Gunter Grass's Controversial Poem About Israel, Iran, and War, Translated

The German Nobel laureate denounced Israel's nuclear weapons, and was in turn denounced by the Israeli Prime Minister.

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Günter Grass at a 2006 book reading. AP

On Wednesday, Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass published a poem denouncing Israel's nuclear program and aggression toward Iran. The poem, in which Grass says he has kept silent on the issue for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, has 

sparked controversy within Germany, where relations with Israel are often colored by a sense of national guilt for the Holocaust. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the poem's assertion that Israel poses a greater threat to world peace than Iran a "shameful moral equivalence." The poem also laments Germany's decision to sell submarines to Israel that are capable of launching nuclear weapons.

Grass's history with regards to German-Jewish relations is complicated. The writer, now 84, spent decades pushing his country to confront its Nazi past, making him a hero to many Germans who share his desire to deal honestly with Germany's complicated and painful history. In 2006, he announced that he had served in Hitler's infamous Waffen SS division. He was 17 years old when the war ended in 1945, but the admission, coming so late, has darkened his previously bright legacy.

His poem, "What Must Be Said," is overtly and boldly political. It is not exactly the prettiest prose in its original German, and the English doesn't read much better. Translating it below, I've tried to untangle some of the needlessly Teutonic constructions where it doesn't undo the deliberately winding and parenthetical tone too much. Even more concise German can sound circuitous to an English ear, but Grass's writing here is an extreme example. The poem is, from a purely communicative standpoint, a relatively inefficient denunciation -- akin to writing up a paragraph of solid reasoning and then cutting it up and sticking little bits in fortune cookies.

What Must Be Said

Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.

It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people--
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation--
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.

Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?

The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force--the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.

Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.

Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged
Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound 

And wish to stay bound,
From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.

Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we--as Germans burdened enough--
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.

And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
Likewise insist
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.

Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
And also us, to be helped.
Presented by

Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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