‘The Sound of the Mighty Loner’: How Language Shapes Our World

A genre-bending nonfiction tome that anatomises, in passionate detail, the author’s obsession with Japan, Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds combines elements of memoir, essay, philosophy and linguistics

Aokigahara, 2018. Courtesy Flickr; photo: William Chen; Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

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 different kind of mastery: a hard-earned 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 affection towards him or towards the Japanese he spoke, or both?

Given how Barton embraces the visceral and affective modes of language, it is no surprise that Fifty Sounds is deeply personal. Her doomed affair 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.

Fifty Sounds, by Polly Barton, Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99 (softcover)

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