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Fifty Sounds

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In this dazzling debut, Polly Barton reflects on her experience of moving to the Japanese island of Sado at the age of twenty-one and on her journey to becoming a literary translator. Written in fifty semi-discrete entries, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language that draws together a variety of cultural reflections – from conformity and being an out In this dazzling debut, Polly Barton reflects on her experience of moving to the Japanese island of Sado at the age of twenty-one and on her journey to becoming a literary translator. Written in fifty semi-discrete entries, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language that draws together a variety of cultural reflections – from conformity and being an outsider, to the gendering of Japanese society, and attitudes towards food and the cult of ‘deliciousness’ – alongside probing insights into the transformative powers of language-learning. Candid, humane, witty and wise, Fifty Sounds is remarkable work that takes a transparent look at language itself, lifting the lid on the quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking, and living in another language.


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In this dazzling debut, Polly Barton reflects on her experience of moving to the Japanese island of Sado at the age of twenty-one and on her journey to becoming a literary translator. Written in fifty semi-discrete entries, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language that draws together a variety of cultural reflections – from conformity and being an out In this dazzling debut, Polly Barton reflects on her experience of moving to the Japanese island of Sado at the age of twenty-one and on her journey to becoming a literary translator. Written in fifty semi-discrete entries, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language that draws together a variety of cultural reflections – from conformity and being an outsider, to the gendering of Japanese society, and attitudes towards food and the cult of ‘deliciousness’ – alongside probing insights into the transformative powers of language-learning. Candid, humane, witty and wise, Fifty Sounds is remarkable work that takes a transparent look at language itself, lifting the lid on the quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking, and living in another language.

50 review for Fifty Sounds

  1. 4 out of 5

    Blair

    What is it like not only to learn another language, but to live in it? As someone who can only speak/read English and has never been particularly good at languages, it’s not something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. But Polly Barton’s memoir is so thoroughly immersive that I now feel I know something of what it is to have the experiences she describes. Barton didn’t set out to become a translator: she studied philosophy at Cambridge before applying, almost on a whim, for a programme to What is it like not only to learn another language, but to live in it? As someone who can only speak/read English and has never been particularly good at languages, it’s not something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. But Polly Barton’s memoir is so thoroughly immersive that I now feel I know something of what it is to have the experiences she describes. Barton didn’t set out to become a translator: she studied philosophy at Cambridge before applying, almost on a whim, for a programme to teach English in Japan, which saw her assigned to the small island of Sado. Fifty Sounds is an extended attempt to answer the question ‘why Japan?’, chronicling her experiences in the country alongside a guide to the entwined intricacies of language and culture. It’s a tale of self-discovery, of loving a country that often seems reluctant to reciprocate, of how learning a language can be a personal revolution. There were times when I got nervous about where the narrative was going, feeling that I wasn’t up to the task of understanding it – philosophy often forms a framework for Barton’s understanding of her circumstances; she writes of the difficulties of explaining Wittgenstein’s work to a neophyte. But the writing is also so humane, and the result is both more revelatory and much easier to understand than any critical theory I’ve read, showing in practical, real terms how fundamentally language shapes one’s world. Barton takes these complex ideas and ties them down to the reality of a sentence, an experience, and in the process they come to make perfect sense (even to the neophyte, which in this case is me). Fifty Sounds is an especially effective type of memoir: the kind that makes a part of you immediately want to do the thing it describes, while another part simultaneously rejoices in the fact that you haven’t done the thing and never will. It is also, unexpectedly, type of book I really needed to read right now, as I go stir-crazy living alone in lockdown; I would never have have guessed how much emotional solace I would draw from this story, which turns out to be largely about being an outsider twice over. And on top of being surely one of the most readable memoirs ever, it’s made me really keen to read more of Barton’s translations. I received an advance review copy of Fifty Sounds from the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. TinyLetter | Linktree

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jola

    Review to come.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    AD | Gifted copy I received a copy of this book from the publishers free of charge for review purposes. Receiving a free copy has not influenced my opinion on this book, and all my thoughts are honest. Read full review on my blog. Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is the kind of book that I wish I read more of. If you’re a person who likes their books categorised, then I suppose this is a memoir, but in reality it is far more expansive than that. The title, Fifty Sounds, refers to the Japanese mimetics AD | Gifted copy I received a copy of this book from the publishers free of charge for review purposes. Receiving a free copy has not influenced my opinion on this book, and all my thoughts are honest. Read full review on my blog. Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is the kind of book that I wish I read more of. If you’re a person who likes their books categorised, then I suppose this is a memoir, but in reality it is far more expansive than that. The title, Fifty Sounds, refers to the Japanese mimetics Barton uses as jumping off points to share her experiences throughout the book. As much as this is anecdotes and tales from Barton’s life, this is also an exploration of language, and of being an outsider to a language, and of living and working in multiple languages. As someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Japanese language, and mostly unfamiliar with Japanese customs and culture, this book was incredibly educational. I have dabbled in Japanese fiction before, but have never felt like I’ve come away from it with a more developed idea of Japan itself. This, I imagine, is more to do with the limits of fiction than anything else. What Fifty Sounds offers is an insight into the language and culture of Japan through the eyes of someone like myself, that is to say, a female Westerner with an interest in linguistics. At points, I almost forgot that this book was non-fiction, such was the comprehensive nature of the memories relayed here. I will admit to a relatively boring, middle-class British life: I have never had an opportunity to immerse myself in a non-Western culture, my experiences have been exceptionally middle-of-the-road (I went to a decent state school, then attended a Russell Group University, and usually holiday somewhere in Europe). Being able to draw on my life to find an experience that so well embodies and exemplifies these elements of linguistics in the way Barton does seems to me to be something that would be found in the world of fiction. Having reminded myself that it is not, in fact, limited to the world of fiction, I do feel as though I’ve been given something of an itch to do something. Perhaps not live in Japan (my language learning skills are not my strong point), but certainly to build the confidence to explore possibilities more. Another thing I feel compelled to confess to here is my previous lack of knowledge re: translation. My exposure to foreign languages is limited to GCSE French and even lower level German. From this sort of level of language learning, I did see translation as little more than picking from perhaps 2 or 3 words with an appropriate meaning, and reshuffling the sentence structure to fit the grammar rules for the language to which I am translating. Perhaps this is somewhat more possible for languages that developed in similar ways to English and share a lot of common ideas and conventions. I never, however, stopped to consider that many languages are bound to completely different rules to my own, and nor did I particularly ever consider that culture and society can affect the way a word is perceived. Two words in two different languages may have the same meaning in a concrete sense, but may not be considered the same in conversation at all. Reading Fifty Sounds has really opened my eyes to not only the Japanese language and culture, but to the art of translation. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest, even if passing, in linguistics, translation or Japan.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lucy

    I feel as if Polly Barton handed me a viewfinder and said, ‘here. This might not be right but it’s what I see.’ She casts the viewfinder over her personal relationship with Japan; over what it’s like to move abroad and be a foreigner from a dominant, white culture; over what it’s like to live inside another language. This is not the sort of book I would usually pick up, and was only drawn to it as someone interested in language and linguistics – an interest which comes from an entirely curious a I feel as if Polly Barton handed me a viewfinder and said, ‘here. This might not be right but it’s what I see.’ She casts the viewfinder over her personal relationship with Japan; over what it’s like to move abroad and be a foreigner from a dominant, white culture; over what it’s like to live inside another language. This is not the sort of book I would usually pick up, and was only drawn to it as someone interested in language and linguistics – an interest which comes from an entirely curious and unprofessional angle. My favourite aspect of this book was the structure. It broke down in to digestible pieces what otherwise might have been a truckload of information and memories that I would never, ever have got through. Inspired by a text the author used to learn Japanese, Fifty Sounds is centred around fifty actual sounds, with each word given a significance that relates to a part of Polly’s experiences in Japan. Knowing each part would return to a particular word, e.g. – jin-jin: the sound of being touched for the very first time p. 108, Fifty Sounds …results in the book feeling like a series of short stories, that you know will resolve to a conclusion. An inventive way of including narrative structure into what is, essentially, years of her life. Although the parts are arranged semi-chronologically, you could probably dip in and out of them as you pleased, and still be able to follow, for the most part. Polly swerves into linguistic theory and philosophy in places. Fortunately for me, I am interested in language and words anyway (thank you, English Language A-Level). Wittgenstein sounds intriguing: Our language may be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this, surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses. – Wittgenstein, cited by Polly Barton in Fifty Sounds, p. 255 The book walks a fine line (near the beginning in particular) between suiting language specialists and a more general readership. I came close to zoning out more than once. I found however as I persevered that the linguistic theory took a back seat, in favour of the author revealing her more intimate encounters with Japanese. The parts I enjoyed most were the personal: about her love life, emotions, sex and receiving therapy. The author is self-aware and discussed her race and whiteness, too, a thread I feel is highly necessary in books by white writers looking at non-white culture in this way. I respected her writing all the more for choosing to address it head-on. I am giving this title three stars out of five because it was inventive and interesting, and I enjoyed leaving my comfort zone of fiction. I’m reserving my four/five star ratings for books that grab me, that I itch to read or leave me breathless; this book wasn’t that for me, but I absolutely see why it won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize. I would recommend this title to those with an interest in language, writing, Japan and Japanese culture, bilingualism and translation – or readers of Anne Carson, Claire-Louise Bennett and Deborah Levy. I am grateful to Fitzcarraldo Editions for providing me with an arc in exchange for this honest review

  5. 5 out of 5

    Tom Stanger

    There’s something about immersing yourself in another language and culture that always brings romantic imaginings to the fore. I’m sure many of us have dreamt of jetting off to foreign climes and experience a new life in a new world, feeling that every day is going to be a new adventure. In Fifty Sounds we, the readers, are taken on just such an experience, although with the more realistic viewpoint of Polly Barton who did just this, travelling to Japan at the age of twenty-one to learn Japanese There’s something about immersing yourself in another language and culture that always brings romantic imaginings to the fore. I’m sure many of us have dreamt of jetting off to foreign climes and experience a new life in a new world, feeling that every day is going to be a new adventure. In Fifty Sounds we, the readers, are taken on just such an experience, although with the more realistic viewpoint of Polly Barton who did just this, travelling to Japan at the age of twenty-one to learn Japanese and experience the culture. Fifty Sounds is the debut novel by Polly Barton and follows her time spent in various parts of Japan after her time studying philosophy at Cambridge, and it is this appreciation of philosophy that underpins many parts and aspects of the book, frequently referring to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Language Games from his work Philosophical Investigations. This provides many of the aspects of this book with a level of added depth to what Barton is portraying, although giving some parts of the book a more ‘clinical’ feel which removes the reader, and the author, from the narrative. Fifty Sounds very smartly links Barton’s biographical novel with fifty Japanese sounds, for example, “pika-pika: the sound of my floors and your trainers and our graveyards” which refers to shiny, or sparkling, but also describes the narrative of that particular chapter. Although very much a biographical work, Fifty Sounds, provides a great deal of insight and wisdom into the experiences of someone immersed in a new culture and although I did feel the introduction and was a somewhat confusing start, combined with a somewhat unnecessary narrative that didn’t particularly appeal to myself, leaving me wondering where the book was going to take us there are some incredible moments of insight are the outstanding moments of this book, some of the descriptions and narratives within are simply superb, you’ll know what I mean when you read about the vending machines. For a debut novel, in Fifty Sounds Polly Barton has brought a great achievement in combining language with biography and philosophy and I look forward to learning and reading what she has in store for future books. Her insight into Japan and her descriptive narrative would, to me, combine the best elements of travel writing and I sincerely hope that is an avenue to be explored. Fifty Sounds is an ideal introduction for anyone looking to learn a language in another country and immerse themselves in the culture, with many looking to teach English in other countries, Fifty Sounds is an ideal way to learn the experiences of that path from someone who has such a wealth of experience as Polly Barton.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Marina Sofia

    Fabulous. Full review to follow.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Bee

  8. 5 out of 5

    Soph

  9. 5 out of 5

    Grace

  10. 5 out of 5

    Andria

  11. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Broad

  12. 5 out of 5

    Dom

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  14. 4 out of 5

    H

  15. 5 out of 5

    a

  16. 5 out of 5

    miki

  17. 4 out of 5

    Mathilde

  18. 5 out of 5

    PJB

  19. 5 out of 5

    Laurence Green

  20. 5 out of 5

    Callum McAllister

  21. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  22. 4 out of 5

    fatma

  23. 5 out of 5

    Serena

  24. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

  25. 5 out of 5

    Merve

  26. 5 out of 5

    Axelmania

  27. 5 out of 5

    L

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ayami

  29. 5 out of 5

    Karolina

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kamila Kunda

  31. 5 out of 5

    Claire Handscombe

  32. 5 out of 5

    Silvana

  33. 5 out of 5

    Isabel

  34. 4 out of 5

    Nikki

  35. 5 out of 5

    M

  36. 4 out of 5

    Marja

  37. 4 out of 5

    Lizzy Siddal (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

  38. 4 out of 5

    Alwynne

  39. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  40. 5 out of 5

    Zöe Yu

  41. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

  42. 5 out of 5

    Ewa

  43. 4 out of 5

    harriet

  44. 4 out of 5

    Brooke

  45. 4 out of 5

    Eve

  46. 4 out of 5

    Nat

  47. 4 out of 5

    Cara Harvey

  48. 4 out of 5

    Vloeberghs Robin

  49. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  50. 5 out of 5

    Gemma

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