Published 14 April 2021
French paperback with flaps, 360 pages
¶ 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
Sometimes I think that if I could telescope the last fifteen years into a single scene it would go like this. We begin with a wide shot, the camera skimming the lofty ceiling of a large, open-plan room. Sunset seeps in through the tall windows, picking out bright parallelograms of light on the walls, and we hear the gentle burble that marks out the early stages of a party. It’s hard to pin down where this party is, because in truth it isn’t one party but all of them, so for the sake of argument let’s have it somewhere in Britain. The Japanese version plays out quite differently, anyway. So the odd snatch of recognizable English, then, as the camera begins to float its way down from the high ceiling, homing in on a corner where a woman is standing with a group, holding a glass of wine, introductions, let’s say it’s some kind of opening and they all have nice semi-creative careers: graphic designers, journalists, event coordinators. Everyone is politely fascinated and fascinating, but when the woman is asked what her job is and tells them she’s a translator, is asked what languages and says, Japanese, you can feel even on screen a crevice opening up in the air. It’s not incredulity or aggression, not awe or surprise or defensiveness, but it’s not unlike any of these things, and there is some exhaling, some eyebrows raised in a way that they weren’t for the graphic designer. Some alert glances and follow-up questions. And then the conversation moves on, shifts away from the woman because her body-language seems to indicate that she doesn’t want to hold forth on what it is that she does. The moment passes, conversation limps along for a while and then the cluster starts to disintegrate. The woman makes to move off, and a man who had been standing opposite her reads her movements and breaks off with her, two fish flitting away from the shoal. He says her name, which he has remembered, and appends to it a question mark. They come to a standstill facing each other, a little way off from where the group was before. He reintroduces himself, maybe they shake hands, and then he leans in slightly, his palm coming to rest against a partitioning wall, a lopsided smile floating on his face, and he says, ‘So...’
We wonder, with the woman, what’s coming, although something in the woman’s expression suggests to us that she knows in her heart of hearts exactly what’s coming.
The camera freezes for a moment to take this in, catch the incline of his torso, catch the look in his eye which, despite the smile still suspended across his face, is strangely urgent. Probing is a word you could use to describe this look, and it feels more marked coming from someone you wouldn’t expect to show unveiled interest in another person – who you might expect to view such behaviour as a form of weakness. And then we pan to the woman, and we’re expecting this conversation to proceed in the intense yet witty way that conversations are supposed to go at these parties, particularly in films of these parties, but what comes over her face is instead a look of discomfort. Surely by now, we think, this woman will have formulated an answer to come out with in these situations, something pat, light, flirtatious, even if it isn’t strictly accurate – but it seems that she hasn’t. Instead, she visibly melts from the question, face scrunching up unphotogenically.
‘I don’t really know.’ She flashes him the hopeful smile of someone trying their pet once again with a food they know all too well it dislikes. ‘It just sort of happened.’
The camera pans back to the man’s face and we recognize the glint in his eyes from before, undiminished – in fact if anything augmented – and now, if we were not feeling it before, we start to feel uncomfortable. We confirm to ourselves that there was something about his previous expression that was oddly intent, that we hadn’t just been imagining it. It dawns on us that this man is not going to accept this non-answer, and the first note of panic sounds in our chests. We’re unclear why the woman is being so reticent, but what is clear is that the man will do everything in his power not to let her disappoint him. We don’t know why, either – if it’s some specific query he has, or some commonality he’s felt between them: a darkness, a difference. Is he a Japanophile? Or has her uncalled-for coyness piqued something in him? In any case, the look is unmistakeable, and it grows more so every micro-second the camera lingers on the glint in his eyes. The glint speaks.
Prove yourself, it says. I’m serious, now. Don’t let me down. You owe me this.
Why Japan? In Fifty Sounds, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, Polly Barton attempts to exhaust her obsession with the country she moved to at the age of 21, before eventually becoming a literary translator. From min-min, the sound of air screaming, to jin-jin, the sound of being touched for the very first time, from hi’sori, the sound of harbouring masochist tendencies, to mote-mote, the sound of becoming a small-town movie star, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language, recounting her life as an outsider in Japan. Irreverent, humane, witty and wise, Fifty Sounds is an exceptional debut about the quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking, and living in another language.
‘Witty, exuberant, also melancholy, and crowded with intelligence – Fifty Sounds is so much fun to read. Barton has written an essay that is also an argument that is also a prose poem. Let’s call it a slant adventure story, whose hero is equipped only with high spirits, and a ragtag band of phonemes.’
— Rivka Galchen, author of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
‘In Barton’s revelatory and candid memoir, she frames her experiences in Japan in 50 dictionary entries, journeying through her vulnerabilities, otherness and identity in a foreign place and finding solace (and humour) in writing...Grappling with emotion through the medium of language is, however, what Barton does best.’
— Ben East, Observer
‘It is satisfying to read as [Barton] gradually unlocks more of the language, reassuming her role as a beginner to explain not just what a word means but where she first encountered it and its range of associations...This is not a run-of-the-mill, “My Year Abroad”-style narrative about falling in love with a place and its people. Barton does fall in love, but she is honest about the difficulties and confusion that beset her immersion.’
— Alys Key, inews
‘Barton is a lively, inquisitive writer, and her first book is a warm and eye-opening account of the precarity of human communication.’
— Ellen Peirson-Hagger, New Statesman
‘This book: a portrait of a young woman as language-learner, as becoming-translator, as becoming-writer, in restless search of her life. It is about non-understanding, not-knowing, vulnerability, harming and hurt; it is also about reaching for others, transformative encounters, unexpected intimacies, and testing forms of love. It is a whole education. It is extraordinary. I was completely bowled over by it.’
— Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art
‘Fifty Sounds explodes the redundancy of the phrase “I’m learning a language,” showing us that the experience is more akin to relearning reality and who we are in it. Barton writes of being “souped” in the sounds of speech and a new place, but also in what is not said or written. She beautifully recreates the monumental intuition and exposure required to immerse oneself in a new mode of living, and the quantum levels of attention required to translate literature. It chimes and charms, a resounding wonder about identity, communication and love.’
— Jen Calleja, author of I'm Afraid That’s All We’ve Got Time For
‘Polly Barton is a brilliant, learned and daring writer and Fifty Sounds is a magnificent book. Through her eddying philosophical vignettes, Barton creates a unified work of extraordinary wisdom and vitality.’
— Joanna Kavenna, author of Zed
‘It seems fitting, somehow, that this marvelous study of the expansiveness and precarity of human communication is so woefully ill-served by a literal description of its contents. As in all great works of genreless nonfiction, all of the subjects Fifty Sounds is putatively “about” – Japan, translation, the philosophy of language – are inspired pretexts for the broad-spectrum exercise of an associatively vital and thrillingly companionable mind. This is a gracious, surprising, and very funny debut from a writer of alarming talent.’
— Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction
‘I loved this book and learned a lot from it, especially about subjects I thought I knew about – place, displacement, language-doubles and the double-selves we have when we move between our languages. It’s not just just that it’s winningly-written, insightful and formally exciting, though that would be enough. It’s that it’s genuinely gripping: forthright, inventive, personal, and fizzing with ideas.’
— Patrick McGuinness, author of Other People’s Countries
‘This must be the first time I’ve been certain I was going to love a book before I’d even finished reading the contents pages, and Fifty Sounds totally sustains that early promise. I’ve never read a more revealing or thrilling exposition of the ways encountering and befriending a new language aren’t simply a mechanical process, but an unlikely experience of circumstance and relationships, a learning experience that is not just rationally developed, but viscerally lived.’
— Daniel Hahn, translator of José Eduardo Agualusa and winner of the IMPAC in 2017
‘Fifty Sounds is idiolect as self-revelation, the memoir of a lopsided romance between a woman and a language. It beautifully demonstrates that a person's relationship to words can be as telling and profound as anything else about them. Elegantly written, piercingly intelligent and rich with ideas, it's a book to envy.'
— Alan Trotter, author of Muscle
‘Barton is adept at capturing language and life in the same way, showing the impossibility of true understanding, both of meaning and of the self. The vignette style of the book shows this slipperiness in elegant miniatures... Fifty Sounds is an engaging whole, a description of a country and a life that shows how we can never truly interpret ourselves, let alone the other. Perhaps the charm is in never fully understanding.’
— India Lewis, The Arts Desk
‘Barton is best known as a translator of Japanese, yet despite her self-effacing portrayal of the writer as a bit of a language geek, this book is anything but a simple ode to the benefits of language learning. Barton writes of ‘shi’kuri: the sound of fitting where you don’t fit’, but it is not this, nor anything approximating the other sounds teased out in this fiercely intelligent, deeply felt memoir. The fifty-first sound, then, is one for which I have no name: the sound of Polly Barton’s astonishing book resonating with my own experience, and making me feel — long beyond the time of reading — unusually, wholly, understood.’
— Eleanor Updegraff, Lunate
‘Fifty Sounds is as much an autobiography as it is an essay, presenting a first-person account of what it is like teaching English in a foreign country. Broad and in-depth linguistic insights are complemented with personal vignettes that expand on the basic summaries of each mimetic sound, filtered through prose that is at once vivid, humorous and elegant...This is a book for people in love with language, but not necessarily languages. Barton’s prose is electric with imagery, vibrant and captivating. Linguists, polyglots and TEFL teachers will doubtlessly get a kick out of this masterpiece, but the lessons it contains about life and language are applicable to all, and are presented in an imminently readable package to boot.’
— Matteo Everett, Voice Magazine
‘This near-350-page essay is a memoir as much as it is an exploration and evocation of Japanese culture. It is also a meditation on, and enquiry into, the nature of language learning and, ultimately, how we see the world through words…In many ways this is a coming-of-age story – filled with embarrassments, awkwardnesses, affairs, and errors, all admirably related without any softening or shying away from the facts. Instead, the author embraces them, committing them to ink where many a writer (myself included) would not, and it’s this that I perhaps found most affecting about this book... This book is engaging, as clever as it is intimate, and I very much enjoyed reading it. You will, too.’
— Mab Jones, Buzz Magazine
Polly Barton is a Japanese literary translator. Her translations include Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki. She won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for Fifty Sounds. She lives in Bristol.