16.11.23, Kinoshita, trans., intro., The Description of the World / Marco Polo

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Markus Cruse

The Medieval Review 16.11.23

Kinoshita, Sharon, ed. The Description of the World / Marco Polo. Indianapolis/Cambridge:Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016. pp. . ISBN: 978-1-62466-437-3 (hardback) 978-1-62466-436-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:

Markus Cruse
Arizona State University

Marco Polo's travel account was composed in the year 1298 and survives in 141 complete or fragmentary manuscripts in Latin and various European vernaculars, a corpus marked by a great degree of textual variance. Anyone wishing to translate this work therefore faces a daunting set of choices: Which text, in which manuscript or edition, to choose? Which title? How should the author(s) be referred to? How to describe this work? For what audience, general or specialist? What information to give readers to make the text accessible? These questions have bedeviled scribes and scholars since the Middle Ages and will no doubt continue to do so as long as there are readers interested in the Venetian adventurer. For the variety of the Polo manuscript corpus gives the editor or translator many ways of reinterpreting the text for a new readership, which in turn helps assure that the text will continue to be "carried across" the boundaries of language and culture far into the future.

The English translations of Polo's work are fine examples of the communicative complexities it has spawned. The first English translation of Polo's work, by John Frampton, was published in 1579 from Santaella's Castilian translation of the Venetian version. Similarly, Aldo Ricci's 1931 text translates into English Luigi Foscolo Benedetto's modern Italian translation of Benedetto's own edition of manuscript F (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 1116). When English translators are not working second-hand, they have acted as editors and critics. Ronald Latham, who produced the translation for Penguin (1958), deemed Santaella's source "a very corrupt Venetian version" of Polo's text (26). Yet Latham, like Yule, Moule and Pelliot, and Ricci before him, was content to supplement his source text (as with Ricci, Benedetto's edition of F) with other Polo texts, effectively inventing a work that exists in no manuscript. Like his predecessors, Latham interpolated material from manuscript Z (Toledo Cathedral, MS Zelada 49.20), a Latin version that contains passages not found in F but which are also considered authentic. Then there is the question of the translators' approaches. Every English translation has chosen an idiom judged appropriate for its time, has regularized spellings of toponyms and personal names, and has found deficiencies in the source text's repetitions and expressions. Many of these decisions are logical and even laudable, but often something of the source text's character is lost through this domestication, and at times meanings are thoroughly distorted.

Joining this vexed and complex tradition is Sharon Kinoshita's new translation, Marco Polo: The Description of the World. Kinoshita, like Ricci and Latham previously, has chosen to translate an edition of F (Ronchi, 1982). The F manuscript is privileged by translators because, as Kinoshita notes, the original text produced by Polo and his amanuensis Rustichello da Pisa "has been lost; of the surviving versions, the one thought to be closest to it was completed twelve years later, in c. 1310" (xiv), and is found in F. This manuscript also preserves the longest version of the text, which adds to its authority and appeal for translators.

Kinoshita's introduction provides an overview of the work's content and socio-historical context, and of her translation methods and annotation principles. It begins with a brief discussion of the vicissitudes of manuscript culture, of the various titles the work has acquired over the ages, and of how these frame the text's reception. The title used by the Penguin edition and others is The Travels, but Kinoshita wants readers to know that this is in fact an encyclopedic account of the world and not only a work of travel literature. She also hopes to neutralize the questions around the accuracy and veracity of Polo's account, and invites readers to focus on the text as the product of a larger European (and Eurasian) literary and commercial culture. There follows an overview of the text's historical context that discusses Venice as a maritime power, the crusades, and Mongol history from Genghis Khan to the fall of the Mongol empire in the fourteenth century.

Next comes a description of the text's content and style. As Kinoshita notes, "the 'F' version of the Description of the World is far from a polished text" (xxiii), and she cites in particular the irregular use of person and tense (the shift from first to third person, or from singular to plural, in a single sentence). Her method tends toward strict fidelity to the original: "In the interest of readability I have broken the Description's longest lines up into more than one sentence and/or supplied internal punctuation...to facilitate comprehension. In most other cases I have retained as much of the flavor of the Franco-Italian original as possible, on the grounds that its linguistic and stylistic features are intrinsic parts of the culture that produced both Marco Polo and his text" (xxvi-xxvii). On treating repetition in the original, she observes that the "translator who, in the name of euphony, opts for a more varied vocabulary sacrifices the text's obsessive insistence on" specific themes (xxvii). The annotations are meant "to identify the people, places, and events mentioned in the text in a way that conveys enough information to contribute to our portrait of the late thirteenth-century world without overwhelming the general reader with details of interest only to specialists" (xxix).

There is much to appreciate in this volume. Kinoshita, a specialist in medieval French literature, is also a leading scholar in the burgeoning field of global medieval studies, and her knowledge of the many fields that illuminate Polo's text is on display throughout. Her translation is true to a single edition of a single authoritative source, not the product of fanciful--and questionable--compilation. She thereby gives us a particular Marco Polo text, not the "definitive" text other translators have concocted, and in so doing is true to the work's history. Polo's text is not a major work of literary art, and the translation challenges it poses relate more to idiom and accuracy than to the aesthetics of tone or imagery. Perhaps the biggest challenge, as Kinoshita recognizes, is deciding how to handle the text's medieval features: its repetition, parataxis, euphemism, etc. Here again, one can only respect Kinoshita's decision to retain many of these features, which are constant reminders of this text's complicated genesis and of the ways it shows its author(s) devising how to represent the new and the strange. As advertised, the introduction and annotations are written for non-specialists and deliver facts and arguments concisely and clearly. The footnote annotations are particularly helpful: short yet informative, inserted when needed, and based on current research, they render the text accessible and provide useful context. The bibliography is current, thorough, varied, and will be of use to anyone interested in learning more about Polo and his era. In addition to the introduction, annotated translation, and bibliography, the book also includes genealogies of Mongol rulers, a map of Eurasia, seven maps of regions discussed by Polo, maps of medieval Beijing and Xian, and an index. This volume is an excellent resource for the curious reader, for high school and university courses, and for specialists alike.

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