by Natsume Soseki

translated by J. Cohn

Published by Kodansha International

172 pages, 2005

Buy it online



Cross Cultural Experience

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


The Japanese classic, Botchan, was actually penned in 1906; it's the translation here that's new. I doubt that there are two more profoundly different languages than Japanese and English. How can a translator find a common ground between our casual, constantly changing language and the formality and nuances of early 1900 Japanese? Translator J. Cohen can and does.

When studying Japanese, I was very conscious of how many levels of communication it actually has. There's a different way of speaking for women, for children, for men and for status. There are even three different sets of symbols for the written language: the characters shared with the Chinese, the strictly Japanese characters, and the symbols specifically used for foreign words. I remember thinking that a Japanese writer would have many more tools to use.

These extra tools provide a challenge for the translator. J. Cohen teaches Japanese language and literature at the University of Hawaii and studied Japanese for many years at various American universities as well as in Japan. He chose to translate this novel because of its enduring popularity there. Even while the country itself has undergone tremendous change since the publication of this little book, Botchan continues to be loved, probably because it was a waft of fresh air in the Japanese literary scene of the times and so very different from other books being published. To start with, it features a rebel, a hero not common in Japan at that time or even now. It also is written in a naive, humorous style, combining a lighthearted approach (such as in the nicknames of all the main characters) with serious subject matter, very different from the usual formal and non-critical works of literature.

Translating a classic work that is well known in its country of origin is a wonderful way to build a bridge between cultures. No wonder this publication was taken on by the Japan Association for Cultural Exchange on behalf of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. This novel is in the spirit of our own Catcher in the Rye or Snow Goose or I Heard the Owl Call My Name. It's known and beloved of school children and adults alike.

Botchan, Cohen tells us, is the nickname given to the main character by his devoted old family servant. It's a name applied to boys and young men of respectable families. The complexity of its meaning is a perfect example of how intricate and difficult the task of translating Japanese can be. English words simply do not have expansive webs of meaning. Thus Botchan can be mildly endearing, as in the case of the family servant who continues to call her beloved master this, or it can be dismissive and slightly insulting. It can denote irresponsibility, inexperience, a spoiled child, a naive person, and so on.

The tale is told by a young man who has become a school teacher in a remote area of Japan. He teaches mathematics at a boarding school, is incredibly innocent and therefore has much to learn. What he learns is not pleasant, although it's frequently funny. The novel is really primarily a rant, a critique of much of Japanese life, the likes of which had never been read before in a Japanese society where people rarely (and still rarely) vented. Simplistic, direct, outspoken, angry, much of Botchan's thought and dialogue is directed against the society in which he finds himself and its inhabitants. To us, he seems ill-equipped for life on his own. He seems, really, like a child.

What's important when reading Botchan is to place yourself in this period of time, the early 1900s, and especially in this place, not only Japan, but a Japanese outpost. During this time Tokyo was seen as the place to be, and the distance other places were from this center of the universe measured how much they were in the boonies. There was a dismissive attitude to people coming from outside the prefecture.

It would be easy for a modern westerner reading this book to lose patience with its slow plot, or to become annoyed with the main character's simplicity and apparent lack of insight or intelligence. But that wouldn't be doing justice to the book.

It would help if before reading you become a child too. Read with no preconceptions or expectations, or to help get you started, read Cohen's introduction a little more closely than you might normally.

The beauty of reading a classic from another country is in the wealth of information you can gain about the culture and its peoples. This is almost more important than the work itself, and if you don't begin the process with the innocence of Botchan, you'll miss out. | August 2005


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.