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Translating Grass

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Google translate is perhaps not the best way to enjoy a poem written in a foreign language. However, when it is a poem by Guenter Grass which is at the center of a huge flap, one would rather not wait for a scholarly translation. So here is my attempt at interpreting an automatic translation. Since I am not an adept speaker of German, there could be many flaws arising from the combination of machine and me. Comments and help are totally accepted. So read Guenter Grass:

Was gesagt werden muss   What must be said
Warum schweige ich, verschweige zu lange,
was offensichtlich ist und in Planspielen
geübt wurde, an deren Ende als Überlebende
wir allenfalls Fußnoten sind.
  Why am I silent, silent too long about,
what is obvious and was practiced
in simulations; at the end, as survivors,
We are footnotes at best.
 
Es ist das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag,
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.
  It is alleged that a first strike
of the subjugated, organized and
directed by rejoicing bullies,
could wipe out the people of Iran;
because it is suspected that an atom-bomb
is in construction there.
 
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?
  But what do I say to myself,
call by name that other country,
which over the years – secretly –
has grown nuclear capabilities,
out of control, unchecked?
 
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.
  The general concealment of this fact,
subordinated to my silence,
I feel as a burdensome lie
when it is ignored;
and when forced into view, the penalty is
the familiar verdict of “antisemitism”.
 
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.
  But now I say what needs to be said.
because my country,
whose own crime
is without comparison,
a crime to be sought and taken to task for,
from purely commercial considerations, albeit
with nimble lips declaring as restitution,
wants but as a fear of evidentiary value,
delivers to Israel another submarine
whose specialty is to direct
devastating warheads,
where the existence
a single atomic bomb is unproven.
 
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 did I keep quiet until now?
As I said, my background,
which is subject to a blot
forbade me from pronouncing as truth this fact
about the land of Israel, to which I am connected
and want to stay, as expected.
 
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 do I say only now,
aged and at the end of my ink:
That nuclear-armed Israel puts at risk
the already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
and tomorrow might be too late;
also because we – as German (loaded enough)
Suppliers – could be complicit in a crime
that is predictable, which
none of the usual excuses
would let us off.
 
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.
  And yes, I will hold back no more,
because I’m tired of the hypocrisy of the West,
and also hope that
there may be many free of silence, who,
in the cause of the apparent danger
renounce violence and call on,
insist,
that unrestricted and permanent control
of Israel’s nuclear potential
and the Iranian nuclear facilities
by an international body
is approved by the governments of both countries.
 
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.
  Only then will all, the Israelis and Palestinians
and more, all people in this
land possessed by delusions,
will learn to live cheek by jowl with enemies,
and ultimately to help us.
 

Some reactions to the poem are reported by the Jewish Chronicle:

Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Berlin, condemned Mr Grass’s attack. “It belongs to European tradition to accuse the Jews of ritual murder before the Passover celebration,” he said. “It used to be Christian children whose blood the Jews used to make matza, today it is the Iranian people that the Jewish state purportedly wants to wipe out.

“We want to live in peace with our neighbours in the region. And we are not prepared to assume the role that Gunter Grass assigns us in the German people’s process of coming to terms with its history.”

A spokesman for Angela Merkel said: “In Germany, the freedom of artistic expression applies, as, fortunately, does the freedom of the government not to comment on every work of art,”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany said the poem was an “aggressive pamphlet of agitation”, while Mr Grass was accused of being “the prototype of the educated antisemite” by German Jewish commentator Henryk Broder.

Other reactions are reported by AFP:

Peace activists in Germany Monday voiced support for author Gunter Grass who has been barred from entering Israel over a poem accusing the Jewish state of plotting Iran’s annihilation and endangering world peace.

The debate ignited by the poem has not ceased in Germany where Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Sunday penned a commentary that appeared to criticise Grass, without making explicit reference to him.

“Germany has a historic responsibility for the citizens of Israel,” he wrote in the Bild Am Sonntag. “To put Iran and Israel on an equal moral footing is not clever but absurd.”

The country’s health minister Daniel Bahr also chimed in calling Israel’s decision to ban Grass “completely exaggerated”, in an interview with daily Die Welt to appear in Tuesday’s edition.

“I can hardly imagine that Mr. Grass has any interest in showing up in Israel,” said Bahr, a member of the FDP liberal party, part of the ruling coalition, according to the newspaper. He also criticised Grass for not being open to listening to others’ opinions.

It is not the first time Grass has sparked outrage. The author of the renowned anti-war novel “The Tin Drum” touched off a firestorm of controversy in 2006 when he revealed, six decades after World War II, that he had been a member of the notorious Waffen SS.

Israel, the sole if undeclared nuclear power in the Middle East, has said it is keeping all options open for responding to Iran’s nuclear programme, which it and much of the West says is aimed at securing atomic weapons.

The history of Germany ensures that a statement of this kind would be intensely controversial in that country. The Spiegel reported:

Yishai, who heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government, told Israeli radio that Grass should have his Nobel Prize withdrawn, and likened his comments to the anti-Semitic incitement that ultimately led to the Holocaust. He said Grass was an “anti-Semitic person” and a “man who wore an SS uniform.”

Grass qualified his comments in an interview at the weekend, saying that in retrospect, he would have phrased his poem differently to “make it clearer that I am primarily talking about the (Netanyahu) government.”

“I have often supported Israel, I have often visited the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours,” he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

Among intellectuals, opinions differ on the ban. Israeli historian Tom Segev criticized the move as “silly” and “cynical.” Israel was putting itself close to fanatical regimes like Iran in doing so, he said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Michael Wolffsohn, a German historian born in Israel, defended Israel’s decision. “I welcome the decision by the government of Israel which I have in the past criticized on many issues. This isn’t about the interior or prime minister, but about fundamentals. An ex-SS man isn’t a moral authority, especially regarding the descendants of the victims,” Wolffsohn told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, said the ban was exaggerated and populist. “I think the interior minister doesn’t understand Germany at all. He is conducting domestic politics, I think that’s wrong,” Primor told German news program Tagesthemen on Sunday night. Grass isn’t an anti-Semite, said Primor. But the diplomat also criticized Grass’s poem. The author’s claim that Israel wanted to eradicate Iran was ridiculous, he said.

Fellow authors have denounced Grass’ poem. Prominent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Holocaust survivor, described it as “a disgusting poem,” that was worthless in political and literary terms. “Iran wants to wipe out Israel, the president keeps on announcing that, and Günter Grass is versifying the opposite,” said Reich-Ranicki in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper on Sunday.

Wolf Biermann, a songwriter and former East German dissident, defended Grass “in the name of free speech,” but described his poem as a “literary mortal sin.” Biermann wrote in Welt am Sonntag newspaper: “When artists no longer have original ideas, some like Grass attempt to artificially break taboos.”

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

April 10, 2012 at 5:33 am

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