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.

Video Book Reviews: Norway, Switzerland, Scotland and Sudan

Another quick review of Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark set in Norway, Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic set in Switzerland, and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator set in Aberdeen and Sudan. Common themes: human trafficking, dark underside of apparently very civilised societies and an outsider’s gaze at mainstream culture in a particular country.