What we’re reading: Fifty Sounds

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

By John Boursnell

There’s a passage in a late William Gibson novel where a character is trying to describe Tokyo, saying ‘It’s like… but it’s not. It’s like… but it’s not really’. Fifty Sounds is described by its publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions as ‘a personal dictionary of the Japanese language, recounting [Polly Barton’s] life as an outsider in Japan’. And it is that, but also, not really.

The book is structured around Japanese onomatopoeics – think ‘whizz’ or ‘boom’ in English – and especially mimetics; what Barton describes as a landscape of sound-symbolism. So hiya-hiya might be translated as ‘the feeling of anxiety that something bad is going to happen’ – cold sweats or a shudder. Or uda-uda might be rendered as ‘the sound of the wild bore’ (as the book puns).


Tokyo metro

But ‘might be’ is the interesting thing here, and by showing us how these words and phrases are embodied in her life in Japan, Barton refutes the possibility of an easy, definitive, ‘correct’ translation. This is language as lived experience, and as the book unfolds, we also see how the multitudes of a language come to unmake, as well as make, our day-to-day lives. Throughout, there’s a filament of curiosity about how this landscape of sounds highlights what it means to be ‘other’ in Japan; the layers and accumulations of verbal (and non-verbal) custom and culture that shape Barton on her journey – from fresh-out-of-university, teaching English in high schools in rural Japan, to the essayist and translator of today. (Barton, who has lived in Japan off and on over the past decade, is an accomplished Japanese-to-English translator whose work has won prizes for her translations of Kobe Abe and Natsuki Ikezawa.)

The last section of the book, uho-uho (‘the sound of the jubillant gorilla’) has the author working on the translation for what will emerge as Kikuko Tsumura’s new novel ‘There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job’ – a book for ‘anyone who has experienced working life in all its insane weirdness’. The sound seems to echo her contentment that the between-two-places-and-two-languages state she finds herself in is where she belongs for now.

‘Fifty Sounds’ by Polly Barton

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Available through Outwith Books here