Listening in on «Fifty Sounds»

Listening in on Fifty Sounds

by Yui Kajita

The fun of it isn’t just that the sentence warps into something completely unexpected; it’s also fascinating how such reflections on identity overlap with those on the nature of translation.

Review of Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021. ISBN 978-1- 9130-9750-9. 360 pages. French paperback with flaps, £12.99. (U.S. edition forthcoming from Liveright on March 15, 2022. ISBN 978-1-324-09131-8. 384 pages. Hardcover, $27.95.)

¶ para-para: the sound of opening a new book one autumn night and flicking through the leaves by the nightstand lamp as rain falls tip-tapping on the skylight pane. 

A few pages in, I’m already hooked: the array of onomatopoeia and various mimetic words in the contents, each with idiosyncratic, startling connotations attached to it that read like an intimate wordbook-as-diary draws me into the micro-stories they suggest in tantalising fragments. It is a colourful soundscape, beginning with giro’ (‘the sound of eyes riveting deep into holes in your self-belief, or vicariously visiting the Nocturama, or every party where you have to introduce yourself’), and traversing through words like ‘sa’pari’ (‘the sound of a mind unblemished by understanding’), ‘jin-jin’ (‘the sound of being touched for the very first time’), ‘kyuki-kyuki’ (‘the sound of writing your obsession on a steamy tile, or the miracle becoming transparent’), ‘koro-koro’ (‘the sound your teeny little identity makes as it goes spinning across the floor’). Needless to say, these are far from standard definitions you’d find in a dictionary, but they feel open and immediate, bottling the sense of the word with all its specific, personal associations, how it felt to experience it in a particular place, at a particular moment in time, and with a particular person.  

Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds takes its name from gojūon, the Japanese syllabary displayed in a five-by-ten grid. It also serves as the framework of the book, which unravels her journey of language-learning through fifty onomatopoeic words that have a meaningful resonance in her life. Learning a language isn’t as simple a journey as it might appear to be. It is to practice ‘the art of not arriving’[1] (to borrow Richard Poirier’s words on close reading), a voyage of exploring limitless depths, without any definite closures. It is, as Barton puts it, a journey of ‘sensory bombardment’, ‘a possession, a bedevilment, a physical takeover’ (p. 19): of seeing one’s world and identity falling apart, then gradually rediscovering and rebuilding one’s place in the world. For her, onomatopoeic language is ‘where the beating heart of Japanese lies’ (p. 29). And through the lens of these mimetics, she gets at the heart of what it’s like to find yourself in the disorientating position of being a stranger in a new place with barely any knowledge of the language, culture, and customs of its people: to begin to renew your understanding of the world through the chaotic process of internalising this new tongue.

Besides its linguistic richness, the focus on sounds complements the way Barton tells her story in more ways than one. The auditory sense is perhaps the most subjective and elusive of the five senses. Sounds are transient and somatic, felt by the whole body through vibrations and experienced in time. Sounds are invisible in themselves, but they can signify space, shapes, and even tactile textures. The power of sight has long been associated with knowledge and understanding; intrinsic to words such as ‘insight’, ‘worldview’, ‘enlightenment’, and the image of the lightbulb flashing above one’s head, this association can be traced back to Ancient Greek philosophy. Although vision, like any form of perception, is also conditioned by what we expect to or imagine we see, hearing is more immediate, internal, and immersive. As Don Ihde puts it, ‘I hear with my whole body’; just as the base notes of loud rock music ‘reverberate’ in his stomach, sensed even by his feet, ‘Sound permeates and penetrates my bodily being’.[2]

In this sense, the book’s emphasis on sounds—and the onomatopoeic words that convey them, audible or inaudible—is effective in bringing out Barton’s view of language as an embodied, all-consuming experience. She recalls how it felt to be steeped in an unfamiliar language in her early days in Japan:

My body was alive with the sounds it had collected up throughout the day. When I shut my eyes in bed at night I was souped in them, sounds that hovered between known and unknown, as if comprehensibility were not in fact the currency in which my brain dealt any more, and what was being processed was rather the rhythms. And then snatches of it found their way into my dreams, hovering there tersely, like life-rafts above the flow of images. (p. 68)

By inviting the reader to listen in on this cacophony of sounds, the book immerses us in this experience that engages with the whole body. The Japanese mimetics, with their web of meanings and associations, catch a whole range of fugitive emotions—‘a live feeling that can be cupped in the hands’ (p. 234), a more direct naming than might be possible in any English word or phrase by itself—and pull us into the moments in which they were felt, acting upon all our senses to imagine this lived experience. 

Two concepts at the centre of this book’s story—the roots that ground it and from which it grows—seem to lie in the sounds ‘boro-boro’ and ‘zara-zara’. Boro-boro, as defined in a chapter title, is ‘the important sound of things falling apart’. It’s the only sound that’s qualified in the titles (with an adjective modifying ‘sound’). Falling apart is crucial to the kind of language-learning the book probes. The monolingual learner, entering a new language and culture, is thrilled to be thrown into a ‘freedom from the known’ (p. 75) and comes to realise just how much her previous notions of self and the world had been tied to (in this case) English. What she had known as an unquestionable, necessary, and permanent reality turns out to be ‘just one of many possibilities’ (p. 48), contingent upon the sociocultural context she was born into. Learning a new language prompts us to question the lens through which we understand the world in ‘a fundamental, world-shifting, ground-pulled-from-under-one’s-feet way’ (p. 56). Though only the first step in the cathartic falling apart that happens in the book, it forms part of a compelling arc.

Zara-zara, ‘the sound of the rough ground’, encapsulates the book’s emphasis on language as ‘something we learn with our bodies’ (p. 30): the raw, visceral, affective, messy experience of words, whose meanings are irrevocably inflected by our contact with particular people and places, inextricable from those moments in time. As Yoko Tawada once said, ‘I […] swallowed the German language. Since then it sits in my belly.’[3] Zara-zara seems especially resonant for Barton because it captures the essence of Wittgenstein’s approach to language in his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953): a radical departure from his earlier work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). Investigations brings language back to the rough ground, embedded in its use in space and time, and not to be crystallised into clear, abstract ideals. The format of Investigations—its groping, tentative, fragmentary style of writing—reflects ‘the very nature of the investigation’, as he himself realises at one point, for it forces us ‘to travel over a wild field of thought criss-cross in every direction’ (qtd. on p. 60). 

Though much more intimate and approachable (thankfully), Fifty Sounds is itself a zara-zara exploration of criss-crossing thoughts, carrying us through recollections and reflections in a non-chronological and ostensibly random sequence which, at the same time, somehow feels carefully structured and emotive without drawing attention to how it ends up cohering into an organic whole. We can sense the ‘rough ground’, the friction, not just in the way the essays unfold, but also in Barton’s visceral, muscular appreciation of words—attentive to how it sounds as well as how it shapes or contorts her mouth as she says it, as in ‘giza-giza’ (p. 47)—and in her sharp, evocative descriptions of her inner turmoil—for instance, how the ‘jara-jara’ of guitars in certain songs from her time in Japan ‘cuts through [her] like a fleet of small knives’ (p. 161)—or in the serendipitous expressions whereby a maze of abandoned vending machines on a patch of concrete off a remote road are compared to both a small country graveyard and ‘a group of semi-reluctant guests at a cocktail party’ (p. 159). Meanings and memories that are intriguing for their sheer specificity jostle together in this book: a kind of metaphor for Wittgenstein’s view of language as a jumbled tool-box.

And in these essays, we do walk through a ‘wild field’ full of surprises, coloured by moments of joy and pain, of discovery and loss. Since it is a deeply personal memoir, it naturally elicits a personal response. It’s impossible to read (at least when given the time and space it deserves, for it’s not one to be rushed through, but rather to be lingered over and revisited over time) without getting drawn into the individual moments that each onomatopoeic encounter resuscitates. Barton’s ambivalent feelings about Japan and being a foreigner in Japan—as well as the challenges of self-expression and self-realisation in general—felt very relatable in many ways, even though our contexts and disposition are quite dissimilar. To digress for a moment: I was born in Japan, spent half of my childhood in the US, and have lived in countries where I need a visa or a residence permit to stay ever since my postgraduate studies. Having lived between languages and cultures from a young age, I think I will always feel like an outsider wherever I choose to live, whether it’s Japan or otherwise; and I’ve also felt the same crushing sense of being inarticulate that Barton recollects, especially in the context of the academic world in Cambridge, surrounded by hyper-eloquent, quick-on-their-feet people ‘talking the talk’ (p. 50). At certain points in the book, I felt as though she took the words right out of my mouth—only formulated in more deft, discerning prose. 

If the powerful, emotional reactions that readers have expressed for this book are any indication, the feelings it stirs up are perhaps shared by many people: it gives us something universal, even though the essays are all about delving deep into the author’s own specific experiences. For me, a significant part of that was identifying with ‘the person who felt fundamentally other wherever they were’ (p. 288), but who finds solace in ‘the richness of that inner world’ (p. 290) that comes from living between cultures, or having an obsessive interest in something, however obscure it might be to people around her (in her case, Japanese and, more broadly, language). 

Fifty Sounds is necessarily personal, for the language the author has swallowed is specific to her own life. Her story is only hers, but at the same time, it is immensely absorbing, as if the essays forge a tangible connection between the book and the reader. It’s even a little akin to meeting someone in person, encountering their voice, alive with a shifting, shimmering collage of their memories and emotions. The book is necessarily personal because love and desire are intrinsic to Barton’s drive to learn Japanese. To communicate, to connect, to be accepted: a ‘perpetually renewed lack’ that catches her ‘in the act of reaching towards something which lies just beyond the grasp’ (p. 109). 

The uneasy tension between this ‘lack’, which accompanies the self-awareness of being ‘other’, and the desire for acceptance, both by others as well as oneself, seems to form a fertile ground for Barton to explore her conflicted conceptions of Japan and also guards this from turning into a one-sided view. Just as she is sensitive to the discomfort of being under scrutiny—at one point, she describes all the glances thrown her way as a foreigner in Japan as ‘being caressed by a hundred feathered wings, or cut by a hundred tiny blades’ (p. 107)—she always treads carefully when it comes to how the people, culture, and nation of Japan are viewed. She is very much aware of the dangers of exoticizing or pigeonholing, never failing to offer a caveat whenever she mentions anything remotely close to a stereotype, and is constantly cognisant of the power structures between languages, the legacies of colonialism, capitalism, globalisation, and the ramifications of being a white woman from the UK in Japan. Alert to the plethora of sociocultural elements interwoven in language, the book also gives a space for the reader to reflect on these questions. 

But most of all, what animates this book, what propels it forward is the frisson of excitement that words can inspire: how ‘a previously unthought world’ can open up only from ‘a single word’, along with ‘the sense of everything falling into a new place’ (p. 293). We’re invited to explore the ways in which words mediate experience and shape how we remember things—except the mimetic words make it feel less mediated. Immediate and capacious, they signify so many things at once, speaking to the senses, affording almost a direct apprehension of the intricate tangle of emotions and memories. In a sense, these words are like characters in themselves, or sites of discovery, sparking flashes of clarity. 

Both as a language-learner and a translator, Barton celebrates the provisional and the particular. Puzzled by those who speak in definite articles and generalisations when it comes to defining the ‘right’ translation, she wonders, ‘have they not wrestled with the brain-warping activity of having to translate themselves across different languages? Have these people not, as I have, watched their identity contort into rainbow fractals, vanish entirely, and then return as a pink-spotted dragon?’ (pp. 165–66). The fun of it isn’t just that the sentence warps into something completely unexpected; it’s also fascinating how such reflections on identity overlap with those on the nature of translation. 

In some passages, we even get a glimpse of Barton’s translation process—for example, how she arrives at a translation of ‘jara-jara’ (p. 163) in an unusual context, or, very memorably, ‘uho-uho’ (p. 344) in the last chapter of the book. Not only can we bask in her extraordinary sensitivity or receptiveness to words—down to a single sokuon character (っorッ), ‘opening up a hole, a gap, a pause’ (p. 36)—we can also catch a sense of what translation might mean to her. The book doesn’t follow a straightforward Bildungsroman trajectory of progress and growth (because it’s life), but by the end of the book, there is a sense of belonging, of finding one’s place in life, as she embraces with open arms the challenges and rabbit holes of language as well as translation. Though the journey never ends—in learning any language, we’re always mid-process, always spurred on by a desire to learn more—the book does reach a rewarding destination, an answer of sorts, that we can carry with us in our own lives. Perhaps paradoxically, it is in the act of translation that Barton finally finds a sense of safety, of groundedness: ‘this in-between place which is translation, this space where you hover spectral between one language and another, where ideas routinely swim, and give way underfoot, and where there aren’t any right answers’ (pp. 346–47). 

When I finished the book, after jotting down my initial thoughts, I browsed through online articles to think about how to try to engage with the book in a meaningful way, hopefully with a fresh angle, and I stumbled across a fine interview by Xiao Yue Shan. ‘I’m really interested in that point at which the very minute becomes totally universal’, Barton says, ‘I always thought that Fifty Sounds, if it were successful, would get so minute and so into my own experience, that it could become universal.’ Just as ‘the real magic of using language’, in her view, is like being in the sea: immersed in an enormous entity that connects all the land.[4] At least for this reader, the book has done exactly that. And just as Barton feels as though she is ‘talking to a person’ (p. 61) every time she picks up her familiar, no doubt dog-eared copy of Wittgenstein’s Investigations, Fifty Sounds speaks to us with a close sense of presence. 

There are infinite ways of characterising a good translator. One is ‘the ideal reader’.[5] In part, this means ‘learning to listen to the silences between the lines’, to borrow Mireille Gansel’s poetic phrasing (in Ros Schwartz’s translation).[6] In Barton’s view of translation—as well as of learning a new language—its essence lies in the desire to connect with someone, which comes down to listening: ‘To putting your ear up close to another person, and trying to tune into their world’ (p. 246). Her love of Japanese is rooted in her love of the glimpses of people she has caught through it, both real and fictional. Through its fifty onomatopoeic words and the thought-provoking reflections they stir up, Fifty Sounds invites us to be another reader who listens closely to the beating heart of the text. 

Suggested reading & listening:

‘Zara-zara & Bo’: Polly Barton Readings & Writings from Fifty Sounds’, Hotel, 2021,<>.

George Miller, host, ‘Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds’ (two episodes), The Hedgehog and the Fox, 19 January 2022 and 28 January 2022, <>.

Polly Barton, ‘Hearing Beyond the Darkness’, Modern Poetry in Translation, No. 1, 2020 (Dream Colours: Focus on Japan), <>.


[1] Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 182.

[2] Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound (Albany: State University of NY Press, 2007), 2nd ed., originally published in 1976, pp. 44–45.

[3] Quoted in Rainer Guldin, Metaphors of Multilingualism: Changing Attitudes towards Language Diversity in Literature, Linguistics and Philosophy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020). I’m grateful to Elena Kirillova for this quote and for talking about Fifty Sounds with me.

[4] ‘“Precise Tactility”: Polly Barton Interviewed by Xiao Yue Shan’, Asymptote, 1 December 2021,<>.

[5] As Alberto Manguel writes: “The ideal reader is the translator, able to dissect the text, peel back the skin, slice down to the marrow, follow each artery and each vein, and then set on its feet a whole new sentient being.” A Reader on Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 151.

[6] Mireille Gansel, tr. Ros Schwartz, Translation as Transhumance (NY: The Feminist Press, 2017), e-book.

Sketches by Yui Kajita

Yui Kajita is a translator, illustrator, and literary scholar from Kyoto, currently in Germany. She completed her PhD in English literature at the University of Cambridge (2019). She translates fiction, poetry, children’s books, folktales, and art-and-culture texts. She was shortlisted for the 5th JLPP International Translation Competition (2021); her publications include a co-translation of Yosano Akiko in Modern Poetry in Translation (2020) and Walter de la Mare: Critical Appraisals (co-edited, 2022). Twitter: @yui_k_kotonoha / Instagram: @bluegrey.illustrations

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, March 1, 2022

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