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Reviews of Travels of Ibn Battuta to India, the Spice Islands, and China

“This volume comprises a translated portion of Ibn Battuta’s (1304–68) famous fourteenth-century travels from Morocco to the Far East translated by the lateProfessor Noel King (d. 2009) and edited with an introduction by his friend and onetime student A.M. Butters recently of the University of Turku, Finland. The editor briefly introduces Ibn Battuta to the reader who is perhaps unfamiliar with both the man and his adventures. He then relates Professor King’s own involvement with Ibn Battuta. Together with a colleague, a translation of the last of Ibn Battuta’s three decades of travel ventures, titled Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, was published in London in 1975[ and in the Princeton, NJ, US in an expanded edition in 1994]. The editor of the present volume writes in the Introduction that it “features a translation and commentary by Professor King of the final part of Ibn Battuta’s well known travelogue (Rihla) through India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China and then back to the Middle East and Northern Africa in 1342–49” ..The translated section under the heading “India”, beginning on page 23, only part of Ibn Battuta’s near-decade sojourn in India at the court of the Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Ibn Tughluq. The Sultan had latterly commissioned Ibn Battuta with the safe delivery of a fabulous royal gift to the King of China. The venture failed utterly as the ships hired to carry the valuable goods were destroyed in port by fierce storms. Rather than test the Sultan’s certain wrath, Ibn Battuta’s immediate avenue of escape was to sail some ten days to the next stage of his adventures, the Maldive Islands, one of the most colourful destinations of his entire travels.

We can take seriously the editor’s comment in his introduction that , Professor Noel King, was especially motivated to make Ibn Battuta’s work more accessible to younger readers..This volume, a small portion of the entire work, still describes enough of the experience of medieval travel and the character of Ibn Battuta himself in a manner that a younger audience of sixth formers or first year undergraduates would enjoy and benefit from. “ –SOAS Bulletin ( University of London)

The Travels of Ibn Battuta to India, the Spice Islands and China (Princeton NJ: Markus Wiener publishers, 2018) translated by Noel Q. King features the final part of the travel by Ibn Battuta, the greatest traveler of the 14th century and the most famous one from the Muslim world. A sequel to Ibn Battuta in Black Africa (Said Hamdun and Noel King, London: Rex Cullings, 1975) that covers Battuta’s experience from 1327 to 1341, this volume deals with his journey between 1342 and 1349 when he went through India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, and then back to the Middle East and northern Africa.

In comparison to the edition translated by H. A. R. Gibb (Ibn Battuta Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354, London, Broadway House, 1963), the language of this volume is more colloquial. For example, in Gibb’s edition, Battuta describes the Chinese as follows: “The Chinese themselves are infidels, who worship idols and burn their dead like the Hindus.”(283) Whereas King’s translation is, “The Chinese are non-believers. They worship idols and cremate the dead, just as the Indians do” (155). In comparison to “infidels,” the use of “non-believers” is more neutral and carries less bias against the Chinese. Similarly, “cremate” signifies more respect to the dead than the impassive “burn.” Moreover, even though “Hindus” are the majority of the population in India, the word “Indians” focuses less on religion and instead highlights the ethnic identities of the people in that country. In another example, while Gibb’s edition is “The hens and cocks in China are very big indeed, bigger than geese in our country, and hen’s eggs there are bigger than our goose eggs. On the other hand their geese are not at all large” (283), King translates it as “The roosters and hens of China are very plump. Their hen’s eggs are larger than our goose eggs, but their geese are not fat” (154). King’s translation reads smoother and more euphonious due to the coherent sentence structure and the thoughtful selection of words like “roosters” rather than “cocks” and “plump” rather than “big.” It is nice that King in his translation uses more colloquial phrases that are more accessible to the readers. However, English readers won’t be able to tell whether he has distorted the original taste of the text or has toned down the biases of Battuta himself unless they can read the original Arabic text. Another difference between the editions of King and Gibb is that in the section about China, King starts with the paragraph about Chinese ceramics, while omitting a paragraph about Battuta’s introduction to the land of China as well as its rivers and fruits etc.(Gibb, 282). The translator has not provided any explanation for this omission.

What is unique about this volume is that the translator has added many subheadings for different sections. These subheadings can function as useful landmarks for readers to browse the contents and provide them with opportunities to pause and chew on the meanings the text. In addition, the translator or editor has inserted several illustrations, such as pepper harvesting in India (18), junk ships in China (69), and a kind of exotic fi sh from Maldives (79), etc. Even though these illustrations have been adopted from various archival sources, they have made the texts interesting to read. The translator also uses close to one hundred footnotes where he makes commentary on the original and offers his own thoughts on as well as minor
corrections to earlier translations by others.

The quality of the translation is based not only on his training in classics and the languages such as Arabic and French, but also his fascination and personal connections with the hero. According to Albion M. Butters, the editor of this volume, King not only had familiarized himself with Battuta’s travels in Africa, but also claimed to have visited every major identifiable place that Battuta has gone in the East (12). The passion and dedication of the translator are always the recipe for excellence, which can be reflected in the well-thought-out prose.

In summary, this book provides professors and students an invaluable primary source for topics related to world history, Middle East history, or Asian history. The colloquial language has also opened it up to a broader audience who are interested in the cultural exchanges and trade networks in the old world before the Great Discovery.”–World History Bulletin

“This is a good introduction to Rihla (Travels) by Ibn Battuta, focusing on the Moroccan’s 1342-1349 sojourn in India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and China. Ibn Battuta gave Arabic readers a view of the Far East in ways analogous to what Marco Polo, traveling some 60 to 70 years earlier, had given to the Europeans. King’s colloquial translation of Ibn Battuta’s travels brings them alive for readers. Welcomed as a qadi (judge), he gained access to the highest levels of Muuslim and non-Muslim osciety and government. Rulers gifted him generously and he joined discussions with religious leaders. He writes about political intrigue; food; punishments meted out by local chiefs; and trade. In Calcutta, he discovered 13 Chinese ships in the barber and Bahraini heading the merchant community; in China, he found paper money in use. The book’s introduction, references for further reading and appendices identifying the positions of people and location of places in the text add to its value.”–Charles O. Cecil, Aramco