Polly Barton is a Japanese-English translator with an extraordinary output, including three novel-length projects published in English translation in the last eighteen months. Fifty Sounds is her memoir, chronicling her year teaching English on Japan’s remote Sado Island and the way it changed the trajectory of her life.
Barton organizes her memoir around fifty sounds from Japanese onomatopoeic vocabulary. (Chapters titles include “beta’: the sound of very sticky fingers” and “bin-bin: the sound of having lots of sex of dubitable quality”. ) These mimetics aren’t a cute gimmick. “Throughout what follows,” she explains in the book’s preface, “Japanese mimetics will serve not only as a specific linguistic phenomenon, but also the symbol of a particular view of language”:
In this understanding, language is something we learn with our bodies, and through our body of experiences; where semantics are umbilically tied to somatics, where our experiences and our feelings form a memory palace; where words are linked to particular occasions, particular senses, which gradually fade the more practised we become but remain there nonetheless in memory, forming a personal genealogy of the tongues we speak.
Fifty Sounds is a story of love affairs: with a culture, a man, and language itself
Throughout the memoir, Barton’s intelligence and erudition come across in every sentence of liltingly beautiful prose. As it is in her translations, her writing here is also unapologetically British. (Her usage makes her “come over quite strange”, Japanese biographies “take the biscuit”). She also casually drops quotes and names as though she were an early-20th century British essayist; an appendix “multimedia mixtape” of her sources and inspirations takes up seven pages.
Fifty Sounds isn’t perfect. Barton acknowledges her privileges in a Japanese context—that she gets to be a stranger in a strange land, that her whiteness covers all manner of sins—but she never really addresses her privileges back in the West. She grew up surrounded by some of the richest people in Europe, earned her degree at Cambridge, and found a job in the publishing industry without (apparently) much effort. She’s in a position to go where the wind takes her, to “abnegate responsibility”, and trust that she will arrive safely. She also writes with a gravitas and sobriety that sit uncomfortably on the shoulders of a writer young enough to have a cellphone as an undergraduate.
For all this, though, she is always respectful of Japan and Japanese people. She never presents Japan as Other, reliably noting the things that might seem odd or idiosyncratic in her own culture as well. Above all, she is brutally honest about her feelings and failings.
What really makes the book sparkle is Barton’s abiding love of language itself.
Japan isn’t Barton’s first love. She stumbles into the highly-competitive Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program after studying philosophy, especially the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, at university.
It is really her love for “Y”, a married man more than twice her age that serves as her anchor in Japan. Y is one of her supervisors during her time with JET, as well as her informal Japanese language coach. She comes to admire his passion for teaching and his integral place in the community. Their fiery, illicit relationship colors everything about her life on Sado. It continues to haunt her for almost a decade, with Y popping in and out of her life at unpredictable intervals. Her relationship with Y becomes hopelessly intertwined with her relationship with Japan.
Barton approaches Japan itself with an initial reserve that might surprise some Anglophone readers, particularly otaku. These extreme fans of Japanese pop culture tend to fetishize Japan and what it might be like to live there. They consume the Japan that Japanese companies and even the Japanese government export as a kind of soft power. Barton isn’t interested in Cool Japan:
The Japan I wanted wasn’t the cloying, fluorescent, high-pitched one that anime lovers dreamed about and which reached out its arms in welcome. It was muted, austere, monochrome, picked out in pale pink and red like an Utamaro print, and it didn’t admit foreigners. In short, the Japan I wanted didn’t want me.
With the benefits of hindsight, she claims her feelings toward Japan “have always been hopelessly ambivalent.”
This idea, that “the Japan [she wants]” doesn’t want her, pervades the book. It influences her relationship with Y, whom she eventually realizes has come to personify Japan for her: “I’d made a legend of him, a one-man nation. I’d fashioned him into a Japan that was mine, and that wanted me just as I wanted it.”
In the end, despite her love for Y and Japan, she must break with her lover and return to Britain if she wants to remain herself.
Barton celebrates this space between knowing and not-knowing a language.
But what really makes the book sparkle is Barton’s abiding love of language itself. She is deeply involved in “the late-Wittgenstenian project” of, in her words, “wrestling the power over language from the hands of the philosophical elite and returning it to the everyday speaker.” Language isn’t an abstract concept, but embodied in the people who use it every day.
Of course, accepting that language is a system embodied in a community makes language learners extremely vulnerable. Barton finds that learning a new language is an “utterly destabilizing” experience of refining your self by fire, of questioning language “in a fundamental, world-shifting, ground-pulled-from-under-one’s-feet-way”.
Barton is brave. She celebrates this space between knowing and not-knowing a language. She approaches Japanese with the melancholy knowledge that she will never be able to fully integrate into the language’s embodied community. Nevertheless, her love of this liminal space is so great that she emboldens the reader, too, to sit in linguistic limbo.
Early in the memoir, she asks Y about an unfamiliar usage of a Japanese mimetic more commonly translated as “feeling refreshed or relieved”:
“What does sa’pari mean?” I said, and when he didn’t give me a straight-out answer, I explained the situation.
“I don’t understand,” he said in English. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.”
“That’s what it means. Sa’pari is short for sa’pari wakaranai. I cleanly, perfectly do not understand.”