Rating: 4 stars
Back in May 2015, my husband and I stayed in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. In preparation for that trip, as Matsuyama is the anonymised setting for the novel, I thought I would re-read Botchan. I had already read the free Project Gutenberg translation on my e-reader, and I remember enjoying it but finding the translation a little stilted and oblique, so I decided to buy a copy of the J. Cohn translation of Natsume Sōseki’s classic tale of arrogant youth coming to terms with the realities of life.
It was much better, far more accessible. Botchan is a comic character, cartoon like in his extremes. His brief interlude among the inhabitants of a country town is infuriating and entertaining in equal measure. Some of his escapades made me snigger out loud, while the deviousness of his colleagues made me want to grind my teeth. I could really visualise the story as I read this translation.
Cohn’s translation gets across very well that Botchan is a fool. He thinks he’s better than everyone else in the provincial town where he ends up teaching in middle school. His sense of superiority leaves him wide open to being used by the unscrupulous adults in the town and mocked by his students. He fails to appreciate the kindness and friendship of one of his colleagues, with devastating results.