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Thoughts on Marco Polo

June 29, 2015

I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo right now. It’s tangentially related to my novel, and I’ve grown more interested in history the last couple years, and hey, never read the book, probably should, etc. I’m not even halfway through the edition I have—Marco hasn’t even made it to Mongolia yet—so I’m not going to comment on the story itself today. That can come later when I’ve got a better picture. But the reading experience itself has been … interesting and I thought maybe writing about some of the things I’ve noticed might be helpful for me, thought-provoking for you.

Let’s start with the translation. For those of you disinclined to click links, it’s a 1903 edition of a translation by Henry Yule, a Victorian ex-military officer once stationed in India. It’s a good translation—clear, concise, almost certainly as verbatim as changing Middle French into Victorian English is going to get. However. I’m not sure if this is the accuracy of the translation or Yule allowing his Victorian mindset to show, but it reads like Ye Olde Antique Story. You know, the same sort of language that fairy tales are told in, myths are told in, The Silmarillion starts in because Tolkien had read Norse myths, weak fantasy novels are written in to ape Tolkien, Chaucer gets translated into.*

In this country there are many cruel and murderous people, so that no day passes but there is some homicide among them. Were it not for the Government, which is that of the Tartars of the Levant, they would do great mischief to merchants; and indeed, maugre the Government, they often succeed in doing such mischief.

That English. Admittedly, translations of Chaucer get a pass on this because that’s how he reads anyway, when you modernize the spelling, but still. Is Chaucer where this whole thing started? Why do we tell certain kinds of stories this way? Exactly how accurate is this to the original text? If this is Yule wording things to sound more antique than needed, why?

There’s another thing re: the text that I’d like to comment on, and it’s based on a disconnect. You see, I’d heard from a few sources over the years—might even have seen a page or two at one point, I think—that The Travels is displaced in place, that it doesn’t so much name cities and countries as it says, “The City of Silk” and “The Country of Dancing Elephants” and things to that effect. That’s what I went in expecting: a bunch of descriptions of locations that are more mythical than factual, that nobody’s been able to pin down on a map.

Instead, I appear to be reading a pretty solid medieval travel guide.

On departing from the city of Kerman you find the road for seven days most wearisome; and I will tell you how this is. The first three days you meet with no water, or next to none. And what little you do meet with is bitter green stuff, so salt that no one can drink it … After those three days of desert [you arrive at a stream of fresh water running underground, but along which there are holes broken in here and there… It has an abundant supply, and travellers, worn with the hardships of the desert, here rest and refresh themselves and their beasts.]

In other parts, Marco describes food, local customs, which areas are Islamic or Buddhist, where you might need to worry about robbers, and how very cold it is on top of mountains.* He hasn’t described a hotel yet that I recall, but there’s still time. I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s just unexpected and I keep waiting for the semi-mythical cities to show up.

And then we get to the rest of the reading experience, because the translation itself is only half, or maybe a third, of the book. The rest is footnotes. They’re why I’m reading this particular edition in the first place, because I wanted historical and geographic context. Hoo boy, am I getting that! Oh, am I.

I mentioned Yule was Victorian, right? I imagine him as a quintessentially British gentleman, all tea and smoking jackets and Doing His Bit For The Empire™. I also imagine this translation of The Travels was his life’s work. I can tell the latter because where another editor might have written “Marco’s place name X is probably this other place name Y, still in use in the area”, Mr. Yule quotes a handful of commentators, explores all their theories, shares insights from other travel memoirs of the area, provides a couple of etymologies, looks at maps, and occasionally backs himself up on a reading by quoting medieval French and Italian poetry. He’s relayed entire histories of dynasties to explain something like “King So-and-So defeated Lord Such-and-Such here.” Yesterday there was a ten-page footnote about a tree, which goes into stories about Alexander the Great, Biblical traditions, etymologies based on typos and alternate spellings, and two pictures.

There is no way compiling this book was not a substantial part of Mr. Yule’s life. The amount of work he had to do to nail down the facts to his specifications! I can’t blame the man for putting every last detail on the page. I bet his book even found readers at the time who were ecstatic to have all that information at hand and went spelunking in the British Library to look up his sources. Me? I’ve sadly started skimming.

My former assertion, that Yule was quintessentially British Empire is based off his portrait at the start of the book, his weak attempts at jovial academic wit, quoted letters sent him by military men stationed in India or central Asia as evidence for a claim, and the use of words like “Mahomedan” instead of “Muslim”. At least he seems to be treating the peoples and languages he’s dealing with with respect, instead of playing to stereotype and looking down his nose at them. There are a lot of facts and very little personal commentary beyond “I believe this version, not that one.”

Actually, now that I think of it, Marco Polo himself comes off as more racist than Mr. Yule, though I suspect it’s more “cultural superiority” and “fish out of water” than it is race. It’s just … Marco keeps saying things like, “the people of the country have a peculiar language,” “savage Idolaters,” and “they are an evil race”. I wince every time. (Mind you, this could be where Yule is showing his colors, because there are probably alternate words that he didn’t choose.)

Overall, I’m enjoying the read and learning a lot. I know embarrassingly little about central Asian history and am forward to learning more, especially once I hit the Mongols. I’m also looking forward to maybe finding a tidbit or two to weave into my novel. (I’m especially looking for red herrings at the moment.) I think when I’m finished I’ll have to flip through another translation or two of the book, to really get a sense for how accurate Yule’s translation really is, but overall I’m satisfied with my choice of edition. Footnotes notwithstanding.

* I’m fairly sure young Marco, who was 15 years old when he left Venice, had only ever seen mountains in the distance. I bet they were a nasty surprise.


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