Translation—the conveyance of ideas, sentences, a story, a feeling, from one language to another—is inherently contradictory: be as exact as possible, or risk failing at the act. But since the transference of meaning is something so subjective, so tied to cultural and social cues, one could argue “exact” is impossible. Translation becomes its own art form then, one that can only be deeply personal, its product as unique as the heart and brain behind the translation. Such is the case for Polly Barton, a British translator of Japanese work like Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are and Kikuko Tsumura’s There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job: for Barton, the act of translation is tied up in the act of becoming herself. Fifty Sounds is a memoir and meditation of what is lost and gained of oneself when one enters this space of communion between a foreign culture, its language, and those of your own.
Barton first goes to Japan at twenty-one as part of the prestigious JET program after graduating from Oxford (she is admitted off the waitlist; her boyfriend is not). On arrival at her post on Japan’s small rural island of Sado, Barton is unmoored from her known reality. She shows up in Japan not as a typical otaku (someone who enjoys anime and manga) or as a weeaboo (lover of Japanese culture and people), but as someone determined, really, to have an experience elsewhere, to discover and study Japan and its language on its own terms, as devoid of fetishism or Western bias as possible. She shows up unable to communicate whatsoever; soon enough, she’s teaching an after-school English class to young students and entering a relationship with an older Japanese man. Barton cannot see this romance as separate from her language learning experience, and it is through this relationship that Barton discovers much about herself and Japan’s culture, taking both pleasure and resentment in the fact that, as her Japanese improves, her acceptance by the Japanese remains tenuous. There is a constant struggle in Barton—her desire to fit in, to communicate politely and indirectly as the culture expects her to, and her desire to eschew it entirely as a way of communication she simply does not subscribe to, to say what she means, regardless of cultural cues. (It did raise the question in me as a reader—can a Westerner really show up in Japan with zero bias?)
What is uncovered about this journey of self through studying or teaching abroad is not revelatory—surely anyone who’s immersed themself in another culture is going to have felt similar things as Polly, even if they’ve not dissected it in such an articulate way—but what makes this memoir special is Barton’s unequivocal and complicated love for the nuances of meaning, and of Japan, even as she struggles to feel at home in Sado, or even cosmopolitan Tokyo. The memoir is divided into vignettes corresponding to fifty of Japanese’s thousands of onomatopoeias, ranging from kyuki-kyuki, which Barton beautifully translates to mean “the sound of writing your obsession on a steamy tile, or the miracle becoming transparent,” and pota-pota, “the sound of red dripping onto asphalt.” Through these hard to define feelings-as-words, Barton tells of her own journey mastering a foreign language, filling ambiguous space as an independent inner life of hers emerges.
Barton as a writer is searching, analytical, sharp; the character of younger Polly she portrays is precocious, naive, and stubborn, sometimes frustratingly so (but she’s twenty-one, so you can’t hold her to it). Reading Barton in critical conversation with other texts—she loves Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet—is a joy. Particular vignettes, like when she describes the uncomfortable feeling of having to explain her work at a party as giro-giro (the sound of eyes riveting deep into holes in your self-belief, or vicariously visiting the Nocturama, or every party where you have to introduce yourself), or a harmless but softly mortifying exchange with a student’s parent as yochi-yochi (the sound of tottering [at last]), read as revelations; the text’s power is often undercut by moments of excessive self-cogitation and psychoanalysis. But Barton’s insight into and passion for language is ultimately a wonder. At one point she quotes Wittgenstein, who says that language “…is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.” In Fifty Sounds, Barton has effectively removed those glasses for us, turning a rather universal experience into something new, exciting, and fresh—a brand new world of speech and meaning to explore.
By Polly Barton
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Published March 15, 2022
Christina Drill is a writer from New Jersey currently based in Chicago. She is the Social Media Editor for Chicago Review of Books, @stidrill online, and you can read more of her work at www.christinadrill.com