Fifty Sounds

- By Polly Barton Fitzcarral­do Editions, £12.99 (softcover)

In recent years, Japanese-to-english translator Polly Barton has emerged as an interestin­g figure for the Japanese female authors she translates. Through her, the Anglophone world was introduced to awardwinni­ng writers Aoko Matsuda, Tomoka Shibasaki and Misumi Kubo. In short, seeing Barton’s name attached to any novel has become a mark of quality female-led fiction, so it was with curiosity that I approached her own debut, which won the 2019 Fitzcarral­do Editions Essay Competitio­n. A genre-bending nonfiction tome that anatomises, in passionate detail, her obsession with Japan, Fifty Sounds combines elements of memoir, essay, philosophy and linguistic­s. Literary translator­s are famously invisible, but this book pulls back the curtains in style, revealing an intellectu­ally rigorous and soulful writer who not only thinks deeply but feels deeply, too. Here are thoughtful tracts on Wittgenste­in’s theory of language-as-use, dissection­s of social etiquettes in Japan and England, self-flagellati­ng reckonings of her own gaijin privilege and erotic interludes. Ostensibly the book is about her journey to fluency in Japanese, but it is ultimately about achieving a di–erent kind of mastery: a hardearned ease that comes from the attainment of self-knowledge and acceptance.

Japanese supposedly has the most onomatopoe­ic words of any language: a rich and expressive arsenal that can imitate sounds and even describe feelings and actions. To Barton, this sound-symbolic vocabulary ‘is where the beating heart of Japanese lies’, and her ambition is to ‘speak the kind of Japanese which takes mimetics as its beacon: a Japanese of gesturing and storytelli­ng, of searing descriptio­n, or embodied reality’. Each of the book’s 50 chapters is titled with an onomatopoe­ic Japanese word, accompanie­d by a cutesy translatio­n pitched somewhere between a koan and clickbait. Chira-chira, for example, is ‘the sound of the mighty loner and the caress of ten thousand ownerless looks’; sa’pari is ‘the sound of a mind unblemishe­d by understand­ing’; bin-bin ‘the sound of having lots of sex of dubitable quality’.

As each chapter unfolds, Barton unpacks the memory or feeling attached to the sound-symbol and, in the process, gives an account of her time in Japan, from when she arrived from England as a language teacher at the age of twenty-one, to discoverin­g her calling as a translator. Again and again the book takes on the messy, lived reality of learning and speaking a language, and explores how language, in turn, shapes one’s identity and experience of the world. Barton’s admitted self-consciousn­ess and hypersensi­tivity are strengths here, especially in her thorough elucidatio­ns of social nuances, power asymmetrie­s and minor feelings. For anyone who has had to navigate a foreign tongue and cultural environmen­t, many of her experience­s will strike a chord. These include the frustratio­n of debating in a language in which you are not strong, having arguments over accents and the ambivalent, comingled feelings towards her much older Japanese lover, Y: was her a–ection towards him or towards the Japanese he spoke, or both?

Given how Barton embraces the visceral and a–ective modes of language, it is no surprise that Fifty Sounds is deeply personal. Her doomed a–air leads to a belated but necessary breakdown, and a slow process of healing. One of the last chapters of the book, on ho’, which is about the redeeming power of friendship­s, begins with a diatribe against Japanese people who say, ‘I like travelling but I prefer Japan’ (‘lazy patriots, uncritical, boring, scared people who lived oblivious to their own privilege’). But through the comfort she found in her new pals, she ‘was able to accept (gradually, unwillingl­y, problemati­cally) that it was okay to want safety’. The chapter ends with her looking back at photograph­s of an enjoyable group outing and thinking, ‘this is what normal people feel like when they look at pictures of themselves… I looked how I looked, and for the moment that was okay.’ The hard-won revelation is worded with cool restraint (which is very Japanese? British? Or maybe just typical of people used to being hard on themselves), but it is nonetheles­s a sweet ending for a companiona­ble narrator for whom one has grown to root. Adeline Chia

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