,
và bằng giọt mực cuối cùng:

“Khả năng hạt nhân Israel
là nguy cơ cho nền hòa bình thế giới
vốn đang mong manh dễ vỡ này..

Vì phải nói
vì n
gày mai thì đã muộn,
và dân tộc Đức hôm qua vốn đã đầy gánh tội
sẽ là kẻ tòng phạm cho một tội ác
mà chúng ta
có thể thấy trước,
không có cách thanh minh nào đứng vững.



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  • mihaibeltechi
  • Eileen Joy
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Notes on the translation of “what must be said” →

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

  1. Bernie

    April 10, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Very nice. I’d like to see the original near it. Any change you can post that? Thanks Joseph!


  2. Joseph Kugelmass

    April 10, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Hey Bernie! I’ll include a bunch of links in my notes on the translation; check the blog, or back here, in a few hours.


  3. Pingback: What must be said | Allen Strouse’s Blog

  4. Pingback: Notes on the translation of “what must be said” « The Kugelmass Episodes

  5. Laurent Fournier

    April 11, 2012 at 4:23 am

    Dear Joseph, this is the translation which makes the most sense to me. . (Even better than the one by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz, because more clear, simple, straightforward) I guess it’s close to the original, although I don’t read German. Thanks a lot for your work.


    • Bernard Katz

      April 15, 2012 at 5:08 am

      So if you don’t read German, Laurent, how can you evaluate JK’s translation compared to any other? I found him deficient in one of the most important aspects – his translation of “Erstschlag” as ” pre-emptive strike” rather than the very specific (to a nuclear attack) “first strike”. This makes clear Grass is referring to a nuclear attack by Israel.


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  7. Robert Anasi

    April 11, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Nice work. Given the reaction to this, you’d think that Grass was calling for pogroms.


  8. herbsnout

    April 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Having read both translations … I believe this translation captures the real spirit of the poem.

    Perhaps G. Grass has glanced into his mirror of time and fears his end

    Fear is a distorted expression of memory,
    of aloneness,
    of the first experience during separation as was the sensation of loneliness during birth;
    and the shroud of despair during that moment;
    that moment of enlightenment during the final experience of aloneness
    where all thought, explanation, reason of being … rushes to the now revealing the truth, love is life.

    It is this, not destination that is the goal of the journey,
    only to be revealed as creativity in life freely giving birth to another existence in time.
    Fear merely a label of a shrouded experience, not of reason and of awareness a mere reflection, imprinted within our sole during life’s journey in this separation and isolation as a shadow.

    The burden shared and shouldered is the essence of life’s creativity expressed in illusion and self-delusion as we journey to know the difference lightening our burden in aloneness.

    But is not time the first experience in memory of our aloneness in this existence of life,
    for which this common burden is life’s companion in mortal solitude,
    from which illusion and delusion feed hoping to comprehend the purpose and root expression of life.

    While elevating fear through the centuries has created a delusion
    of mis-understanding establishing constructs of mortal ignorance
    that only soothes the experience of loneliness in aloneness without ever the hope of vanquishing it.

    Is it not that the latter experience is the ultimate expression of life born of creation.
    It is not that life itself exists in a cycle of creation, but it exists and
    the only worldly comfort is love in aloneness.
    Love of life and of the spirit that nourishes life’s aloneness is the essence of life.
    Happiness in life is harmony in shared awareness in aloneness within fear
    that lightens the burden of the fear of loneliness.
    Love in and of life is merely the affirmation of fear and of fear … time.
    Castiglioncello, Italy, October 11, 1996


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  11. Pingback: “Was gesagt werden muss” by Günter Grass « Deutsches Tor

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