Many readers may know Polly Barton better as the translator behind Aoko Matsuda’s “Where the Wild Ladies Are,” which won an English PEN award last year; and Kikuko Tsumura’s “There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job,” released in November 2020. But if her latest individual work, “Fifty Sounds,” is anything to go by, Barton is a writer to be reckoned with in her own right.

Fifty Sounds: A Memoir of Language, Learning, and Longing, by Polly Barton
360 pages

Published in April 2021 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, “Fifty Sounds: A Memoir of Language, Learning, and Longing” consists of 50 essays structured around Japanese onomatopoeia. It is, however, more than a memoir of her path to literary translation: It’s a vivid excavation of language and memory, a dizzying odyssey through the struggles of immersion and language learning, and a deeply humane love letter to a country that helped shape who she is today.

“Fifty Sounds” began life shortly after Barton’s return to the United Kingdom in 2018 as a series of notes on Japan and aspects of the Japanese language, a way of processing her memories and feelings of being “between cultures and languages” at the time. Not long afterward, she submitted these writings and a book proposal to the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize — and won.

The essay prize, she says, encourages experimental writing, which gave her the courage to follow through with her idea. “A part of me thought, if they want experimental, I’ll give it to them,” Barton says with a laugh.

At present, “Fifty Sounds” is on its second print run, and Barton says the book’s positive reception has been largely driven by the translation community — people excited by someone writing a book partially about translation.

“I don’t think I’m the kind of person who can ever have a non-problematic relationship to home, or my home nation,” Barton says when asked about reacclimating to the U.K. “I know now that I’ll always have a feeling of outsiderness wherever I am … I’m much more accepting of that now.”

The question of permission, it seems, looms large for her. Feelings of being an interloper surface in the book time and again, such as being around other translators who have had formal language training. Barton is also explicit about the privileges inherent in being “a white person from a dominant culture with a colonialist legacy.” One hilarious essay, for example, begins by describing the figurative “gaijin card,” situations where breaches of social conduct by non-Japanese are forgiven or overlooked, whereas “those of Asian heritage … are less likely to be let off the hook for their incompetence.”

It was important, she says, to write about her experiences in a nondidactic way, making it clear she wasn’t trying to educate or define the language as it exists.

“To a certain extent, I genuinely believe, ‘What right does any non-native white speaker have to make pronouncements about what this Japanese word means,’” Barton says. “I wanted to push back against the classic ‘white person writes about going to Japan’ sort of book.”

The result is a highly subjective, deeply personal memoir that focuses on the granularity of her experience so keenly it assumes a quality of universality.

“It’s so uniquely about me that it becomes uniquely about everyone else,” she explains. “Everyone who’s learned another language finds things in there to relate to.”

A watchful self-awareness permeates “Fifty Sounds” in a way that lays bare a wide emotional spectrum. We feel the chill of hiya-hiya (being cold/fearful) with Barton as she recalls her past misdemeanors — the scandal of addressing the head teacher at her school in plain form; using kimi (a casual form of “you”) on an older male lover and being admonished for rudeness; her mother offering a toast at dinner with the words “chin-chin” (penis). We laugh with her as she relates the vagaries of cross-cultural dating and talking during sex in rueful, hilarious detail (“The sex I had before going to Japan was British, and it didn’t involve many words”).

And finally, we find ourselves wincing in painful recognition as she grapples with her complex relationship to Japan. Her love for the country, she writes, is “hot, and embodied and inappropriate,” and she finds herself “drawn back again and again to Japan.” Despite this passionate attachment, Barton writes that feels she is “failing at Japan,” and eventually finds herself wanting to be “in a place where people would talk to me as one of them.”

“Fifty Sounds” recreates the journey of language learning, tottering like a toddler, yochi-yochi, toward fluency, and the attendant frustrations of a second linguistic adolescence giving way to considering the costs of assimilation. Most of all, we see that nothing is beyond the scope of language’s influence: To strive for mastery in another language is to let it alter how you think, how you perceive yourself. To learn a language is to let it change your very being.

“A few people who’ve read it said it really made them think about very specific experiences they had, and how they shaped their understanding of their language,” Barton says. “If the book can trigger personal memories and discoveries, that is what I would like people to take away.”

Those hoping for a conventional memoir about Japan will be disappointed: This work is unusable as guidebook-style travel inspiration. Readers without a grounding in linguistic theory and philosophy may also find certain sections abstruse, even tedious. But her rich, lyrical writing and the wealth of insights on language and culture more than make up for any difficulties. “Fifty Sounds” merits multiple readings, offering something new on each revisit.

With this memoir under her belt, what’s next? For starters, an essay about singer Jun Togawa; Barton cites the musician’s gloriously eccentric 1985 single “Suki Suki Daisuki” as a karaoke favorite. Otherwise, she’s in a gestation period of sorts, mulling potential writing and translation projects.

The warm reception to “Fifty Sounds” indicates a bright writing career ahead; I, for one, look forward to reading what she writes next.

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