In this ‘part-memoir, part-linguistic excavation’, Polly Barton’s experiences of moving to Japan and becoming a literary translator form a love letter to the country and its language.
Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is part memoir and part linguistic excavation. It’s also a kind of love letter; a complex and ambivalent ode to Japan, to the Japanese language, to the process of translation, to the cracks in the human experience that language cannot fill. Barton uses fifty Japanese words to describe her experiences as she moved to the country in her early twenties, learnt her first faltering words of the language and later became a translator.
In English, we might call the fifty words of the title onomatopoeic, except that would not be quite accurate enough. These words do not necessarily mimic a sound like boom or crash or plop. Instead, the words mimic an emotion or an experience, forming a shared lexicon. Japanese is particularly rich in this kind of mimetic language.
The concept still remains fuzzy in my mind as I write, but this is illustrative of what the book is doing; the way Barton is encouraging us to think about not only the Japanese she’s describing but also any and all language. She’s saying, see, it’s hard but you use it all the time! It barely exists but it’s the only thing that exists and when you try to grab hold of it it disappears like mist. (‘Boro-boro: the important sound of things falling apart.’)
Barton writes of how she learnt Japanese in a messy, organic way where she deliberately and voluntarily, although not always happily, returned herself to the childlike state of being a word-and-meaning sponge, sucking up communication cues to store them deep in the membranes of the brain and body. The process has given her a world to write in, but there is a warning in this text: that way of learning will strip away everything you thought you were and build something new and uncomfortable in its place. (‘Koro-Koro: the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor.’)
It’s dense at times, as Barton tears up her native language, the language she’s learning and her experiences moving between them into tiny, sticky chunks and chews on them. At these moments when I couldn’t quite grasp her meaning, I felt a slippage between myself as a reader and Barton as questioning writer. Whose incomprehension was I really experiencing? There is a passage where she writes of what she feels is a failed attempt to explain Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about language which I could barely parse. This is partly because I have no training and little knowledge of philosophy, partly because of my preference for the other parts of the book where there is a more convenient narrative and partly because Barton seems to exist in a profound state of doubt about everything that seeped into me as a reader until I was seeing even the words on the page at a slant.
This writing from and into doubt feels so authentic. We are beside her, watching, listening as she paces out her thinking about love, language and life on the page. She does not come to any conclusions because there are no conclusions to reach. This must come from Barton’s translation practice – or perhaps this tendency led her towards it – the reality of only ever stopping a translation rather than finishing it, spending a whole professional life accepting the fact that there is no perfection in your field. (‘Uka-uka: the sound of always being slightly wrong.’)
As a monolingual person reading a translated text it is easy to sit in the certainty of trust in the words on the page; this is comfortable and we often turn to fiction for comfort. For this to work we rely on the translator to shoulder the burden of discomfort and exist in the grey space between languages so we don’t have to. They say, here, rest a while in this other culture, I will hold you while you explore safely. (‘Poka-poka: the sound of stepping into a warm obliviousness that is probably not what a higher self would want or need.’)
Although translated fiction is still a relatively small section of the market, its profile and sales are on the rise in the UK, perhaps helped by blockbuster writers like Ferrante and Knausgård. I feel that part of the problem is that to speak English is to live in an embarrassment of riches. So many works are published in this language, we feel as though there is so much to read already that we can hardly keep up with what might be happening in other literary cultures. (‘Min-min: the sound of the air screaming, or being saturated in sound.’)
Nevertheless, planet earth is only becoming smaller, the tower of Babel only gently collapsing upon itself. #namethetranslator is a exhortation to recognise not only all the hours of work by the translator on a particular book but also all the life that has gone into their language learning, all the conversations and hesitations and misunderstandings. It’s a call to value this skill and the humble generosity behind it, and perhaps to implore us all, in small ways, to make translators of ourselves too. (‘Gu’tari: the sound of your words having more power than you thought, or unexpectedly saying what you mean.’)
Fifty Sounds is the story of that life and that learning, a story that is continuing as you turn the last page. It refuses simplicity and black and white thinking and trains you to sit with the grey, to wallow in it and see every single tone in it to describe the world. It’s honest and in some parts brave, and no matter how many or how few languages you have learned, spoken or forgotten, it offers us all a new way of thinking about this facility we take for granted.
Feature image: Autumn Maples with Poem Slips by Tosa Mitsuoki (public domain).