How to Befriend a Language: Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds

Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021.

As soon as I heard about this book, I was pretty sure I was going to love it – and it has certainly not disappointed me! It is a book about the encounter with a foreign language and culture, so it feels like an anthropological study (which, as you know, I love). Like any modern and honest anthropological study, it also reveals things about the ‘participant observer’. And, above all, it is about Japan, which was the country that delighted, puzzled, intrigued and infuriated me at roughly the same age that Polly Barton went there to teach English and started learning Japanese. But I am finding it really hard to review, without simply piling on one quote after another, exclaiming ‘That’s exactly how I felt too!’ and urging you to read it.

I’d already read several of Polly Barton’s translations of Japanese women writers and attended a Borderless Book Club in which she talked about the translation of Aoko Matsuda’s Where the Wild Ladies Are, so I knew she was both thoughtful and fearless as a reader and translator. This certainly carries through to this book, with very candid (but purposeful) descriptions of her personal life at the time. What I did not know was that she originally studied philosophy and had a passion for Wittgenstein, but, looking back now, Wittgenstein is exactly what I had in mind even before I started reading this. In my own student days, I used to proudly cite Wittgenstein’s ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, claiming that the world around me does not exist if I cannot find the words to describe it.

What a monumental ego I must have had then! In some ways, Barton’s book is all about reducing that ego down to size. It certainly describes all the emotions and fears that I went through, although I was seldom that honest with even myself, let alone with others.

The concept behind the book is simple yet extremely effective: it’s a love story. How Polly Barton fell in love with the Japanese language (initially through falling in love with a Japanese man), told via fifty Japanese onomatopoeia and mimetics which describe various moments or states of mind during this journey. Like any love story, the journey is not straightforward and there are moments of confusion, misery and near-hatred (as well as enchantment, pride and euphoria). It is very personal ‘felt experience’, as the author tells us from the very start, unscientific and ‘unashamedly subjective’. Yet to this reader, who had a very similar experience with Japan and its language, it feels like she touches upon true universals of language-learning:

‘…if language learning is anything, it is the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, a culture, an idea, an indefinable feeling’

Onomatopoeia are much more widely used in Japan than anywhere else, both verbally and in writing, and are not considered childish. I have selected a few of the ‘sounds’ which spoke to me most, and how the author interprets them (I should add that her ‘translations’ of the onomatoepia are quite loose, and more linked to what she wants to narrate or describe, rather than the generally accepted meaning, so I’m adding the dictionary meaning next to it).

Nobi nobi = the sound of space (to feel relaxed, to be at ease)

The initial stages of being immersed in a foreign culture are all about that sense of ‘freedom from the known’. Although Barton recognises that it can be problematic to see the country you are moving to as ‘a blank canvas for your personal growth’, she also admits that she felt a real sense of liberation from judgement, from the constructs and obligations that we have absorbed together with our mothertongue. A chance to reinvent oneself, to start afresh.

Mecha kucha = the sound of a truly mixed tool-bag (disorderly, chaotic, higgledy-piggledy)

This refers to the mixed, often hostile reaction of Anglophones to the way that Japanese have imported (and misused) English words into their language. Although in theory Barton understood that you couldn’t just assume that other languages have the same associations with the words as you do, it was a difficult journey to acceptance and she often felt like a fraud, some kind of linguistic tyrant, waving the flag of multiculturalism, while the inner brat was fuming:

It transpired that it required a considerable largeness of spirit to accept the way that these imported words were wielded with little consideration for their original usage and belonged to an entirely different web of associations to those they had in English… Nobody understood you , or had any interest in understanding you.

Koro koro = the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor (small round object rolling or tumbling)

This was one of the most relatable sections. Polly Barton starts by saying she no longer believes that there is only one correct translation of anything, that it’s all about the context and our own familiarity with it. There is no simple direct equivalent for every word from French, for example, into English. This raises the question of those who are bilingual or trilingual – if each language perceives reality differently, are we actually slightly different people when we speak different languages? Are we being too chameleonic, are we losing our authenticity if we do that, or as the author puts it, are we ‘spineless and unfaithful’? I know that I speak with a higher pitch and act more cute in Japanese, gesticulate more and use a deeper voice when I speak Romanian, am both naughtier (with swear words) and more thoughtful in German, sound more grown-up in French. Unlike Polly Barton, I never consciously examined these differences or worried about them, but it certainly drew an ‘aha’ of recognition from me.

The author, photo credit: Michael Troy Judd, from Japan Times

Mote mote = the sound of being a small-town movie star (sexy, popular, well-liked)

The author notes that almost every Western person going to Japan (who is visually identifiable as non-Japanese), especially in a rural setting, is gawped at and admired, although ultimately they keep you at arm’s length. You have to learn not to let it go to your head.

As Japan holds you up, tells you how adorable, glamorous, exotic, unprecedented you are, it is also telling you even as it reaches towards you.. that you are unreachable. It needs you to be unreachable. It needs you to be on the outside. It requires your alienation in order to better admire you…

This is even more so the case in China (where people ask to take selfies with you on the street, especially if you are blonde or have blue or green eyes). However, the Japan I encountered as a Romanian was quite different: there was a decided sniff of superiority, of making you aware that you were far inferior (and I can imagine that is the case for black people too). Well-disguised under multiple layers of politeness, but still perceptible. For me, it seems that the Japanese want to keep themselves unreachable, safely on the inside.

There is a certain ambivalence to how the Japanese feel about the Anglophone (especially American) foreigners, which goes right back to the 19th century (the threatening Black Ships of Commodore Perry) and of course the post-war American occupation, and later in the book Polly speaks almost enviously of the white male Anglophone privilege of the anime lovers turned Japan experts. Perhaps the only people who can feel truly at home in Japan are those who remain blissfully unaware of this ambivalence, who are so secure in their self-confidence and self-belief that another culture cannot shake them or make them feel rejected.

Uda uda = the sound of the wild bore (going on and on, talking nonsense, idling away time)

This was another very funny and self-deprecating section, describing how the author felt when she returned to the UK and started finding the division between Japan and the rest of her life harder to maintain, eventually losing ‘the ability to converse about anything that didn’t relate to Japan’. I’m sure that all of us who have lived abroad for a long time have experienced this when ‘returning home’ and have been disappointed that those who stayed home are not really interested in our tales of adventure in foreign lands.

I knew that people around me didn’t have any particular interest in what for them was just one far-away country of many… I could hear in my head how ridiculous my voice sounded as it began every sentence: “In Japan”… I felt that somewhere along the way I’d lost my right to have an opinion because I was now so badly informed about things back home… I wasn’t the bridge between cultures of which everyone blithely spoke; I was someone bobbing helplessly on the sea… there are still times when I worry that my conversation is like a radio stuck on a single channel: that not only am I a one-trick pony of a person, but my trick is an obscure one which confounds rather than delights.

I’ll stop here, for fear that I will just copy out the entire book. I think you can tell how much I loved it! There is so much food for thought here, not just for anyone who has ever lived abroad, or tried to learn a foreign language. It is such a rich, nuanced look at creating and recreating your personal identity, trying to fit in and learning to live with difference. It is funny, clever, creative and an utter delight!

As an extra bonus, I’d like to include a link to a magazine Monkey featuring two stories by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton.

#ReadIndies: What is indie on my shelf?

I may be pottering around Canada this month, but I wanted to take part somehow in the Read Indies month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambles. So I decided to have a look through my shelves and see which independent publishers have most caught my eye and made me take out my credit card. There are plenty of newer publishers that I haven’t yet explored – this is a list of those that I have in plentiful quantities. Please bear in mind also that I have a lot of books in other languages, and that the criteria for being an independent publisher is quite different elsewhere, so I will stick to the UK based publishers I own.

Translated Fiction:

Peirene Press – for short, concentrated bursts of brilliance from Central and Northern Europe (originally, although the selection has broadened in recent years). One of my all-time favourites was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke. They were also the first to introduce an annual subscription model (as far as I know).

Istros Books – for SE European literature – or, to be precise – literature from countries bordering the River Danube. A recent favourite was Ludovic Bruckstein’s The Trap, and there is a new translation of Bruckstein’s work coming out now.

Alma Books – particularly for their translations of classics, from the Russian for me and all sorts of other languages for my son. Most recently enjoyed the detailed annotations and translation notes of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island.

A good selection of Alma titles that I acquired in their annual book sale.

Tilted Axis – predominantly Asian selection of countries, forever grateful for introducing me to Thai literature via Prabda Yoon’s Moving Parts or daring Bengali author Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay.

Strangers Press – a very small outfit, linked to the UEA Publishing Programme and Norwich Writers’ Centre. I’ve been particularly interested in their Keshiki New Voices from Japan series, as you might expect, but they also have a series on Korean literature and another on Dutch literature.

Nordisk Books – contemporary Nordic fiction aimed at proving that there is more to Scandinavia than just crime fiction. Was particularly struck by Zero by Gine Cornelia Pedersen and Love/War by Ebba Witt-Brattström.

Bitter Lemon Press – I like to travel while reading crime fiction, so the mission of Bitter Lemon to cover the dark side of foreign places really appeals to me. They introduced me to Argentinian writer Claudia Pineiro and Spanish writer Teresa Solana, and The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda is the most recent book which really struck a chord.

Charco Press – an emphasis on striking, even challenging contemporary Latin American literature, with equally striking covers in a rainbow array of colours. Recommended titles include: Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love (the first I read from them and still a favourite) and Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo.

Since I arrange my books by countries, publishers like Charco mess up my system a little, since I cannot bear to not keep all their books together, so I’ve created a Latin American bookcase.

Fitzcarraldo Editions – this publisher straddles two worlds, with their blue-covered translations/fiction titles and white-covered essays/non-fiction. I discovered Olga Tokarczuk thanks to them and most recently was bowled over by Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

English Language:

Comma Press – another publisher which straddles two categories, their focus being on short stories, whether in English or in translation. I particularly enjoy their city series, such as The Book of Tokyo or The Book of Shanghai, and of course their Europa 28 (Writing by Women on the Future of Europe).

Persephone Books – how I miss the dinky little Persephone bookshop, which was dangerously close to my workplace! This publisher does reprints of largely forgotten titles by early to mid-twentieth century women authors. I’ve been smitten by Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski and The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and I’m looking forward to sinking my teeth into the autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, who was the wife of painter Eric Ravilious and an artist in her own right.

Orenda Books – there are far too few independent publishers of crime fiction, and Orenda does a great job of providing readers with both translated and English crime novels. Not only do I admire the publisher’s ability to create a real sense of community around her books and authors, but she is also happy to let her authors experiment with cross-genre fiction, which the bigger publishers are seldom prepared to do. Some of the authors I particularly like are: Antti Tuomainen, Helen Fitzgerald, Will Carver, Agnes Ravatn and Simone Buchholz.

Silver Press – a small, recently-founded feminist publisher, with a very promising list of authors including Leonora Carrington, Chantal Akerman, Nell Dunn and Audre Lorde. This is the new Virago in a way. For many years, I was an avid Virago fan, and I still am, but they do not count as independent (they are currently part of Hachette).

This post is getting rather long, so I will leave the poetry publishers for next week.

But before I go, I will just very gently remind you of Corylus Books as well: translated crime fiction with a social edge from countries and languages that tend to get fewer translations. We are currently in the process of reconfiguring our website so that it will work both in the UK and abroad. Our best reviewed books from our first year of operation were Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu and The Fox by Sólveig Pálsdóttir.

#FitzcarraldoFortnight: This Little Art

Kate Briggs: This Little Art

This delightful, quirky essay about literary translation by Kate Briggs, based on her own translation of Roland Barthes’ lecture notes (but moving far, far beyond that) was the perfect book at the perfect time for me, as I myself embark upon a journey as a professional literary translator. I have stuffed it full of little post-it notes, and will probably return to it again and again. It’s the kind of book that you never really finish reading – it is designed to stimulate your thought and your passion for words, language, for finding the right word.

There are far too many ideas here for me to do them justice, but here are some of the things that most resonated with me:

  1. The translator is always demanding a suspension of disbelief from the reader – asking you to go along with the fiction that these characters are talking or thinking in English, that what you are reading is in fact the language of Barthes or Thomas Mann or anyone else.
  2. Helen Lowe-Porter was Thomas Mann’s first translator into English and at the time her translations were phenomenally successful, but she has since been criticized for making mistakes, for changing things around, misleading the readers. There is a fierce rivalry (as well as comradeship) between translators, especially when it comes to classic writers, because it is quite hard to get funding for a new translation, how hard it is to fight copyright issues and publishers’ interests – and so to see someone else do a far worse translation and thereby block your chances of doing another one for perhaps 20-30 years… But, Briggs argues, who are we to decide what makes a good or bad translation? While it should be possible to correct obvious mistakes and offer alternatives, it should be done in a spirit of improvement – because can we really be sure that we are getting better at translation over time, rather than merely following a current fashion?
  3. Translators may wish to transmit the original author’s voice as much as possible, but they will never be entirely neutral and impersonal instruments. They are always putting all of themselves – their background, experience, personality, emotions, associations – into the final work.
  4. Yet translators need to be humble – the work itself humbles them every single time. Regardless of how much experience you might have translating, you always start each fresh work from a position of not knowing. You are opening yourself up to learning, to interpreting, to being curious and honest and self-critical.
  5. A bit of a reality check: A translator’s work ‘is celebrated if and only if the work she is translating is worth celebrating; there is no celebrating her achievement from that of its original author. As a consequence of this… mediocre translators of successful books sometimes get unduly praised, while those more talented translators translating less visible works hardly get noticed at all.’
  6. Some argue that there is one perfect translator for a particular book – or at least the right translator, who can truly get under the author’s skin. (I have the tendency to believe that about myself and Mihail Sebastian and am somewhat miffed that he has already been translated into English, see point 2 above). But Kate Briggs argues that books don’t come with designated translators, they don’t have built-in protocols or rules that you have to obey for success, otherwise you will be a failure. It’s about a million different tiny choices, and the same translator might make different choices a day or two later.

I hope that gives you a flavour of the book – and yes, it does refer to Barthes a lot, but it was never Barthes himself that I objected to, merely the pretentious young men at university who were forever quoting him as scaffolding for their own hastily built, shoddy work. I’ll end with a wonderful plea for more translated work, which chimes so well with my own beliefs:

Yes… do translations, for the simple reason that we need them. We need translations, urgently: it is through translation that we are able to reach the literature written in the languages we don’t or can’t read, from the places where we don’t or can’t live, offering us the chance of understanding as well as the necessary and instructive expereince of failing to understand them, of being confused and challenged by them.

Weekly Summary – Just Bookish This Time!

No events this past week – well, no cultural ones at any rate. Can you tell that the boys are back from their holidays? So our ‘trips’ have been more along the lines of dentist, haircut and swimming pool. We attempted to go see The Incredibles 2 but I got the time and date wrong (embarrassing, I know). We’ll attempt it again later on today.

On the upside, other than being reunited with my little ones (who now tower above me – and I am not short!), quite a few books have been incoming this week. Let’s start with the one that got delivered today, on a Sunday, by a courier, which made it feel very special. Infernus: The Power of the Goddess by Jo Hogan. And indeed it is! I’ve known Jo for a while now via Twitter. She has been a source of inspiration for me, for her perseverance with writing and creating a happy family life in the most difficult of circumstances. Her debut novel was turned down by British publishers, because apparently it is too much of a mixed genre. A German publishing house Oetinger was so enthusiastic about it, however, that they had it translated and it has just come out, so I had to pre-order it. I’ll tell you all about it soon – and maybe some day it might be published in the original language too.

Jo describes it as bonkers, but I think it sounds rather intriguing (and I’m sure it’s better written than Dan Brown). Here is my translation of the blurb from German:

Maria’s mother went mad and killed herself. That was what Maria was certain of, as she was growing up. Suddenly her father is found dead as well, after touching a legendary amulet. Just the cruel hand of fate, or is there something more behind that? Maria herself starts having increasingly frequent nightmares about a Hand of Evil trying to grab her. She starts looking for answers in mysterious and mystical corners of the world…

I told you last week that I had finally succumbed to peer pressure (thank you Melissa and Tony!) and decided to make another attempt at reading The Brothers Karamazov. So I got myself a different translation by Ignat Avsey, dating from 1994. As I was ordering this off Abe Books, however, I came across some other Russian books and just couldn’t resist.

Olesha’s Envy is a small miracle: a slapstick satire of the model Soviet citizen published in one of the most difficult periods of the Soviet empire (late 1920s). Olga Grushin’s novel is about the end of the Soviet empire, everyday life in Russia during that massive period of change in the mid 1980s-1990s. (Perfect for #WITMonth, I may try to squeeze it in.) And Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra achieves the rare feat of being historical, satirical and science fiction all rolled into one (it was published in 1992 in Russia, when it was acceptable to be critical of the Soviet space programme).

Who can resist a book sale? When I heard that Fitzcarraldo are having a fourth anniversary sale with 20% off everything, I bought myself two of their books I’ve been salivating over (not literally, obviously) for a long time. Svetlana Alexievich brings a collage of voices talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union, so will tie in neatly with Grushin’s fictional voice. Meanwhile, Esther Kinsky uses her solitary walks along the River Lea to meditate about the past, nature, transience, migration and life in general.

The last two books I got were also as a result of spending far too much time on Twitter and on reading other blogs. Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles has been reviewed by quite a few of you, and I always thought I would like a stab at it, but not in English. The final book is to fill a massive gap in my literary geography: I have read next to nothing by Korean women writers, yet I’ve heard they are currently producing some of the most interesting work in the Far East.

Now all I need to do is figure out a way in which to sit at home and read all day, while still having an income stream and happy, well-adjusted children…