Anyone interested in the work commonly known as Marco Polo's Travels--and who isn't?--owes Simon Gaunt a debt of gratitude. In this ground-clearing study, Gaunt cuts through thickets of scholarship, much of it obfuscatory, to bring us a fresh vision. By entitling his book Le Devisement du monde (The Description of the World), Gaunt, a literary critic, highlights two central but insufficiently appreciated facts about the text: first, that it is not in fact a travel narrative; and, second, that despite the "nationality" of its co-authors (Polo, the Venetian merchant, and Rustichello of Pisa, the romance writer), the language, both of the lost original and the extant manuscript closest to it, is not Italian (in this half-generation preceding Dante's Commedia) but French—more specifically, the literary dialect today called Franco-Italian. (The book appears in the series Gallica, devoted to medieval French studies.) In short order, however, the Franco-Italian original was translated and adapted into standard Old French, Tuscan, Latin, and a spate of other languages. This means that most medieval readers, like most modern ones, encountered this text in translation. For Gaunt, the fact that Franco-Italian was no one's native language goes hand-in-hand with the subject matter of the Devisement: the representation of difference--not the self-and-other binarism we are conditioned to expect in proto-Orientalist or proto-colonial discourse, but under the sign of diversity, which Gaunt identifies as the text's central obsession. His analysis, then, seeks to render the book "strange" precisely by making visible what is generally obscured: the very process of transcription, translation, and transmission responsible for putting it in our hands in the first place. Where most interpreters read the Devisement transparently, "primarily as a vehicle for its outlandish subject-matter," he explicitly sets out to read as a literary critic. Language, he insists, "cannot simply be regarded as a neutral vehicle for content; it bears its own ideological and cultural freight" (28). And given the quirkiness of the Franco-Italian in manuscript Paris BNF fr. 1116, his analysis intersects with the key problematics of the field of Translation Studies: should a translation "aim...to produce something that sounds completely authentic in the target language," or should it retain a vestiges of foreignness, such as "deliberately inauthentic syntactic structures, foreign words, neologisms" (92)?
Gaunt's extensive Introduction lays out the complex textual history of the Devisement (its multiple redactions across multiple languages) and its generic hybridity: the way it "consciously recalls different modes of writing"--merchant's manuals, crusading tracts, encyclopaedias, the missionary manual, ethnography, geography, the wonder book, the Alexander romance, vernacular French epic and romance, travel writing, and chronicles--"without replicating them" (30). Gaunt helpfully summarizes the differences between the Franco-Italian and subsequent redactions. Both the French and the Tuscan abridge it. The Tuscan retains its pronoun ambiguity (the topic of Gaunt's Chapter 1) but adds "an almost certainly apocryphal epilogue in which the Polos apparently narrate their homecoming in the first-person plural" (18). The French, destined for an elite courtly audience, eliminates all pronoun ambiguity, referring to Marco Polo in the third person throughout. Significantly, the Latin translation by the Dominican Fra Pippino, destined for a clerical audience and extant in more than 70 manuscripts and subsequent translations, eliminates all references to "co-author" Rustichello of Pisa and "introduced an anti-Islamic and pro-Christian tone to the whole text that is not consonant with the generally more open-minded tone of the Franco-Italian redaction, where Islamophobe remarks are limited in number and confined to descriptions of the Near East" (19). And while cherry-picked instances of such pro-Christian bias have fed several recent "postcolonial" critiques of Marco Polo's text, Gaunt uses the primacy that most scholars have accorded the Franco-Italian redaction to suggest that we have not yet properly understood that text's thoroughgoing fascination with "diversity" as opposed to (binary) difference.
Gaunt focuses the first half of the book through the lens of philology, showing how questions of narrative voice and language "work in parallel to problematize the position from which the text speaks" (112). Chapter 1, "Narrative Voice and Style: 'ego Marcus Paulo'," analyzes the widespread but unstable distribution of first-person forms ("I" and "we"), along with other grammatical features. Though "I" sometimes refers explicitly to "I, Marco," elsewhere it refers to Rustichello, or remains indeterminate. "We" likewise shows a troubling "leakage," with multiple referents ranging from Marco and Rustichello to Marco and his traveling companions to "we" Westerners. Other linguistic features of Devisement include: its mixture (typical of contemporary prose romances) of traces of oral discourse and self-referential mentions of "the book"; its variation of verb tenses, as if to "create deliberate ambiguity about the point in time…from which it speaks" (51); and its predilection for verbs and other indicators like laisser, retorner, aller avant, entrer, partir, a cestui point (leave, return, go forward, enter, leave, at this point) ostensibly referring to geographical space, that might also refer to the place within the text. Gaunt's attention to lexical and stylistic features likewise allow him to differentiate the Devisement from texts to which it is sometimes compared, like Gossouin's Image du monde or the Arthurian prose romances (including that of Marco's co-author, Rustichello of Pisa).
In Chapter 2, "Language and Translation: 'in lingua Galica dicitur'," long quotations from the Franco-Italian, French, and Tuscan redactions afford an up-close examination of philological variation. Where previous editors or commentators--notably Philippe Ménard, in his multivolume edition of the Old French redaction of the Devisement--treat divergences from more standardized forms of Old French as "failures," Gaunt brackets such censurious language, even suggesting that since "some of these inconsistences are maintained throughout the text," they may pointless to "disorder and confusion than an indifference to this particular grammatical norm" (84). The same prescriptive impulse, Gaunt shows, was operative in the Middle Ages as well. Thus the fourteenth-century French redactor "works hard to 'correct' the language"--for example by introducing a more systematic (but by now archaizing) case system--without succeeding in eliminating all the Italianisms, which range from the orthographical and morphological to the grammatical/syntactic: "It is as if there is always a troubling residue of foreignness in this text, in no matter which language." This leads Gaunt (following Valeria Bertolucci Pizzorusso) to suggest that some transmitters may have been "well aware of the linguistic hybridity they were producing or reproducing" (85). The centerpiece of the chapter is a long comparison between the Franco-Italian (§178) and French (§168) accounts of the life of the Buddha. Here, an important discrepancy--was it the Buddha or his father who was responsible for making the first idol?--hinging on the French translator's misunderstanding of the dative relative pronoun cui. Gaunt also discusses the text's introduction of foreign words (which add a note of exoticism) followed by glosses (which hint at a basic untranslatability), and of Chinese place names sometimes distinguished from one another only by a single letter.
In the second half of his book, Gaunt turns to the subject matter of the Devisement, always bearing in mind that "its treatment cannot be divorced from the structures that are the vehicle for its transmission" (112). Chapter 3, on "Knowledge, marvels and other religions," contrasts the Devisement to the medieval European literature of marvels. The monstrous races populating texts by Pliny and Solinus are conspicuously absent; the text sets out to correct such received knowledge of the east, recasting "marvel" as an epistemological rather than an ontological category. Key here is Kublai Khan, who--eluding "neat categories that distinguish the familiar from the strange"--is best figured through the uncanny: "that which can seem at one and the same time familiar and strange, creating a troubling cognitive dissonance" (127). "European" perspectives are called into question: "The subject and site of knowledge are mobile, and as they move so the nature of knowledge and its content move with them" (143). Eastern religions, for example, are "daringly normalized" and even positively valued (137), in ways that subsequent translators often felt compelled to excise from the text.
Chapter 4, "Diversity and alterity," turns to the Devisement's thoroughgoing preoccupation with diversity. Old French, he explains, does not differentiate between deviser (to describe) and diviser (to divide, differentiate); thus to divide is to describe, to apprhend the diversity of. Gaunt analyzes the Devisement's account of diversity under two rubrics. In "Language and Money," he notes that two formulaic phrases routinely applied to a foreign place--that it has "a language of its own" or that it uses "the paper money of the Great Khan"--never occur together. Gaunt then reflects on how constituting a community through language is related to money as a symbolic system of substitution and exchange. In "Others Who Eat Others," Gaunt examines the Devisement's representations of cannibalism. In pushing back the limits of the known world, the Devisement shows that boundaries are not absolute; that they may evoke internal as well as external divisions; and that they need not observe a binary logic. "And this," he writes, "is not a bad basis for ethics" (171), noting that alterity is not in fact a category in which the Devisement seems much interested. In his brief conclusion, Gaunt describes Devisement (via the by-now obligatory evocation of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities) as a text that "challenges us to ask...whether or not we should believe what we read, and if so, what we should do with this belief and the knowledge it imparts" (177).
Gaunt's text is mostly reader-friendly, telling us at the outset of each chapter what will be addressed in its component parts and pausing at its end to show how its thematics are linked to those of other chapters. His extensive references to recent French- and, especially, Italian-language scholarship is welcome, especially given the propensity of much writing on Marco Polo to recycle old data drawn from Yule, Cordier, Moule, and Pelliot. Throughout the book, Gaunt is attentive to the way methological debates (neo-Lachmannian versus neo-Bédieriste principles of text editing) and ideological factors (nationalist approaches to medieval linguistic difference) have shaped the editions and translations available to modern readers. His positions on the Devisement are often cast in response to previous scholarship and in explicit conversation with the works of theorists like Derrida, Bhabha, Kristeva and Lacan. Thus where Philippe Ménard claims that, in regularizing the grammar and morphology of and eliminating Italianisms from the Franco-Italian Devisement, the Old French redaction is simply following a normal process of transcription, rendering the whole "linguistically less bizarre and less disconcerting" (moins bizarre et moins facheuse au plan linguistique) (91),  Gaunt--following Jacques Derrida's radical assertion (in Monolinguisme de l'autre) that language is constitutively other, and any speech act in effect a translation (89)--sees a systematic suppression of the idiosyncracies of the Franco-Italian. Similarly, Gaunt's discussion of the way the text's use of Asian words and place names simultaneously connote exoticism and raise the issue of untranslatability calls forth an excursus on Babel, read through Derrida's essay, "Des tours de Babel." The discussion of language-as-community is mediated by Agamben and Nancy and that of currency as a symbolic system by Zizek and Derrida. The explicit evocation of such theorists, who have clearly played a formative role in Gaunt's own thinking, will appeal to those accustomed to approaching medieval texts through theoretical problematics, though for other readers, it may risk being a distraction.
History, on the other hand, is largely absent from his account (or imported from John Larner's Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World). Other European accounts of the Mongols--John of Plano Carpini, William of Rubruck, Jean de Joinville--are barely mentioned. Contrary to Gaunt's thumbnail sketch of a "Christian Europe" beleaguered by the "apparently relentless…expansion of Islam" on the one hand and "the brutal Mongol invasions" of eastern Europe on the other, by Marco Polo's day, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of West Asia would already have been terra cognita to many Latin Christians--especially those from the Italian maritime republics like Marco's Venice, Rustichello's Pisa, and the Genoa where they were imprisoned. Mentions of "the virulently Islamophobic Hayton, an Armenian prince turned monk" (133) would have benefited from contextualization in the Armenian kingdom's complex relationship to Mongol Persia and Mamluk Egypt as well as to various Latin states. And a sense of the significance of Mongol politics might have helped rehabilitate the section (in the Franco-Italian redaction) on the Mongol wars, too easily dismissed as "aesthetically the least successful and interesting part of the surviving work" (18).
Overall, however, Gaunt's book makes a compelling argument that the content of the Devisement du monde--its wondrous unfolding of the diversity of the world--is inseparable from choices of language and translation. Its insights make it indispensable to any future study of Marco Polo.
1. Ménard is the general editor of a six-volume critical edition of the Old French Devisement (2001-2009) based on British Library Royal 19 B 1.