Natsume Sōseki’s classic sits in something of the same part of the shelf as Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye, but its fame and warm reception often overshadows that it’s deeply atypical of Sōseki’s work. He dashed it off more or less as a lark, a lighthearted bit of contrast to his other, more serious novels, and was somewhat taken aback when it became a steady best-seller. It’s since been adapted into multiple media, predictably — in fact, Lupin III creator Monkey Punch oversaw a hilarious, delightfully stylized one-hour animated TV version that regrettably hasn’t been seen outside of Japan (I found a DVD copy at Book-Off).
Botchan has also been translated into English, not just once but three times, each version edging a bit closer to the spirit of the original. The original English translation is bouncy and in good fun, but veddy British in its diction and visibly dated. (It does, however, have the advantage of being out of copyright and free to own.) The 1972 Alan Turney translation, commissioned for UNESCO and published by Kodansha, is a marked improvement — it was the first one I read, and it keeps the humor without being overly cutesy or affected. And in 2005 J. Cohn did a third version, also for Kodansha as part of the JLPP, which ranks as the best yet: it’s funny without feeling forced, hews far more closely to the original text’s structures and diction, and errs here and there on the side of being faithful in ways that pay off.
The story itself is broad comedy, a loving mockery of a certain personality type often idolized in Japanese culture: the rough-hewn but also sincere and big-hearted Tokyoite. The “Botchan” of the title — the name is the loving, grandmotherly term of affection used for him by his family’s maidservant, Kiyo — gets into trouble the way a bird takes to the sky. Only Kiyo’s love and forgiveness for him are unconditional, and likewise she is the one thing Botchan sees as being genuine in a world of fakery and fraud. Yes, Holden Caufield’s “crumby” world of “phonies” comes to mind, but Botchan’s annoyance with them is marginally more adult in its mind-set — it’s less borne of uneasy adolescent rejection than it is of a young man’s consternation of how people seem determined to make things far more difficult than they have to be.
Botchan lands a job teaching math in a school quite a ways removed from Tokyo, and instantly finds himself at odds with “homespun” country living. His fellow teachers are insufferable — although, irony of ironies, the most initially abrasive of the bunch also turns out to be the one with the most integrity. His landlord keeps trying to scam him by selling him worthless antiques. His students mock his after-school behaviors and put crickets inside his mosquito netting. His host’s food is appalling. Then he gets embroiled in an intrigue involving one of the other teachers and a local beauty called the “Madonna” (Sōseki has sidelong fun with Botchan’s studied ignorance of all things Western), and the climax is classic slapstick wherin Botchan discovers the eggs he bought to stave off malnutrition at the hands of his culinarily-incompetent hosts have, um, other uses.
Humor is one of the hardest things to translate, let alone translate well. The first Botchan relied mostly on a jaunty tone of voice to make its laughs work. The subsequent translations tone that down a bit and let the reader do a bit more of the heavy lifting: we’re allowed to pick up Botchan’s I-don’t-stand-for-this-nonsense attitude a little more directly, instead of having it mapped onto a kind of Gay Nineties Man About Town attitude — which was probably dated when the first translation came out anyway, and now seems downright bewildering. Cohn’s version builds on the broad accessibility of the Turney translation, but also attempts to hew closely to the original by replicating things like the locals’ stilted diction (where every sentence ends in the ticlike interjection “na moshi”). That particular choice works, I think, because it’s set up to come across as being just as annoying to us as it is to the narrator — and for a book where most of the humor is derived from whatever’s current bugging the protagonist, it makes internal sense.
Famed manga-ka Jiro Taniguchi has produced an intriguing parallel work, The Times of Botchan. It is not, as I first thought, a comic adaptation of the book, but rather a closely-observed story about Sōseki’s own life during the period of the book’s creation, which at first glance (I have so far only read the first volume) has much of the same rowdy, satirical air of Botchan itself.