Most people in the West have heard of Marco Polo–something along the lines of “famous Italian merchant who travelled to China a long time ago.” Anecdotally, they may have heard that he “probably introduced the noodles to Italy that were the origin of spaghetti.” He is also known to have written about unicorns. Enough said.
Few of us probe much further, I suspect. But I started to wonder if he could speak Chinese. So I began some light research. I suspected that if he was employed by Kublai Khan as a government official, and stayed in China for over 10 years, he would have acquired some Mongol or Chinese, or both.
It is interesting to note that there is no definitive text of Marco Polo’s travels. Livres des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World), and the versions in circulation vary greatly in length and details. (Kublai Khan’s stable of elephants is numbered at 500 or 5,000 or 105,000 in different versions, or omitted entirely.)
Yet, for centuries the book was a source of information (albeit, much erroneous) and inspiration.
Scholars have questioned whether he actually wrote his accounts from information he gathered from traders he encountered in Constantinople. No Chinese historical sources have been found that mention him. Yet others who have followed in his footsteps testify to the accuracy of many details he described.
Translation is a means by which we see into other perspectives, other cultures, other possibilities. Short of travelling the world and mastering dozens of languages, we rely upon translation to help expand our horizons.
I hope that, even if only in small ways, the translations I do can help other people to make new discoveries.