• Nasim Luczaj

(REVIEW) Fifty Sounds, by Polly Barton

Nasim Luczaj unravels the witty and poetic intricacies of Polly Barton's Fifty Sounds (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021), a memoir which explores language learning as a site of complex intimacy and desire. Nasim offers a compelling reading, putting the text in conversation with Wittgenstein, Carson, experiences of shame, and uncomfortable moments of noticing, whilst revealing the very bodily sensation of being misunderstood.

When Polly Barton first travelled to Japan in her early twenties, she had no knowledge of the language and no inkling of what was to come. Now a translator from Japanese, and perhaps also from the tricky knots of experiences we have no set ways to untangle in speech, she takes us on a one-of-a-kind tour de force of gut feeling. Fifty Sounds is in equal part a personal, somatic, and intellectual journey towards fluency. The clumsy, anxious, and thoroughly embodied language learner is with us throughout, but so is a confident writer who has made her way towards wiser, more conclusive pastures.

The contents page is first to signal the witty and poetic qualities of the text. It echoes a dictionary, listing Japanese mimetic words using only the Roman alphabet — an important decision that gives all readers instant access to something at least in the vicinity of the sounds themselves. The phrase ‘fifty sounds’, a literal translation of the word ‘gojūon’, is itself related to the dictionary. Much like the alphabet, the gojūon, a grid system of kana (characters that correspond to sounds in Japanese), is used to order words. Since Japanese recognises onomatopeic words as a separate class, and has up to five times more of such vocabulary than Indo-European languages, there are dedicated dictionaries of Japanese mimetic language, and it is here that Barton first encounters the gojūon.

Barton’s selection of Japanese mimetic words includes a definition of each, and some are truly bonkers. The more profound-sounding or saudadesque seem familiar — we may have once reposted them on Tumblr, or they could have popped up online in some article listing beautiful untranslatables (which I have always associated especially with Japanese). Others are clearly far from pretending to be the title of universal definition (‘the sound of the jubilant gorilla and the foolish builder done good’). They look like inside jokes or poetic, witty dens built around each experience, and many of them already imply the emotional complications to come. The list is so funny and weird that I’m sure many readers will stop there for a while, picking their favourites, relating or not relating to each distinction; they will send it to a friend or discuss with a coinhabitant. I myself took a picture and had the chance to spontaneously show it to a Japanese friend. He had the extra right to flat-out approve or disapprove of each definition — sometimes he would shake his head and say ‘no, no, it’s not like that at all’, quite fittingly with the Wittgensteinian approach Barton’s considerations are rooted in (more on this later on).

Although all readers will eventually stumble upon the anchor to each of these personal definitions, at first they will most likely present themselves as more or less opaque gems. It’s a true pleasure to then watch the chapter-by-chapter bud-break of each word on Barton’s tongue or in her gut. We get to the place from which Barton’s first contact with the word sprung, to how it clicked for her or the ways in which she misunderstood it. Barton aptly describes words as tending to remain associated with some particular, sometimes twisted usage, although repeated and different encounters eventually make the connection gradually fade out and slip away from memory.

Barton compares starting to learn the basics of a language to the Japanese term for the moment after ejaculation, ‘when a man is able to be rational, disimpassioned, wise, free of temptations that plague him at other times’. If you feel a cloud has lifted, it is because now ‘you are on holiday from the disingenuity of language (…) Your very incompetence, it seems, has liberated you.’ Somewhat unfortunately for the experiencer, but certainly fortunately for the reader, this is far from the only stage of language learning. Much mess is yet to come, and it is the layeredness, acuteness, sometimes downright awfulness of these stages that Fifty Sounds conveys exceptionally successfully. Although more or less a coming-of-age memoir, in this case getting to grips with things throughout one’s 20s and 30s, involves not just proving to yourself that you’re an adult, but also learning a world from scratch — and so undergoing a new childhood. Except, even as our treatment and behaviour become distinctly toddler-like, we can no longer really be children, and we end up going through many varieties of growing and grown-up pains. It is especially fascinating to see the domains of the unabashedly sexual and unabashedly childish persistently comingle, and Barton even points out that learning a language from someone you are also in love with creates a new intimacy — the reproduction of a parent-child relationship. The desire for approval, to always be right, for everything to go smoothly, to be wanted are relatively primal, but they accrue new complexities as our awarenesses, social lives, perfectionisms, and passions evolve. I felt like I was encountering not only a person submerged in multiple stages of life at once, but channeling an extreme intimacy with one’s thoughts through a profound self-distance.

The sense of this extreme intimacy emerges partly from Barton’s framing of most situations in predominantly sensorial terms. To give an example, she describes her beginnings in Japan in a way that may well be applicable to a child exposed, all of a sudden, to almost everything at once:

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.

Barton also writes that there is something ‘old as the hills’ about certain instances of feeling misunderstood, and focuses on the visceral aspect of hearing your own language churned through a different system with a logic of its own, as is the case with Japanese katakana, which is used for foreign imports into Japanese. Realizing your rules do not apply triggers a bodily sensation — whether you go on to develop an uneasy fascination or have a microtantrum, there is a feeling there.

People tend not to pay attention to the strong feelings they encounter when learning a language or can be unwilling to confront them. Such is the case of Barton’s acquaintance, who criticises her emulation of a Japanese accent and manner of speech. Even though language learning is almost entirely mimetic by nature, he claims to find imitating ‘gross’ and refuses to simply accept and ignore the feeling. It seems that if we tap into these sensations we might even learn something from them, and through providing such specific and memorable examples, I believe this book could make it a lot easier for many people, even subconsciously, to pluck up the courage and devotion to take mimicry seriously; to accept the inevitable and entirely normal hot soup of feelings that will arise as we venture through a foreign language; to help us handle our pride, shame, and perfectionism.

It might seem a simple fact that ‘you use every part of your body to read the cues of other bodies’, but coming from a place where primacy is given to the homunculus in the head, to the rational and propositional, it can be easy to lose touch with. By in some sense rendering mimetics the ‘spine’ of her work — using the gojūon to title and structure it — Barton makes explicit the extent to which she strives to maintain awareness of the somatic, and she repeatedly fleshes it out (sic!) in new ways:

Japanese mimetics will serve not only as a specific linguistic phenomenon, but also the symbol of a particular view of language. In this understanding, language is something we learn with our bodies, and through our body of experiences; where semantics are umbilically tied to somatics, (…) words are linked to particular occasions, particular senses.

The umbilical will indeed make a comeback in the final passages of the book, and perhaps is never completely absent in a work so closely focused on immersive environment, stimuli, and the role of being nurtured into a new kind of life by other people, without whom (contrary to some myths of Western individualism) our survival would not be possible.

We are to view this vibrantly contemplative book ‘less as interpretation, and more as erotics – as unscientific and unashamedly subjective celebration of the interpersonal dimension of taking up a language’. Barton echoes the conclusion of Susan Sontag’s famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’, only here eros is unpacked via Anne Carson and her notions of the triangularity of desire, the gap between desirer and desired, and language as the palpably missing thing between lovers who speak different languages, though not only here:

Learning a language, particularly when done in an immoderate, drowning, gulping sort of way, sets us up very well indeed to become sensitized to the boundaries between people, where eros resides. Immersion begets desire, then continues to fuel it.

She quotes Carson: ‘Infants begin to see by noticing the edges of things. How do they know an edge is an edge? By passionately not wanting it to be’, and goes on to define language learning as ‘the always-bruised but ever-renewing desire to draw close: to a person, a territory, an idea, an indefinable feeling’. I am confident that Barton has succeeded to draw close at least to what might be the most challenging figure on the list: the indefinable feeling. The book continually ‘nails’ a whole array of these as they spring forth from the pages and are flattened back into the whole by a good hammering with radical acceptance.

As for eros itself, problematic of language somewhat aside, Fifty Sounds navigates sexual desire exceptionally full-bloodedly, and, as usual, with the perfect dose of anecdote. Barton addresses the stupidity of desire as well as the relief, and indeed joy, of accepting it for what it is. When it comes to having sex in Japanese, her expectations (Nouvelle Vague film) could hardly diverge more from reality (I won’t spoil it – but it ends up somewhere silly and bestial and ‘utterly, mind-expandingly nuts’). Barton is generous with just how much she lets her reader into both of these differently personal domains; in a sense, honestly sharing a past self’s expectations or moments of arrogance may well be harder than writing a sex scene. Sex in Fifty Sounds is, fittingly, a conversational affair, and thank goodness Japanese sex is, at least according to the author, more talkative than British. The hilarious hints of interaction with her lover make it glaringly obvious what an intimate yet sometimes frustratingly public thing language is, and how affection for a person and a language can be troublesomely inextricable. While Barton describes her Japanese life as ‘glorious in its specificity, its humanity, its absurdity’, this is precisely how I would describe the book itself, and especially its take on passion and human psychology.

Barton also brings these qualities into the more intellectual side of Fifty Sounds. It was an immense joy to read someone’s personal reflections on the life-changer aspect of the philosophy of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein (as opposed to the ‘early’ — he too went through a fair amount of transformation). Sections on the difficulty of trying to explain his thought really struck a note — now wish me luck. Wittgenstein drew philosophy of language away from the clear-cut and frictionless, and closer towards the world and language as they actually are, primarily through a text littered with mundane thought experiments and questions. Wittgenstein grounds meaning in use, and use in community — a community which somewhat spontaneously creates and upholds rules. There is, then, an inevitable conformism that makes our very lives as we know them possible.

Barton relates moments of noticing herself slide into a new, and thus more noticeable conformity. The real difficulty arises once she realises her way of being, conditioned by life in Japan, is not only less free than it used to be, but not even compatible with her past behaviour and the kind of person she thought she was. She finds her visiting relatives’ behaviour intolerable, and realizes that this as the completely natural aftermath of the glee and reward she would feel whenever found herself able to successfully mimic, be understood, and approach blending into her new environment. She makes it clear that whether or not we find ourselves on the other side of the world, we all work hard to conform and perhaps almost just as hard to avoid being aware of the fact, and our languages affect not only our behaviour, but even beliefs held in the moment of speaking a given language.

Although it’s a sort of relief that these things remain largely unconscious — otherwise we would find ourselves in a perpetual identity crisis — the ease with which we follow our learned ways of being also wasn’t always just there. It came with a price. Second nature often stems from reprimand, having things ‘drilled into’ you, anger, tiresome repetition, compromise, and ‘to understand is to be affected'. To know a form of fakery specific to a language is to have been angered or hurt or betrayed once, twice, thirty times, by disingenuity of that kind’. This is entirely Wittgensteinian, but Barton admits the individual and their feelings, thus taking his view further, into the kind of domain of raw emotion Wittgenstein may have been weary of. Although they propose a similar deromanticisation, I think it is easier to accept Barton’s argument as true than it is Wittgenstein’s, precisely due to its organic emergence from specific life situations; from a place of disclosed investment in ‘personal life’ or life story, in how it feels to be part of the speaking mass, a culture; from how impossible it feels to be doing the splits between two different systems, from how we often manage to stay in them anyway.

Many of the truths that emerge from Fifty Sounds are uncomfortable and impactful even to entertain the thought of. Barton presents her life as not devoid of charm and fun, but I was struck by the amount of hard work and sheer living you could sense hovering in the backstage of each claim. You felt her doing those splits and you knew it couldn’t last forever. I’m not sure what was more unsettling: Barton’s reflections on what she may have been, what may have been going on, what her relationships were; or the moments themselves, the pangs, the itches, the shame and brutality of some situations as I imagined them to be immediately occurring. Through the marriage of these two kinds of insight, she helped me to tap into the sheer longing to live: to cope, handle difficulty, feel the glee of symbolically swiping sweat off the forehead; drilling into things until they become doable, though never really solved or owned. To go through car crashes in foreign languages; to handle the ‘what do you do’ question; to be ridiculed by a classroom of children; to have off-kilter sex.

It was also distinctly enjoyable to watch someone’s understanding of themselves unfurl. A part of this understanding involves outlining and getting to grips with what might not ever be solved or verifiable, and then with what distance can offer some explanation for, what productive insight might be drawn from reprocessing the alarming contortion of being alive, especially in a hostile world you feel close to. I wonder whether it makes sense to think of there being some heavily submerged iceberg to each person, an iceberg of potentialities whose underside might be visible by the scrutiny of another and another and another culture. Is this inherently valuable to go through? If so, how many times is it possible? At what point do you stop holding yourself together entirely and melt into the sea?

Although Fifty Sounds is also a kind of iceberg of everyday introspective thought experiments mass-produced by the self (what if I didn’t do this? what if this is why I love someone? etc.), what it seems to encourage is simply staying with your gut. Reading this book in lockdown, largely in bed, my feeling was that of persistent FOMO (if by any chance you’ve missed out on this concept — it means ‘fear of missing out’), a nagging to test these stages in which language seems to spring out as the most intimate and most public thing; as conformism, beauty, wit. I watched a longing emerge. The longing was for the liminal, for skin in the game, for activating a machinery of anecdotes, and, above all, for new intimacy with something as colossal as an entirely opaque language. The situation was a little like, when reading Crime and Punishment, you might briefly wonder whether there’s an axe in your home. Don’t worry — the feeling goes away, but if you genuinely need the fuel, I think this book is a great alternative to some forms of coaching.

It also works like a novel. We know the protagonist survives and thrives, but there’s still a drive to keep going and see the love affairs and linguistic progress through (in my case, in that order). There is a deeply impressive ease of movement between essayistic considerations, the anecdotal, the deeply emotive, intimate, personal, and downright humorous. The scene-setting is just right — the island does truly seem to have a magical aura and the dreariness of Tokyo hits hard without being distracting or overpowering at any point. We are at every step brought up close to shame and wonder.

As I hope you’ve gathered by now, Fifty Sounds is unabashedly personal — all the more so thanks to occasional and subtle breaks away from the first person. Some situations are described in the second or even third. Tenses, too, shift in affecting ways. Another part of the prowess lies in regular bouquets of adjectives, usually gifted in trios, for example: ‘my feeling for Japan and its language has always been hot, and embodied, and inappropriate’. Just as notes to a perfume, their combinations help truly corner the situations or feelings they describe. We genuinely sense ourselves arrive at what it could be like to have gone through this conglomeration of stages of assimilation or failure to assimilate. We feel the energy required to be an outsider.

Eventually, after all this beautifully related turbulence, Barton finds a safe space and a freedom in translation. It feels somewhat miraculous and somewhat inevitable. She remarks: ‘sometimes when I’m doing it, I can feel this umbilical rope leading all the way back’. Her own words form some kind of umbilical necklace, a nourishing channel looped round and feeding the reader. She’s coming from a warm, effortful place. Her final word is, aptly, ‘sound’, and resonates fleshily, collectedly, wildly. Sorry for the spoiler.

Fifty Sounds is out now and available to order via Fitzcarraldo Editions.


Text: Nasim Luczaj

Published: 4/30/21