Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton

Published 14 April 2021 | French paperback with flaps, 360 pages
Shortlisted for the 2022 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Prize | Longlisted for the 2022 Ondaatje prize

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Fifty Sounds is available as an audiobook through Spiracle.

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

‘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 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

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

‘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

‘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

‘Both memoir and cultural study, Fifty Sounds is the record of Barton’s attempts to grapple with the Japanese language…. Like falling in love itself, the experience of learning Japanese … is intimate, humorous and painful. Ultimately, Barton reflects, language-learning is “the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close”. Barton’s centring of doubt in her narrative – doubt about her linguistic skills; doubt about her relationships with people she meets, and with the country itself – brings nuance to her account of learning a language outside the classroom.’
Lamorna Ash, Time Literary Supplement

‘Barton’s sharp, belletristic debut is a culture-shock story that cannily avoids the conventions of the genre.’

‘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

‘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.’
— Japan Times

‘This is a glorious set of essays by Polly Barton who is already known for her lucid, clever and accessible translations of some of the most interesting fiction to come out of Japan…. The essays are beautifully weighted: erudite without being esoteric; full of discovery without trivialising the language into novelties; and authentically personal without being mawkish. A real gem.’
Rónán Hession, Irish Times

‘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

Fifty Sounds demonstrates Barton’s belief that to understand another language – to really, truly, get it – she had to immerse herself within it, building up a library of sensual associations to draw on. Every adventure she has – culinary, sexual, or emotional – adds to the depth of her vocabulary. The book is testament to the thoughtfulness that goes into translation: the weight of choosing one phrasing over another…. Fifty Sounds is a delightful, granular account of communicating across languages, as Barton gradually becomes able to consider the world not in a new light, but with new words.’
Laura Waddell, The Scotsman

‘Barton’s insight into and passion for language is ultimately a wonder … turning a rather universal experience into something new, exciting, and fresh – a brand new world of speech and meaning to explore.’ 
Christine Drill, Chicago Review of Books

‘Learning a language through immersion means learning with the tips of your fingers and the back of your neck; with stubbed toes and goosebumps. It’s exhausting and humiliating and exhilarating, and it makes you do things you don’t want to do, become versions of yourself you don’t expect or particularly want to become, on your way to finding some order in the chaos, the voices in the noise. In its richness, its honesty … Fifty Sounds is both a record of that struggle and its ultimate product.’ 
Max Norman, The Nation

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.