Botchan: Translation rush or glut?

By William Wetherall

A review of
Natsume Soseki
(Newly translated by J. Cohn)
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005
176 pages

A version of this article appeared as
"Botchan: A Modern Classic" in
SWET Newsletter, Number 108, July 2005, pages 43-49

A new English translation of Natsume Soseki's Botchan invites investigation of variations in the five available translations dating from the early twentieth century. Readability for young, trendy readers and living up to advertising copy are intriguing considerations as well, and William Wetherall addresses them all.

KI's "Western tastes"

English translations of Japanese literature have entered the age of consumerism. The shelves of real and virtual stores are full of translations, some in multiple versions, new and old. Only the prices can be taken at face value. Other labels are often misleading. More than ever, it's buyer beware.

Several novels by Natsume Soseki (夏目漱石, 1867-1916), including Wagahai wa neko de aru (吾輩は猫である, I Am a Cat, 1905), Yume juya (夢十夜, Dreams of Ten Nights, 1908), and Kokoro (ころろ, Kokoro, 1914), have two or three English translations. But Botchan (坊ちゃん, Botchan, 1906) holds the record at five, two of which just came out, one from Kodansha International, and the other self-published on a weblog.

Kodansha International (KI) has released a new Botchan translation by Joel Cohn, who is associate professor of Japanese at the University of Hawai'i. At 2,400 yen in hardback, it has to compete, in-house no less, with Alan Turney's 1972 version, which KI sells for 1,070 yen in paperback, 690 yen in a thicker bunko edition with vocabulary glosses for students, and 1,900 yen on audiotape.

The flap of the jacket, and KI's press release, calls Cohn's Botchan "a lively new translation much better suited to Western tastes than any of its forebears." The New Titles section of KI's general catalog bills it as "a lively new translation much better suited to the A (sic) modern reader." The literature section of the catalog plugs it as "a lively new translation of an enduring classic" right below a nondescript pitch for Turney's Botchan.

This is the twenty-first century. Yet KI believes that there are "Western tastes" and that the object of translating Japanese literature into English is to satisfy these tastes, which apparently define the "modern reader." KI's monthly Japanese news flyer appeals to other vanities and tastes, calling Cohn's Botchan "an ambitious translation that is based on the latest research results, and has gone all the way in pursuit of the taste of the original" (最近の研究成果を踏まえ、原文の味わいをとことん追求した意欲的な翻訳).

While some degree of assimilation is inevitable in translation, there is no evidence that Cohn intentionally or unwittingly boiled any ostensibly "Japanese" ingredients in Botchan down to a putatively "English," much less "Western" or "modern" gruel. Like Umeji Sasaki (Tuttle 1922), but unlike the others, he even retains an expression from a local dialect that figures in a word play -- a word that is glossed in Japanese texts of Botchan, and would not have been fully understood by most readers of Japanese even in Soseki's time (see page 53; Sasaki, page 58; Turney, page 53).

Cohn's "Introduction"

Cohn is not responsible for KI's misleading advertising. In the low-key introduction, he reminds us that "names, especially nicknames, play an important role in this novel" and "Natsume Soseki wrote in the last age of pre-Freudian literature [and] it is worth remembering that Soseki himself did not have such a perspective." But he does not mention previous translations, tell us why he thought the world deserved another, allude to new research on Soseki or the novel, or touch upon translation standards, all questions aroused by the very sight of a new translation.

An occupational hazard of translators who teach literature is that they feel compelled to preface their translations with commentary. Most of what Cohn relates about the story, Soseki shows or suggests in his narrative. The rest is largely canned Japanology and trendy literary analysis that at best should have come in a postscript, so as not to taint the reader's experience with the translator's opinions. Cohn's remarks about dialect might also have been more effective as a footnote or endnote.

How does Cohn's Botchan compare with the original, and with the Turney and other translations, all of which are still available, some for free? Any paragraph, really, would do, so let's look at the second.

Original -- 1906

Natsume Soseki
Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2004
Pages 5-6


Romaji edition -- 1922

Roomazi Bottyan
Tokyo: Iwanami Syoten, 1928
Pages 1-2

Nippon-no-Romazi-Sya (日本のローマ字社) published Bottyan by Natume-Soseki as part of its campaign to romanize the writing of Japanese in schools and everyday life. Kanji and kana were to be replaced by Nipponsiki-romazi, which eventually became the basis of the government's Kunreishiki scheme of romanization.

Sinrui no mono kara seiyoseino Naihu wo moratte, kireina Ha wo Hi ni kazasite Tomodati ni misete itara, hitori ga, hikaru koto wa hikaru ga kiresomo nai to itta. Kirenu koto ga aru ka, nan' demo kitte miseru to ukeatta. Sonnara kimi no Yubi wo kitte miro ! to tyumonsita kara, nanda Yubi gurai konotori da to, migino Te no Oyayubi no Ko wo hasuni kirikonda. Saiwai Naifu ga tiisai no to, Oyayubi no Hone ga katakatta node, imadani Oyayubi wa Te ni tuite iru. Sikasi Kizuato wa sinu made kienu.

Morri translation -- 1918

[Mr. Kin-Nosuke Natsume]
Botchan (Master Darling)
(Translated by Yasotaro Morri)
[Revised by J.R. Kennedy, 1919]
Tokyo: Kinseido, 1948
Page 2

One of my relatives once presented me with a pen-knife. I was showing it to my friends, reflecting its pretty blades against the rays of the sun, when one of them chimed in that the blades gleamed all right, but seemed rather dull for cutting with.

"Rather dull? See if they don't cut!" I retorted.

"Cut your finger, then," he challenged. And with "Finger nothing! Here goes!" I cut my thumb slant-wise. Fortunately the knife was small and the bone of the thumb hard enough, so the thumb is still there, but the scar will be there until my death.

Sasaki translation -- 1922

Soseki Natsume
(Translated by Umeji Sasaki)
Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1968
Pages 13-14

A foreign-made penknife had been given me by one of my relations, and I was showing it proudly to my comrades, the bright blades reflecting the sunlight, when one of the boys said that bright as it shone it was a dull knife after all. I told him that it was sharp and I could cut anything with it. "Well," said he, "try it on your finger!" "Look here," said I, and I tried it on the thumb of my right hand. it bled much, but fortunately the knife being small and the bone solid, the finger has retained its original position to this day although I shall carry the scar to my grave.

Turney translation -- 1972

Natsume Soseki
(Translated by Alan Turney)
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1972
Page 9

A relation of mine had given me a foreign-made penknife, and I was holding up the beautiful blade to show my friends how it caught the sunlight when one of them said, "It shines, all right, but I bet it won't cut."

"What do you mean, won't cut? It'll cut anything," I replied, accepting the challenge.

"All right then, let's see you cut your finger," he demanded.

"A finger? Huh! It'll cut a finger as easy as this." So saying, I cut diagonally into the back of my right thumb. Fortunately, it was a small knife, and the bone was hard, so I still have my thumb. But the scar will be with me for life.

Cohn translation -- 2005

Natsume Soseki
[A Modern Classic]
(Newly translated by J. Cohn)
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005
Page 13

I had a nice imported knife that one of my relatives had given me, and once when I was holding it up to the sun to show my friends how shiny the blade was, one of them said that it was shiny all right but it probably wouldn't cut anything. I told him that it would cut through anything just fine and if he didn't believe me I would prove it. He dared me to try cutting my finger with it, so I said all right, just watch, and cut a diagonal slice across my right thumb. Luckily it was just a small knife and the bone was good and hard, so that thumb is still attached to my hand, but the scar will be there until the day I die.

Matt at No-sword translation -- 2005

Readers brought up on Beavis and Butthead will appreciate an even more recent translation, which appeared in chapter installments on its creator's blog during March 2005, the very month KI released Cohn's Botchan. The blog version is free. The text is full of hyperlinks to encyclopedia and other information on people and places and things Japanese in the story. The Web site also has links to free downloads of Soseki's original and Morri's 1918 translation, both of which are now in the public domain as their copyrights have lapsed.

Natsume Soseki
(Translated by Matt at No-sword)
Internet, 2005

Another time, one of my relatives gave me a knife from America. When I held the blade up to the sunlight to show my friends how awesome it was, one of them said, "It's shiny enough, but it doesn't look like it'd cut worth shit."

"Shut up, buttmunch. It'll cut anything you like," I said.

"OK, smart guy. Cut your finger," he ordered.

"Is that all? Watch this," I said, and cut a diagonal line into the ball of my right thumb. Luckily the knife was small and the thumb-bone was hard, so my thumb is still attached to my hand. But the scar will be there until I die.

The flexibilities of English

While Cohn's translation is readable enough, it is not exactly "lively." Nor is it clear what "tastes" it might suit more than its forebears -- though for sure it ain't gonna rock with the MTV generation, which is only like a bagillion light years ahead of KI's "modern reader" consumer cohort.

Despite KI's claim that "the taste of the original" was an object of the new translation, it appears that Cohn himself had something else in mind. One would think that a professor of Japanese would have been inspired to translate with a finer ear for the terse cadences of Soseki's narrative style, but apparently not.

Cohn respects Soseki's second paragraph as a paragraph. He also honors the way Soseki throws the dialog into the flow of the graph, without quotation marks. But he merges shorter sentences, pads the embedded dialog, inflates Soseki's minimalist show with wordier tell, and changes metaphors that easily travel in English.

Cohn's translation is a good example of what happens when translators impose personal or other standards of style or readability on the structures of the original. The highest regard a translator of Japanese into English can show the reader is to utilize the enormous flexibilities of English to mimic the author's narrative style and metaphors, and otherwise cut as close as linguistically possible to the bone of the original.

The second paragraph of Botchan could be done like this (Wetherall 2005).

I got a knife made in the West from a relative, and when I showed it to some friends, holding its beautiful blade to the sun, one said, It shines all right but it doesn't look like it can cut. Can't cut? It'll cut anything, I swore. If so, then cut your finger! he demanded, so I said What, just a finger, like this! and cut into the back of my right thumb on a slant. Luckily the knife was small, and the bone of my thumb was hard, so the thumb is still attached to my hand. But the scar won't disappear until I die.

Structural fidelity

Structural fidelity is important, especially in translations of literature. Structure means story presentation -- wording and phrasing -- semantic details and their syntactic flow -- the stuff of narrative style -- the warp, woof, and texture of a story. What is lost when translators play loose with structure? Literary quality -- how an author chooses to tell a story -- short dramatic sentences like a Hemingway or longer, explanatory prose like a Faulkner -- rhythm and metaphor -- voice.

"I had a nice imported knife that one of my relatives had given me . . . , but the scar will be there until the day I die" is Cohn. "I got a knife made in the West from a relative . . . . But the scar won't disappear until I die" (親類のものから西洋製のナイフを貰って . . . 。然し創痕は死ぬまで消えぬ) is Soseki.

Botchan did not "have" a knife "that" a relative "gave" him. He "got" a knife "from" a relative. Soseki dramatizes. Cohn explains.

The knife was not "imported" or "foreign-made" or "from America." Soseki wrote 西洋製の because that is what he meant. It is the translator's job to convey what Soseki wrote, and the reader's job to figure out why Botchan would qualify his knife as "made in the West". Morri, Sasaki, Turney, Cohn, and Matt at No-sword did not translate, but interpreted, what Soseki wrote. Their interpretations have no foundation in the story, and losing the 西洋 metaphor at the outset weakens later allusions to "Western" things.

"Disappear/vanish" (消える) is a synonym for "die" (死ぬ). Just as "not die" (not bad, not unlike) does not mean "live" (good, like), "not disappear" does not mean "be there" or "be with me". Botchan tells us his thumb is still there, and we know there must be a scar. The question is whether it will vanish, and the answer is -- it won't, until he dies. By flipping the double negative into a positive, Cohn weakens the credibility of Soseki's narrative logic.

Pacing within paragraphs is also an element of structure. The timing of a narrative is controlled entirely by phrasing and punctuation. The mouth pauses to give the ear and mind moments to reflect, rest, or just wait. In Soseki's choreography of silence, the stop before "But" (しかし) is vital to the timing of the climax.

Cohn's Botchan is not a bad translation. By some measures it may be an improvement over earlier versions. But it is not necessarily a better read. And not a few of Cohn's own students will prefer the funky attitude of Matt at No-sword's mind-blowing mutant.