Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth

Why country X? Why language Y?

Anyone who has lived abroad or taken up a foreign language will be familiar with those questions. So, too, Polly Barton, who moved to Japan to teach English aged 21, immersed herself in a language that she had no knowledge of, and eventually became a literary translator in it. Fifty Sounds is her memoir of all this: of living as an outsider in Japan, and in many ways, as an outsider to herself.

The title of the book refers to the goujon — literally fifty sounds —, the system by which Japanese kana are ordered. A 5×10 grid is used to display these characters, each of which symbolizes a particular sound. Barton makes the sounds of Japanese her own, and in particular its rich onomatopoeic vocabulary, to create a personal dictionary of sorts. Each chapter is named with such an expression: zara-zara ‘the sound of the rough ground’, or bare-bare ‘the sound of being so invested in something that it leaks into everything you do, or abandoning hope of appearing cool, or insidious paranoia’. She recounts where and how she lived, learned and felt those phrases. Through them, she takes the reader from her first impressions of Japan on the small island where she was sent to teach English, to her relationship with a teacher at her school, her loneliness in Tokyo, her stints back in the UK, cultural clashes, and an omnipresent sense of otherness as well as unexpected kindness.

It’s an ingenious way to build a book, and allows — or forces — Barton to combine the personal with philosophical and linguistic ponderings. I confess, I’m a linguist of the Japanese persuasion and have, like Barton, spent time in Japan, so I may be biased when I praise how fascinating her observations on language are. In particular, her musings on early versus late Wittgenstein, and how the philosopher’s idea of language as a game apply to Barton’s immersive language learning experience are a wonderfully insightful way of putting philosophy into practice. It can be a bit heavy-going; some linguistic background will help, and intellectual curiosity is a must to get through these parts. However, there is also lighter linguistic relief in the form of anecdotes of Anglicisms in Japanese, the kind that will have readers with a certain mindset giggling; kokku sakkingu geemu in a guide to dirty Japanese was a personal favourite.

Don’t be put off, though, even if you don’t take a delight in language. As the memoir goes on, it moves away from the theoretical and zooms into more personal accounts of life, with otherness a recurring theme. Barton is wonderfully critical of herself and others, calling out stereotypes of Westerners who move to Japan — her own behaviour included. Who doesn’t know the person who can seemingly only talk about ‘when I was in country X’?

These observations are delivered with a sharp wit, in a prose that grips the reader. At times Barton whips her writing into a poetic, near consciousness style:

Tokyo, I had convinced myself, would be the place where my life came together, where I learned to shine, where the seeds I’d been scattering would cease to be messy flecks littering the ground, and would leap up in green to become a coherent, unified growth.

One of the onomatopoeic phrases in Fifty Sounds is kira-kira, meaning ‘sparkling, dazzling, shining’. It’s an expression that describes the whole book.

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Anna is a journalist and linguist.

Polly Barton, Fifty Sounds (Fitzcarraldo, 2021). 978-1913097509, 360 pp., flapped paperback.

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