Silent, upon a peak in Darien

by Michelle

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

So writes Keats in his famous sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.”
I recall reading this for the first time and being awed by the power of that image of Cortez, the Spanish conquistador. Only later did I read that Keats had erred in attributing the discovery of Panama, for it was Vasco de Balboa who reached the Pacific first, Cortez, the valley of Mexico. Keats after reading William Robertson’s History of America had confused the two scenes. When Charles Clarke pointed out the mistake, Keats chose to leave Cortez in the poem, perhaps to preserve the iambic pentameter. The inaccuracy, as it turns out, has garnered interest for the poem. From an imperfection, a mutilation of history, the poem claims its own “pure serene”, its dominion of beauty, with all the implications of a question unanswered.

Literary translations take us to new worlds we would not otherwise encounter. This, not merely because they assemble in one language, words from another, but because they invite us as readers to discover in the source text a medium of linguistic difference. How accurately a translation may follow the original, depends not merely on the transference of surface meaning but on scholarship, methodology, the interpretation and contexualisation of formal elements, among many other considerations.

A few weeks ago I attended a wonderful symposium on Literary Translation organised by the University of Western Sydney. It brought together some fine translators and scholars from the States, South America, Asia and Australia, to brainstorm the controversies, applications and reception of literary translations in national and transnational frameworks. Brian Nelson spoke of the status and concept of World Literature within the territories of academic studies; Simon West’s paper raised some interesting questions about the role and reception of translation in literary spaces; Peter Boyle spoke of translations as renewed apprenticeship, of Lorca’s duende, of Montejo’s humanity; Stuart Cooke tackled the difficult ground of translating Indigenous Australian songpoetry with its polyphonic voices and communal authorship. His paper, partly informed by Strehlow’s research in Central Australia, suggests that performance as act rather than discovery of meaning(s) is a more authentic approach to more dynamic and complex representations of Indigenous songpoetry.

I left the conference thralled, as if I’d been walking an isthmus; glad that this preliminary conversation between languages, which are themselves translations, between writers and cultures is happening, to some extent here, in the local, monolingual, monocultural space which we inhabit.